One of the joys of being a parent is watching your children succeed in life. If you are a reasonable parent you set your expectations at healthy and happy, and consider everything else as icing on the cake. I think the first accomplishment most parents are excited about is a poopie diaper. This checks the first box, healthy. And as children grow up, which happens so fast, we are amazed by all the little things they do. We excitedly share every aspect with our friends, neighbors and family. We take and share way too many pictures. It is as if we have become Jane Goodall, and our job is to chronicle, on social media, for all the world to see, each movement, meal, gesture, spoken word or boo boo our child exhibits. But it’s ok, we all do it to some degree.
If we are lucky our children will show an interest in some extra curricular activities. Whether it’s sports, drawing, writing, music, dance, chess, or some other activity that makes them happy, it will assuredly give them an outlet to express themselves both individually and as part of a larger group of people who share common interests. It can build self-confidence, give purpose, create fellowship, and develop social skills that will be necessary, if they are to succeed, later in life.
We have all seen or may have been that child who was forced into playing a sport or instrument that we had zero skill with and an even lessor desire to learn. This not only fails to build self-confidence or social skills, but often creates embarrassment, which in turn can cause them to become withdrawn, or resentful for being forced into something they just are not good at and do not enjoy.
So it’s a tricky balance parents must walk when introducing their kids to new activities. We all want our children to enjoy what we enjoyed; so, many times we simply sign them up for the activity we liked as a child. Some parents, like a “tiger mom”, will sign their child up to do multiple things, such as learning the violin, playing soccer, and taking foreign language lessons, all starting around two to three years old. And there are those fanatical dads: they coach their children’s baseball, basketball, soccer, and football, forcing them to play everything all throughout the year. They take it all way too serious, attempting to win every game at all cost, thinking their son or daughter is the next Brice Harper or Sarina Williams, they completely loose sight of the bigger picture. These parents are less likely to create star athletes and more likely to create stressed out, basket case kids, who stand in the batters box shaking in their boots, while looking back watching their dad instead of the ball. We have all seen this type of dad-coach. Their extreme rigorous training routine often paired with arbitrary punishments for under performing, is relentless, and will surely either turn their kids into neurotic professional athletes, or the next school shooter.
When my son was ten months old, he started climbing out of his crib. He was tall enough to simply flip his legs over and pretty much be on the ground with just a little drop. At eighteen months we caught him jumping from one couch to the other, easily clearing a three foot gap. It was clear to us, he needed to be in sports. But at eighteen months, that consisted of buying him a plastic bat and ball, a blow up soccer ball, and a mini indoor basketball hoop. He loved it all. We just let him explore while burning off energy discovering the movement of each ball. He had created his own three point line, it was from the edge of the carpet, from where he had tossed the basketball so many times, muscle memory, more than skill made it drop through the hoop effortlessly, impressing everyone that had not witnessed the previous million practice shots.
By three he was ready for organized sports. Or at least semi-organized sports, I say that because only the parents were organized. We brought him to the soccer field for an hour twice a week and watched him along with another ten to fifteen kids chase a soccer ball around the pitch. It was perfect for the parents who were not the coach. You could turn you kid over to another parent who would chase your child around for an hour, wearing them out for you, and then like clock work, game over, go home and put them to bed. It was not until our son was five that organized soccer had some real organization. At five you could play a game with a reasonable expectation that the children knew the object of the game was more then to simply kick the ball as hard as you can while running in circles for an hour. At age five our son, who was already a tall kid, had grown several more inches than his peers. His long legs gave him speed like no other child on the field. He would run up to the ball, quickly steal it, and then take it the length of the field scoring a goal. Mind you at this age there were no goalies, just a small portable goal. His first season playing summer soccer, he scored nineteen of the team’s twenty-one goals. Usually, during the second half of the game, the coach would put him on defense and tell him not to cross the center line. The coach, under pressure from the other parents had obviously done this to give the other kids a fighting chance at scoring. It helped a little, but Tyler still scored a few goals by simply kicking the ball over everyones head the entire length of the field into the empty net. And while on defense, well, let’s just say, he rarely let the other team take possession, clearing the way for multiple shutouts.
