When a plan works

Valmont Tourney ChampsWhat was probably my last go at coaching a youth league team went according to plan. Considering I was called the night before the draft and recruited to coach at the last minute that is a nice accomplishment.

The league commissioner called and said they had 85 kids registered in the league and he had heard 84 reasons why they couldn’t coach. He was about to hear number 85 when I thought why not.

At the draft job one was to draft kids that their parents would be able to help me. On that front I did really well. Two young men their father played college ball and was very good at explaining the mechanics of how to play the game. Another young man’s father was in the same boat as me, he has helped with several teams but his work kept him from head coaching.

Next up I drafted the oldest kids I could because I wanted ball players that had played in this league before and wouldn’t need to be baby sat during the games. The only down fall to that strategy is that 16 year olds can play but they can’t pitch. So they were easy to pick up.

Next up was look for an arm to make into a pitcher. I got a couple I thought I had seen on the mound before or at least on a mound some where in the youth leagues. I also received a tip about a couple of kids from the neighboring town that would like to be on the same team for car pooling reasons.

And then it was down to drafting kids based not on what I knew about them but what I knew about the other kids that were available. Yes there were a couple of athletes available that had more talent but they brought along a lot of issues that frankly I didn’t want to deal with. I am sure I wasn’t the only one that was using this strategy because it was tempting based on who was left.

The first practice I told the players that this is just a wooden bat rec league. If they are looking for an ultra competitive instructional league they were in the wrong place. This league is played on a small diamond with very tall left field fence. We use wooden bats because the bases are only 80 feet apart and it is about 235 feet to the corners. It is a great fun league but not one I would schedule my vacation around.

I also told them that the regular season didn’t mean a lot because all the teams played in a double elimination tournament at season’s end. I told them that with some on the team playing on travel teams, high school teams and in other activities that we would use the regular season as a learning activity to see where people fit and let the results take care of themselves.

We had three rules: Have Fun, Work Hard and Be Gentlemen. This is a rec league, it is for fun, it is played against your buddies, if you are not having fun why bother. The games during the regular season are on a timer. 90 minute games and I kept practices to the same length. If you can’t turn off the phones, iPods and give me 100% of your attention and effort for an hour and half then we were going to have problems. There is no strolling or sauntering in baseball!

The final point I made was that yes the umpires in this league make mistakes and bad calls. The majority of our games are played when it is extremely warm and humid. The umpires are payed for two games played on a clock or 7 innings which ever comes first. Their strike zone seems to change inning by inning depending on how warm it is and where the catcher lets them set up. They also have a good memory for which players seem to give them the hardest time and they are not going to let a 13-16 year old kid show them up. So not if but when they are on the losing end of a bad call I didn’t want to see any theatrics just hustle back to the dugout and let me or one of the assistant coaches handle it.

We didn’t have any practices with everyone there because of the other teams they where involved in but the ones that were not playing baseball somewhere else made it and received a lot of 1 on 1 help. The regular season we played people in different positions, different line-ups looking to see what worked and what didn’t. We finished with a .500 season record.

Two nights before the season was to start Jacob broke his wrist in a high school game. What was supposed to be four weeks of rehab turned into about 6-7 and we were without a key part of our defense for all but the final two games of the regular season. I also was counting on him to be an important part of our pitching staff. In retrospect this was not as bad as I thought it would be because now I was forced to do exactly as I had planed and moved people around to some new positions.

We finished the regular season on a Friday evening with two make up games the next day. Playing 3 games in 24 hours was going to be tough with the pitching staff we had. The Friday night game was against one of the better teams in the league and would be a good test of where we stood. Saturdays doubleheader was against a team that was at the bottom of the standings but we had not played them yet so I didn’t know what to expect.

We dropped the Friday night game when they came from behind to beat us. I left a pitcher in too long because I was worried that I wouldn’t have the arms for the two games the next day. I had told the guys before the game that I was worried about the staff and that I probably wasn’t going to pull anyone. To make matters worse the other team only had 8 players show up. In this league that is not the handicap you might think. All players bat, you play 9 on the field at a time but if all 13 are in the dugout all 13 bat. So if the right 8 show up even if you have to take an out in the 9th spot you get through the order quicker.

Saturday the team showed up and I could tell that my taking the blame for last night’s game had not really helped and they looked beat. When we got a couple run lead in the first game I put in the best defense we had. I told an assistant coach I wasn’t concerned who had or had not played at that point we were going to win and they could play an extra inning in the next game. We won, and you could feel the fun return to the dugout and we dimed them the second game with everyone getting plenty of playing time.

We had a couple more make up games to play and we played well enough that I told the kids after the final game that we could beat every team in that league and that the tournament was what we had set as our goal. Well they believed me and the tournament went exactly as planned. We beat the regular season champs twice the second time for the championship in a mercy rule.

I couldn’t have been prouder of these young men. All thirteen of them came through at some point in the tournament to contribute and each of them seem to accept their role and worked hard towards the goal. They also were the perfect gentlemen and gracious winners.

The sports editor here at the paper asked if I was going to do it again next year. I said no I had what was probably the perfect year and I don’t think I could top it so I would just retire now on top and enjoy the memories of a having a plan work. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does it feels pretty special.