THESE DAYS, MIDDLE-class urban life is less a matter of community and more a matter of New Math. People don't come together any more for the sake of commingling; their lives are far too busy for that. Rather, they gather in what amounts to inter-familial sets and subsets, unions and intersections. They hang out at parks, sitting around in clusters and, cellular phones in hand, watching their kids play ball.
In late 20th-century America, this is what passes for the glue that holds together the fabric of society.
If their kids are active, the parents become mere adjuncts to said activity. Provider of transportation, built-in fan, buyer of post-game, fast-food meal.
It was into this world that I giddily jumped a few years back, tenaciously clinging to the archaic notion that sports build character. I wanted my kids to have a wealth of experiences, to try a lot of different things and then, when they felt like it, settle on those which they truly enjoyed. Idle hands are not only the Devil's workshop, they also helped make Nintendo rich enough to buy the Seattle Mariners out of petty cash.
But I didn't want to be just another team parent; I wanted to coach. I usually coach the teams my kids play on. I've been around sports all my life. I think I have a solid understanding of the games and a down-to-earth approach that stresses sportsmanship over winning and losing. And besides, I'm usually the only parent who doesn't really work for a living.
All coaching entails is working long hours with kids for no pay, teaching them what you know and then watching them forget most of it in pressure situations. It's like being a parent, except there are umpires involved. It's not that hard, really. The keys are being able to ignore the parents and to never set a bad example by losing your temper or arguing with the umpire. Gee, when I put it that way, it sounds almost impossible.
ONE OF MY favorite teams first came together in March of this year. It was an entry in the American Girl division (ages 12-15) of the Northwest Bobby Sox League, which holds its games at Jacobs Park, behind the Catholic cemetery near Oracle and Prince.
For the third year in the past four, I would be working with Christine Lugo-Swensen, who would serve as team manager. (I'm usually wary of hyphen people. It's like they're stuck in a time warp or they can't make up their mind. Hey, you wanna keep your maiden name, fine. You wanna take your husband's name, fine. Just jump off the damn fence.) But Chris is cool.
In Bobby Sox, the manager has the real power. The manager must be a woman and is almost always a mother of one of the players. Coaches can be men or women. Coaches do a lot of things for the team, but the manager has the final say on all decisions. The coach proposes; the manager disposes. In this, Bobby Sox imitates life.
There were 11 girls, six from Flowing Wells Junior High, three from La Cima, one from Salpointe Catholic High and one from Faith Elementary School. It would turn out to be the youngest team in the league, but overall not a bad squad.
We had a set of twins, another pair of sisters, an alternative rocker, a rodeo star, four girls with braces, six girls who needed glasses (two of whom who actually wore them), five blondes, five brunettes, and one whose hair color changed weekly according to a secret coded message that appears in the Nine Inch Nails Fan Club newsletter.
I walked around as the girls warmed up their arms, making conversation and trying to learn names. Eleven-year-old Beth walked up. "Hi, I'm Beth. That's my sister, Cyndi. We're adopted."
"More information than I needed there, Beth." I turned to her sister. "So, you're Cyndi."
"Call me Buffy," she said.
"Do I have to?"
"I'm trying to start a nickname."
"How about 'phlegm?,' " I offered. "It's better than Buffy."
I decided to get the hard stuff out of the way early. I called over the twins--Kristin and Kama Krakowiak (say that fast, just once)--and asked them how to tell them apart. They both started speaking at the same time in a high-pitched, nasal voice, the kind where when they yell, dogs start barking all over town.
Kristin told me that Kama has a little freckle below her bottom lip. The twins would turn out to be two of the best ballplayers I've ever coached. Friendly, outgoing, hard-nosed, willing and able to play any position, bat anywhere in the lineup, and basically do whatever was necessary to help the team.
The twins are definitely throwbacks to a simpler, better time in sports. And for that matter, so too are their agents.
We practiced a couple times a week through March and pretty quickly learned who was who and who could do what. After a couple weeks, we had our lineup set and just began working on fundamentals. Two big decisions still had to be made before the start of the season.
Bobby Sox rules state that everyone who suits up has to play at least two innings in each game. A team with 12 players will have six players play the entire game, while the other six will sub for each other, with three playing the first two innings and the other three coming in for the third and fourth innings.
Most teams have the same six players sub in and out every game, generally those of, shall we say, lesser ability. In all honesty, I agree with this policy. Sports aren't socialistic. Not everyone is equal. The better players deserve to play more, and those who have to sub should use that as an incentive to improve. However, Chris put it to a vote and by a narrow margin the girls decided everyone would sub out equally during the season on a rotating basis.
This is the softball equivalent of no good deed goes unpunished. This policy is absolutely guaranteed to jump up and bite you in the butt at the worst possible time.
The other decision was the team name. I suggested Naked Bus Drivers. It finished second in the voting ahead of Raspberry Rhinos, but one vote behind Who Knows. That way the other teams would have to say "Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? Who Knows!" Or, "Who won the game?" "Who Knows."