We were certain we had a soccer star in the making. We signed him up for a fall clinic, and a winter indoor league. He continued to dominate, and so we were especially excited when the spring 6U season rolled around. The first game he ran back and forth for about five minutes before nearly dropping dead at the center line. His face flush, grasping his chest, crying, and mouth breathing, we realized something was wrong. As a paramedic and having been in his shoes, I quickly recognized he was having an asthma attack. And just like that, his soccer career was over.
So here we have this energetic kid that shows potential for athletic excellence, but his poor little lungs had a different idea in mind. We needed to find a different sport that didn’t require a lot of running in the grass. One of my best friends, who still played baseball well into his 50’s, said, “we should coach a team together”. I was hesitant at first. I played baseball as a kid and loved it, but I didn’t know anything about being a coach. I also didn’t want to push our son into what I did solely because it was what I knew. But the more my friend and I talked about coaching, I liked the idea that I could be an easy going coach that focused on the kids having fun. So we gave it a shot. It was recreational baseball, even though some of the other coaches thought it was the ALCS divisional playoffs, we remained grounded and focused on being laid back, allowing the kids to be kids. I set three goals as a coach, and made them clear to the parents of the children I was coaching. Sportsmanship, safety, and baseball fundamentals would be our focus, with a desire to win being an added bonus, and not the primary goal.
After a few practices, where we literally had to teach the kids the rules of baseball, it was time for the season to start. It would clearly have to be a on the job training for both players and coaches alike. Up until the first game, I only had enough time to focus on safety aspects of baseball; such as, how to slide, how to protect your face when catching a ball, not swinging a bat near other players, coaches, or siblings, watching out for foul balls, and paying attention when on the field. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much time to practice hitting since it required an electric pitching machine and portable generator, and those were only available during the games. So, I bought a couple batting tees. One we would use at practices and a second I would send home with a different family each week to work on their skills at home with mom or dad.
I spent a lot of time preparing for practices. There is nothing worse than having 10 kids standing around the field while a coach tosses countless balls to a batter that cant’ hit. Not being prepared was a recipe for boredom for the kids. And bored kids get will play with the dirt, throw rocks, pick at the grass, and assuredly get hurt from not paying attention. I didn’t want to be that lazy coach that set their kids up for failure. Or that coach who will make their kids doggedly run to the fence and back as a punishment, after a practice or game because they weren’t paying attention. I never liked the idea that punishment would be a part of children’s sporting activities.
I found a better way to keep them engaged and paying attention. I promised them, if they were respectful, listened attentively, tried hard, hustled, and were safe during the first forty-five minutes of practice, we would spend the last fifteen minutes playing kickball. There is something about kick ball that all kids love. And as a coach, the instruction of baseball didn’t have to end when the kickball game started. The rules of baseball, including base running, tagging up, force plays, popups, and more, are all part of kickball too. Some of the best learning happens when you don’t know you are being taught. It was some real Karate kid shit.
It was finally game time. Our first game was on a Monday night. I think I was more nervous than the kids. As the head coach, you had to not only direct your kids where to go, keep the lineup in order, you had to also operate the pitching machine, and act as the umpire when your team was batting. Each child would get five balls out of the pitching machine, they could watch all five or swing at all five, didn’t matter, you either hit the ball and ran or struck out. The game moved very fast this way and that was by design. You only had about and hour and a half in April before it got dark, and if you were to keep the attention of a seven year old for that long, it had to keep moving.
As head coach I was conscious of not being “That Dad” who gives his son all the best positions or had him batting first in the line up. I thought long and hard about what would be a fair way to set the line-up. Ultimately I chose to set the line up by using each players street address in reverse alphabetical order, with the additional promise of whomever batted last would bat first the next game. This allowed the order to rotate each game, giving each child a chance to bat in every position in the line up while more importantly not having to hear any parent give me shit about why his kid is hitting in the bottom of the order. I did the same thing in the outfield. We rotated positions each couple innings, all kids got a change to play every position, with the exception of first base. We clearly had to limit first base to those children whom could catch a ball proficiently. It was purely for safety reasons. At seven years old, kids will field a ball, and throw it to first as hard as they can. It that didn’t matter if they were throwing from deep short or literally standing two feet away from the first baseman. If you couldn’t react quickly and catch well, it was a recipe for disaster.
The game started with very few hits by either teams, and mind you a hit is anything that gets you to first safely. There are no recored errors in 7U machine pitch baseball, unless you’re one of “those” coaches. Mostly the innings were completed by either one of two ways, three kids struck out, or you scored five runs. You rarely recored an out by fielding a ball and throwing it to first base. It was more likely you could get a force out a third base or maybe a pop up. Otherwise each inning except the final inning was limited to five runs. In the final inning you actually had to get three outs.
An now it was my son’s first at bat, ever. As head coach, I’m feeding the balls into the pitching machine for him, praying he will make contact, because there is no worse feeling than striking out your own kid, other than doing it four times in one game. He was crushed. Though I was too, I didn’t let him see it. I tried to equate baseball to the math skills they were teaching him in school. They were learning about ratios by using words like: Always, More likely, Likely, Less Likely, and Never. I explained to him that even the best, hall-of-fame even, baseball players were “Less Likely” to get a hit at each at bat. He seemed to recognized what I was saying, but when your teammates are killing the ball and by game three you are still striking out, math comprehension skills isn’t going to make it any better.
Over the next few games, and with a lot of practice in the cages, and by using the batting tee, Tyler went from striking out to hitting home runs, and lots of them. His combination of bat speed and leg speed was a recipe for success. He would hit a ground ball so hard, it would roll to the outfield fence. Often he would be crossing home plate on those short sixty foot bases, before the opposing team had a chance to hit their cut off man trying to throw the ball back into the infield. A lot of parents throughout the season complemented me on his talent. Once he figured out the pitching machine, he definitely stood out from the other players. And, I didn’t deny he was talented, but I also knew and would tell the other parents, he practices a lot at home. Without prodding, our son will break out the batting tee and net and spend a time working on his swing or throw. I enjoyed playing catch with him in the evenings. It gave him a chance to master his skills, and me a chance to bond with him over a love for a mutual game.
One evening, while I was grilling food in anticipation of my parents coming over for dinner, we were playing catch in the backyard. By this time his confidence in catching the ball was getting ever so better that I was able to throw the ball overhand pretty hard to him without much concern of him getting hurt. Unfortunately, he missed one and it popped him square in the upper lip, splitting it wide open. One look at it and I knew he needed stitches. So we simply hopped in the car and went up to the urgent care and got it fixed up. Before you knew it we were home, and my parents were waiting for us to start dinner. I grabbed our baseball gloves and the same ball that had just split his lip and right there before we sat for dinner, we threw the ball around for another few minutes, well, because, we both had something to prove.
Over the next couple of seasons, he grew into quite a ball player. He was invited to play on a tournament team each summer after the regular season ended. You had to try out and only one or two kids from each team would make it. This would be our first introduction to travel baseball. It was vastly different from our experience playing recreation ball. It was almost like a real baseball game, in that final scores weren’t 25-20 anymore, it now wasn’t unusual for a final score in a closely matched travel game among 9 year olds to end 3-1. There would even be an occasional double play. I quickly recognized his skills were beyond my coaching ability. At first I was invited to take on a role of assistant coach on the tournament team, and then by the time he was ten, he was playing up with the older players on an 11U team. I was demoted, now my participation was limited to taking pictures.
Playing up was an interesting experience for all involved. He was able to play with kids better than he was for the first time. Unfortunately, as he started to get better than most of the other players on the team, including and especially the coaches kids, his playing time didn’t increase accordingly. They stuck him in the outfield, occasionally letting him play third base, but he spent a lot of time on the bench. This was very frustrating for Tyler, and in turn Mom and Dad. We payed as much, drove as far, he practiced as long, and the payoff, well, wasn’t equitable.
One very hot weekend in July we were playing in a holiday weekend tournament . Towards the end of the second game of a Saturday double header, we were winning by quite a large margin. Tyler, normally very shy and reserved, asked the coach if he could be the catcher for the last couple innings. The coach readily agreed. It would give his starting catcher a much needed break from the heat. The next two innings, our son did what he did at every position, played his best, hustled, and tried to be a difference maker. He threw out a baserunner trying to seal second, and caught a towering popup behind the plate for the final out of the game. He had made an impression on the coaching staff for certain. After the game, the head coach told him, with some practice he could see Tyler becoming the new starting catcher. And just like that, he was a catcher.