For the third year in a row, I would have to wear a pink T-shirt while coaching. I'm glad I lost weight. I used to look like something that had gotten away from Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
WE STARTED THE season the first Saturday in April against the Blue Jays. As it turned out, they too had a young team. At all levels of softball, pitching is the name of the game. We had the third and fourth best pitchers in the league, but the Blue Jays weren't as fortunate. Consequently, they would get rocked, night in and night out, the entire season. They earned everyone's respect by showing up, playing hard and never getting down on themselves. Their manager, Denise deGeus (a first-timer) did a great job keeping the kids up during what turned out to be an 0-18 season.
We won that game 18-3, and thought we were hot stuff. The next two games, against the Angels and No Fear, we ran into the top two pitchers in the league and lost two close games.
Over the next three weeks, our hitting came alive in a big way. Darlene was hitting .833 after the first four games. Then Chris's daughter, Courtney, and Emily, the one with the...um, interesting hair, joined in and we took off. We beat the Blue Jays and No Fear twice each and had a nail-biting tie with the Angels, a game in which we had three runners thrown out at home in the last two innings.
In the latter game against No Fear, we faced the league's best pitcher, who also has the league's best name, Savanna O'Hagin. Before the game, several of the girls asked me for strategy on how to hit her. I said, "What strategy? She throws fast and straight. She's not going to walk you and she's not going to hit you. Swing the bat. She'll either strike you out or you'll hit it."
In one inning, we went single, double, double, triple, single, double, home run. Our right fielder Christina got her first hit that night. Savanna was shaken and we won easily. That's just good coaching.
During that stretch we were helped by the addition of a twelfth player, a 15-year-old high schooler with lots of experience. But all of a sudden, she got a job and a boyfriend in the same week and quit the team, deciding that she'd rather be a character in an S.E. Hinton novel.
We went into the last game of the first half with a 5-2-1 record, tied for first with our opponents in that game, the Angels. There are games on which an entire season turns, and it was clear going in that this was the most important game of the year. Whoever won the game would win the first half title, allowing them to coast in the second half, giving kids the chance to play different positions. Meanwhile, the loser would fall to third place, behind No Fear's 6-3 mark.
We had had some games where not all of the kids had shown up. Buffy was sick a lot. Abby, the fastest girl in the league, missed a couple games because she was showing horses at the County Fair. Emily missed a game because she had to go to Hereford to buy a dog. Hereford is something of a suburb of Bisbee, if you can think in terms that minuscule.
I had actually taken the time to plot out the rotation schedule in advance so that we wouldn't get hurt in the big games. But since people had missed earlier games, the schedule got thrown off, and we had to play the Angels with our top four hitters scheduled to sit out at least two innings each. I asked Chris if we might suspend our policy just this once, but she said that we made the decision and should stick with it. It was the honorable thing to do. I asked her what planet she was from.
The Angels' pitcher, Ashley, was on that night, but we scratched out a 4-2 lead after three innings. Ominously, we had three more runners thrown out at home plate. Our pitcher, Celina, had worked out of a couple jams, and was throwing well. In the bottom of the fourth, she was one pitch away from sealing the victory. With an 0-2 count and two outs, she hit the batter. She then walked the next two batters.
Kristin, who had caught all but two innings all season, and Darlene, who had played shortstop a similar stretch, were sitting on the bench, having been subbed out. We had to shift people around to fill the positions. We moved Kama over from third base to short, Jennifer from center field to third, Courtney from second base to first, Abby from left to second and Emily from first to catcher. Emily would probably have rather spent 24 hours in a locked room with Whitney Houston music blaring than play catcher, but she toughed it out.
Still with two outs, the next batter hit a hard grounder to shortstop. Kama fielded it cleanly and looked for a base to throw to. No one was covering. Finally she threw to first and the throw barely pulled Courtney off the bag. We'll always wonder if Emily, who's four or five inches taller than Courtney, would've had it. That's just bad coaching.
The next batter got a hit and they went up, 5-4. After that, their coach told his players to walk up to the plate with both shoes untied so that the time limit would expire before we got another chance to bat. Each batter would walk up to the plate, take a pitch, call time out, tie one shoe, step back in, take another pitch, call time out, tie the other shoe. The first three batters chewed up 10 minutes and the ump called the game. We lost the game and the first-half title that night.
During that game, Kristin suffered a badly jammed finger when she tried to stop a pitch in the dirt. I'd told her I was going to interview UA shortstop Laura Espinosa the next day and she didn't believe me. Besides, she said, her hero was Wildcat catcher Leah Braatz.
The next day, I did the interview and had Braatz sign a softball for Kristin. I'm now an adopted member of the Krakowiak family.
WE STARTED OFF the second half by running into Savanna in top form. She blew us away. Only Darlene and Courtney got hits off her. Darlene even struck out, one of only three Ks for her all year.
After beating the Blue Jays, we entered the week which would determine the outcome of the second half. Back-to-back games with the Angels and No Fear. We had never beaten the Angels, but it looked like that night would be the first time. We led 6-2 heading into the last inning. In the top of the inning, our defense fell apart and we gave up five runs. Still, we had the last at-bat, although the bottom of the order was coming up.