As the season neared the end, still quite frustrated by the lack of playing time, he decided playing up wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The coaches saw Tyler as a younger player despite his size, and was still giving preference to both his own son and the other coaches children. That coupled with the fact that the team had thirteen players, meant, every inning four kids would be on the bench, just not the coaches kids. There were games that a couple kids wouldn’t even make it into the game. I remember on once such evening, we took Tyler out of school early to be able to make the trip in time for a weekday evening game. The entire game Tyler sat the bench. We watched as an older, slower catcher, let one opponent at a time steal bases with ease. We lost the game by a run in the 6th inning. Tyler didn’t as much as pick up a bat that evening. He was beyond pissed off and it was that moment when he decided he wouldn’t return with that team the following year. I supported him fully, because this was pure and simple, “Daddy Baseball”, it was why I had originally became a coach, to ensure that nonsense wouldn’t persist.
As a league rule, I had to notify the head coach he would be trying out for other teams in the fall. I let him know this before our last tournament of the summer. It was the Cal Ripken Tournament in Aberdeen, Maryland. This was a great tournament for anyone that likes baseball. They had several fields decorated and designed to look like other American League East home team fields. The gem of the complex was a miniature Camden Yards, complete with a brick hotel that looks like the Camden Yards Warehouse. That weekend, the head coach, aware of Tyler’s desire to leave the team, put him in the starting lineup batting second as well as being the starting catcher. Tyler played like he had something to prove. He batted over .800 during the tournament that weekend, and was named the teams MVP. It was a great feeling of vindication for him.
And now, the season was over, the head coach, armed with the knowledge that Tyler was a player who couldn’t be ignored, and had the potential to be one of, if not the best, on the team, tried to sweet talk him into staying, promising him next year will be different and that he will get more playing time. But it was too late, our soon to be eleven year boy was all too wise to fall for that nonsense. At the end of the last game, he simply gathered his equipment walked it to the car where we had prepared some gift bags for the coaches to thank them for all their hard work. Tyler grab the gift bags, ran them out to each coach, said thank you and shook their hands. The head coach looked so confused. He actually asked Tyler, why are you giving me a gift if you are quitting? And in that moment, we knew we made the right decision, because it wasn’t personal for Tyler, and that couldn’t be said for his soon to be former coach.
Tylers reputation for being a baller with a great disposition spread quickly in the small baseball community we traveled. We had many coaches from other organization ask him to come play on their team, but Tyler was eager to stay with the same organization, yet play for the a more talented division one 11U team. It would be his second year playing 11U, but at a much higher level of play. He also would have an advantage over all the other kids playing 11U for the first time. The pitching mound and bases are moved back to 50 and 70 feet respective at 11U. Tyler was used to seeing pitching from that distance, he comfortable stealing bases given the extra 10 feet per base, and most importantly, for a catcher, his arm had developed strongly, making the throw down to second, routine. Staying back and playing with kids his age let him become the big fish in a larger pond.
By the beginning of the 11U season, Tyler had grown so much that he was now taller than the head coach. It was a running joke at the expense of the head coach, whom although wasn’t very tall, had a great sense of humor. With Tyler’s extra hight came greater strength and speed. During the first tournament of the 11U fall season, he broke out strong, hitting his first four over-the-fence home runs, leading his team to their first season tournament victory. Ty had captured a few trophies that weekend. In addition to the tournament trophy, he had four souvenir home run balls, and a beautiful glass etched trophy for being the tournament MVP. Any doubt he may have had about changing teams was short lived after a performance like that. As his parents, watching him being able to play to his potential, was just surreal. We knew he was good, and I’m sure every parent believes their child is better than a coach will recognize, true or not, but we taught him to be humble, play with respect, and appreciate being on a team whose coach saw his full raw potential. His 11U season was everything he had hoped the previous year would have been. Playing in the division one league allowed him to rapidly develop as a serious contender at catcher.
The 12U season is the last year of Little League and it is special for a couple of reasons. It’s the last year before the bases move from 70ft to 90ft, and the pitchers mound from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches. Next year the rules will be the same as Major League Baseball. In fact all the rules of the MLB will be implemented when the boys turn 13 with one small safety exception, you can not slide headfirst into home plate. The second special thing about the 12U season, is that our team was invited to play in a week long tournament in Cooperstown, NY among one hundred and three other teams from all around the Country. And at the end of that week, all of the players will be inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame. They even give each player a hall of fame ring as a life long reminder of this special honor. The Cooperstown experience culminated all the hard work players have put forth through the years, and ends their Little League Careers by playing the best of the best from all around the Country. The team, with their coaches get to stay in traditional dorms, leaving behind Mom and Day for the entire week.
Getting invited to Cooperstown was just the first hurdle. Taking a team of eleven players, four coaches, and 2 umpires, and yes you have to supply two umpires for the week, is a very expensive endeavor that requires a lot of fund raising. Normally, a regular season of travel base ball costs around $20,000. Each family pays about $1,000 for the year and we fund raise the rest through little things like sponsorship banners, Super Bowl pools, restaurant night, and fan apparel merchandising. But the added expenses of the Cooperstown trip raised our total annual expenditures for the 12U season to well over $45,000. To reach this plateau we did all the normal fundraising from previous year, then added two additional major fundraising events. The first was a “Luxury Purse” bingo with a silent auction. Besides the normal bingo event that brings in money from over 200 players, we collected donations from local businesses and corporations like Disney, or Under Armor to create awesome silent auction opportunities. For instance, Disney donated a set of four hopper pass entrance tickets, worth over $600.00. It was only of the most sought after auction items of the night. All told, when the event was over, we raised just under $12,000 in a little less than 4 hours, of course not counting the countless hours all the parents spent pulling it together. The remainder of our expenses were covered by hosting the 12U Stars and Strikes Tournament over the Memorial Day Weekend. It’s the largest baseball tournament on the east coast over the holiday. Between the entrance fee, concessions, and selling tee-shirts and hats, our team raised another $10,000 over the 4 day holiday weekend. So, other than each families expenses of travel and housing for the week, we pretty much had all the expenses covered.
As the July 4th holiday approached, the week of the tournament, we were wrapping up our regular season of baseball, and not without controversy. On the last Sunday double-header, one of our players, whom had been struggling with his emotions all season, lost his shit after being call out on a fielders choice ground ball to second. He threw his helmet, something he’s done several times before, but this time, the umpire familiar with this kid and his temper, quickly tossed him out of the game. It was the first game of the double header, which by rule, meant he was tossed out of the next game as well. His father, one of the assistant coaches, having had enough of the embarrassment his child caused all season, packed up his things, and the family and left the field, never to be seen again. And to add insult injury, a second child’s parent, informed us after that same game his son was struggling with school and wasn’t emotionally able to continue, quitting then and there on the spot. It was inconceivable how a parent could, after their child invested so much time, pull them from a team, literally days before heading to Cooperstown. But it happened, and suddenly, our team was down to 8 players one week before Cooperstown. The rules had stated you must have 10 players to compete. A thought we never even consider as a potential problem. Yet, now, days before the tournament, we had to scramble to find a couple quality players, who’s parents would be willing to loan them to us for a week on zero notice. Thankfully, the baseball organization we belonged to is a very close nit community, and to be honest, the only time we had problems with players in the past, was when we went outside of our organization and brought players on from neighboring towns. So, despite the mad scramble, it really only took a couple days to find two outstanding kids, with awesome parents, to fill in and make our team complete. One of the new player’s father even volunteered to stay in the dorms with the kids and pickup the role of assistant coach. I of course was able to maintain my role as team photographer, but now with the added responsibility of score keeper.