Amazingly, we sandwiched two walks and a single around an out and had the bases loaded with our 2-3-4 hitters coming up. Courtney had raised her batting average to .600, and following her were Darlene, still batting over .700, and Emily, the top home run hitter in the league. I remember thinking, "I'll take my chances, down one with only one out."
We told Courtney to take pitches until the pitcher had thrown a strike. A walk would tie the game. She swung at the first pitch, lofted a pop fly to the pitcher and Buffy ran home from third without tagging up. Double play, game over.
It was the only fly ball that Courtney would hit all year.
(In cases like that, a loving wife will make sure that there are no sharp objects handy. My wife, Ana, suggested that I might take my mind off the game by washing all the silverware, especially the carving knives.)
Three nights later, we took a 9-2 lead over Savanna and No Fear. I told the catcher and infielders to take some chances, throw the ball around to try to get the baserunners. Several bad throws later, it was 9-9. Chris, who never, ever loses her temper, looked over at me and gave me a glance which must have been like when Hitler looked at Goehring and said, "Do you think you might do something about these bombs that keep falling on Berlin?"
The game ended in a frustrating tie.
ON THE AFTERNOON of May 22, Bob Nagore, the father of our centerfielder, Jennifer, was driving his work truck east on I-10 near Benson. A car heading the other way somehow crossed the median and plowed headlong into Nagore. The collision caused Nagore's truck to roll several times and wreaked havoc on its driver.
Bob Nagore would survive, but would suffer broken ribs, a broken leg and hip, a badly-damaged shoulder and several other injuries.
Two days later, Jennifer showed up for the game and asked to be put up near the front of the lineup. She said she wanted to get a hit for her Dad. Jennifer was a good defender but had been largely overpowered by the pitching (only Beth and Darlene were younger on the team). Heading into the game, she was batting .071.
I took her aside and told her she shouldn't put pressure on herself. This isn't the movies. Her Dad loved her and didn't need a hit from her to show that. She persisted.
Jennifer went two-for-three that night, getting a single up the middle and a double down the right-field line. She also walked and hit the ball hard on her only out. She got half of her season total of hits that night and her father would cry when told of what she had done.
WE HAD STARTED the second half of the season the way we had the first--with an anemic 1-2-1 record. Again, we righted ourselves and pulled back into the race. We won three straight and went in to the final week with a good shot at the title. Games against No Fear and the Angels loomed ahead; win them both and we win the second half.
We lost a gruesome one-run game to No Fear and faced a season closer against the team we had never beaten. If the Angels win, they grab both half-season titles and win the overall crown.
As the season drew to a close, one of the girls on our team kept coming up to me before the game to find out if she would be sitting out that night. Asking if she were sitting out led to her asking to sit out, which led to questionable claims of injury and illness, necessitating her removal from the lineup. More than once during the season she had to come out of the game to throw up, a victim of nerves.
When I asked her about it, she just said she wanted to do well for her father. He'd been a very good ballplayer, she said, and she wanted to do the same. I told her it was a load of hooey; everybody's dad was good when they were young. Heck, the older a Dad gets, the better he used to be.
She had been okay at the start of the year, but had retreated into a shell as the year went along. She came to dread batting, although she seemed to like her teammates and enjoyed herself in the field.
Like Jennifer, she had trouble hitting the fast pitching, but those times she did hit the ball, she would arrive at first base shaking and hyperventilating, too wound up to enjoy her success.
Before the last game, I pressed her on the issue and she opened up. Her father had become increasingly upset as the season progressed. He told her she had to make contact with the ball at least once during each at-bat. Even if the pitcher threw four balls over the backstop, she darn well better hit the ball.
As the pressure mounted and her batting average slipped ever lower, her father had taken punitive measures. After each game (which generally ended around 10:15 p.m., even on school nights), she would have to run laps around her neighborhood for each failed at-bat before she could go to bed. Lately, she told me, the laps had given way to more serious measures.
I didn't know what to do. Sit her out, confront the father, call Child Protective Services, or all of the above. Was it abuse or just an overzealous father living vicariously through his kid, a not-uncommon situation? I asked Chris, who works in the juvenile justice system, what to do. We decided on a course of action, then went on with the game.
We beat the Angels that night and that girl got a hit. She arrived at first base, shaking as usual.
The win allowed No Fear to slip into first place, and they beat the Angels in a playoff for the overall title. We finished a game out of first place in both halves of the season and tied for second overall. My frustration knows no bounds.
I was named All-Star team coach, probably because I was the only coach never to argue with an umpire. The other coaches "honored" me in much the same way virgins were "honored" by being thrown into a volcano. Chris was named All-Star manager. Darlene and Courtney finished 1-2 in batting in the league and made the All-Star team.
The All-Star girls were more open-minded and they quickly adopted the Naked Bus Drivers name, clinging to it even under the parental threat of allowance disruption and/or obscenity charges. When we caravanned across town for the tournament, all of the vans proudly bore the "Naked Bus Drivers" logo. It only caused two minor accidents.
We lost the first game in the All-Star regional tournament, 27-0. But things got better after that. They always do.
As for that one girl, I can't tell you what I did. But I did do something. Unfortunately, it's part of the coaching job description these days.
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