And now, with the car all packed up, loaded with the various items the camp required each kid bring with them, we were ready to hit the road. The trip was a solid six hours north, and except for the few traffic jams along the way, it was an easy, scenic, quiet ride. Our son listened to his music, having his ear buds in, nearly the entire six hour drive. He was nervous for a few reasons. This would be the first time he spent a whole week away from home, and as an only child, sharing a dorm room with 9 other children and 4 adults would be a challenge. There were also the butterflies about performing well. He had performed extraordinarily well this season, hitting 21 homers, countess doubles and triples, had over 45 stolen bases and too many many RBI’s to count. But there is one thing all kids want to do at Cooperstown; hit one over. You get to play a minimum of six games, a few more if your lucky in the playoff rounds, but with the competition being at a much greater level, the ability to hit a home run at Cooperstown was partly skill, and mostly luck. So I could see that pressure on his shoulders, it was a personal goal, and he knew it wasn’t all in his control, so is was a scary proposition coming home without a home run ball after going deep twenty-one times in the regular season.
We arrived at the cabin my wife and I rented for the week around 4pm the evening of player drop-off in Cooperstown. All the kids were to be dropped off between 5 and 7 pm that Friday evening. We dumped all our stuff in the cabin and headed over to Dreams Park without delay. It was a sight to see. Besides the beautiful grounds, all decorated with state flags, one for each of the 104 teams coming to complete that week, there were 22 playing fields, and a mini-stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. The stadium complex also hosted the skills competition finals, the Championship game, and a firework show on the last evening. You could see all the fields from the higher elevation at the entrance to the park. It was breathtaking. We waiting in line in our car for about 45 minutes, they had a well choreographed system to get all the kids to the right section of the dorms, allowing parents to simply drive through the lanes separating the rows of dorms, to easily facilitate dropping off player, gear, and provisions for the week. Of course just as it was our turn to drive down the row of dorms, the sky opened up and it poured buckets. The way Dreams Park was situated in up-state New York, there would be pop-up thunderstorm storms coming over the mountains without notice. It made the process of dropping off our son, an easy one, since we had to run in and out avoiding getting wet, there was no time for sappy goodbyes or embarrassing hugs and kisses from mom and dad.
That first night and the following morning there weren’t many activities planned purposefully. It gave parents and children alike a chance to get settled, learn the lay of the land, and go over the rules for the week ahead. During that first morning, many of the players started trading team pins. Each of the 104 teams created uniquely crafted pins that our head coach designed, to trade with the other 104 teams. You would have to pay attention to which pin you already had, and if you were lucky, you would get a pin from an umpire for displaying outstanding sportsmanship during a game. Those were few and far between, so when Tyler received an umpire pin, it was all the more special.
There was a family dinner that first day at 4 O’clock, not everyone attended, but it was a nice option since the opening ceremony started at 6pm and there weren’t many other options to grab dinner near the park and still make it in time. The opening ceremony was very much in the style of the Olympics. They had a parade of the 104 teams entering the stadium carrying banners, the widow of the Dreams Park founder gave a small speech to open the games. Then we all watched skyward as three retired airborne rangers jump from a small airplane, skydiving down to the field with the colors to present before they played the National Anthem. It was a very exciting and energizing start to the week of competition that started immediately after the National Anthem.
There would be only five trophies won this week among the nearly 1,400 players. One would be presented to the overall winner of the tournament, first place, beating out 103 other team. The other four were for the skill competitions which started right after the opening ceremonies. There was a trophy for “road runner” for the fastest around the bases, for “king of swat” which was essentially a home run competition, for “around the horn” a team competition consisting of a timed throwing event where a designated sequence of throws had to be made, and lastly, for “Golden Arm”, a competition of arm strength and accuracy, measured by giving each participant 3 balls to throw from center field at a bulls eye target sitting behind home plate, simulating the throwing a strike to the catcher from the deep outfield. Each team was able to send one player to compete in either, Road Runner, King of Swat or Golden Arm, and then the rest of the team would compete collectively in the Around the Horn competition. Of course the teams practiced these events at home before coming to Cooperstown. The skills competition was as much of the weeks events as the tournament itself. In 2004, the year Tyler was born, a young 12 year old Bryce Harper won “King of Swat” at Cooperstown, something all the players from Maryland were keenly familiar. So, each team had held their own completion the weeks before coming to Cooperstown to determine who would represent their team at each event. Tyler, a phenom of speed as well as arm strength from being both a catcher and center fielder, scored the highest in the teams home competition. Additionally, he lead the team in home runs, and so it gave him the opportunity to choose which event he wanted to participate in. He reasoned carefully about this for a couple days. First he thought it would be really cool to participate in the Home Run competition, he did have over 20 homers that season, but he knew there would be a lot of big kids that also hit plenty of dingers. Next, he considered the Road Runner competition. There too he could dominate, he had stolen so many bases, and beat out so many infield hits. He was fast! Lastly, the Golden Arm competition, it was challenging, it required arm strength, leg strength, proper foot work, and accuracy. He was the best on his team in this skill by far, so he reasoned, we had another fast kid, he could attempt the Road Runner, and Tyler would enter the Golden arm competition.
After the opening ceremonies, they split the players up and sent them to several different fields to start the skills competition. Some of the parents, tired from the travel and days events had simply left the park, or went to a bar across the street, but my wife and I recognized, this wasn’t our vacation, but his, and so we stayed to watch the best 104 players out of the nearly 1,400 compete for the title of Golden Arm. They took a group of ten kids at a time and gave them about a few minutes to properly warm up their arms. Then, one at a time, they announced their names over the stadium PA system, gave them 3 balls, one at a time, and let them try their best. The judging was scored by earning points. A ball that hit anywhere on the life sized cut out of a catcher placed behind home plate received 1 point if it bounced in front of the target before hitting it. Two points were awarded if it hit the target inside the outermost circle of a bulls eye on the target without hitting the ground first. Three points were award for hitting the inner circle, and five points were awarded it you threw the ball straight through the very small hole in the middle of the bulls eye.
Most of the first group missed hitting the target all together, a couple bounced one or two scoring a total of 2 points. And as the groups cycled through, it was pretty much the same with the exception of a player or two scoring 3 or maybe even 5 points by hitting one of the outer circles or bouncing all three balls into the target. Our son was in the 4th group to throw. His first ball he threw was a strike to the outermost circle, 2 points, the second ball was a strike to the inner most circle 3 points, and his third ball, hit the outermost circle again for another 2 points, 7 points in total. He was very excited as were we. Up until that point only one or two players had 5 or more points. To make it to the finals, you had to be in the top ten of point scorers. So, one at a time, as someone hit the target scoring more than a couple points the group of 10 kids holding the high score positions would shuffle around eliminating the players with lower scores. By the time the 6th group was ready to go, the skies opened up and we had another rain delay. My wife and I had thought perhaps, we would have been back at the cabin after his first round throw, but after he scored 7 points, the highest to that point, we were in it for the long hull. The rain delay only took about 30 minutes. They have clay infields, and use these really cool sponge rollers that suck up the water into a holding container, which they empty into special drains next to each field. Once the competition restarted, it took about an hour to cycle through all the remaining players, all the while tension building as a few kids scored 6’s, 7’s and one competitor even scored an eight. Nine of the ten finalists had scored five or more points when the last kid came up to throw. His father, was one of “those dads”, who from the stands, was yelling all sorts of tips to him before he threw. It was both endearing and obnoxious at the same time. His first ball missed wide left by about 10 feet. The second ball looked to be in line with he target but it sailed over it about 4 feet too high missing again. The young boy took a deep breath. His dad yelled loud enough for everyone in the stadium to hear, “put it through the hole boy”. A five point shot was the only way he could make the finals. Several of the other parents all looked at each other, and rolled their eyes. Up until this point, no one had thrown a ball through the very small hole in the center of the catchers glove painted on the plywood target. Some had gotten close, and they were standing in the line of finalists. This kid missed with his first two ball and not by a little, what are chances he’s going to get a hole in one? So he rubs the ball making sure it’s dry to have a good grip, looks at his dad, kisses the ball and gave it all he had throwing a bullet right at the center of the target with barely an arch. It looked good, seemed to be inline, had the right height, and without making a sound, it sailed through the small opening, before hitting the backstop behind the target. He actually did it. 5 points. The crowd went insane for this kid and his obnoxious dad.
Unfortunately for that last kid in the line of finalist whom had only scored 4 points, he was eliminated. The remaining 10 finalist, our son included, were escorted off the field and back into the main stadium to wait for the preliminary rounds of Road Runner, Around the Horn, and King of Swat to end on the other fields. Each of those finalist would be brought to the main event stadium for the finals to play out in front of all the parents, nearly 1400 players, and 200 umpires to witness. It was about an hour and a half wait for all the finalists to enter the stadium. We watched the finals of Road Runner, Around the Horn and King of Swat. Each winner of those three skill competitions were amazing to watch. The winner of the Road Runner circled the bases in lighting speed. I thought to myself, I’m not sure Tyler would have been able to beat him. The around the horn competition was a team effort. Each player had to have a perfect catch and throw or too much time would simply run off the clock and put them out of competition. First place team was separated by only a few hundreds of a second from 5th place team. It was really a toss up of which group of 9 kids could cycle through two near perfect rounds. The King of Swat was won by a kid that looked more like a college football linebacker than a 12 year old little league baseball player. He put on a show the likes of Aaron Judge and swiftly won King of Swat with ease.
The last skills competition and final Trophy to be awarded before the championship game later that week was to the Golden Arm winner. And let me tell you, they didn’t skimp out on the trophy’s. These were 4 ft tall, multi-level, beautiful and quite heavy awards. The format for the finals of Golden Arm remained the same. Ten kids would battle it out. All the previous scores were wiped out. Each got 3 balls to do their best. Let me tell you the finals were much lower scoring than the first round. Whether is was the late hour, as it was past eleven o’clock at night by this point, or the adrenalin rush being in the finals, maybe the nerves of competing in front of the nearly 3000 spectators, or the bright lights of the stadium making it hard to see the target, but for some reason, everyone was off their initial game. The first four finalist missed the target completely with all three attempts. The fifth finalist hit it once on a bounce. The 6th and 7th missed all three. Our son Tyler, went eighth, he hit it twice on a bounce scoring 2 points. The ninth finalist also scored two points, and as the tension built, the tenth finalist with the chance of scoring 3 or more points and waking away with the trophy, missed all three balls. So the ninth finalist and our Son Tyler went to round three of the event with three more balls to declare a winner. Tyler who had the high score in the first round chose to go last. The ninth finalist missed the first ball, missed the second ball and hit it on the bounce earning one point with the last ball. It was now Tyler’s turn. He walked up to center field very casually. Almost in an very complacent way, as if he was saying, “If I don’t win, it’s ok”, though I knew he would be crushed and didn’t really feel that way.
He took the first ball and without really thinking about it or lining himself up launched the ball hitting the target at the base for 1 point. At this point, my heart which was already pounding watching this, began thumping in my chest so much my hands and video camera were shaking. I knew he had two balls left and only had to bounce one into the target for a win. He approached the line and with the same carefree attitude launched the second ball, missing wide right by about a foot. The crowd let out a huge sigh. Tyler took the third ball. He stepped up, this time I saw him take a deep breath, back up a few extra feet and like he was mimicking catching a fly ball whereas a runner on third was trying to tag up and score, he fired a bullet. The anticipation had built to a boiling point. The crowd was chanting his name, which they had only learned, minutes before. The ball traveled with a very little arch and a slight curve to the right, it looked like it was going to be close, I thought it would miss just to the right, but at the last moment, it clipped the right edge of the target, and the umpire raised their hands to signal one more point scored. He won! The crowd went nuts. I went nuts! It was an exciting end to the skills competition. They walked Tyler to the center of the field where they had a backdrop setup for him to receive his beautiful trophy while taking a picture with the Founder’s widow. Then like he was Cal Ripken Jr., they directed him to hoist the trophy and run a victory lap around the field, giving high-fives to all the little kids, parents, players and the proudest father in attendance.
The rest of the Cooperstown experience for our son was beyond all expectations. He got a double his first at bat, and in the second game of the week, he broke up a 6th inning no-hitter, by taking the pitcher deep on an 0-2 count, for his first home run of the week. Overall they played well as a team, faced some really stiff competition, and made it into the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated. Tyler was able to go yard a second time, an opposite field 3-run blast in the first inning of our final game. He had over a dozen stollen bases, and threw a few kids out trying to steal. The whole week his team would be sure to remind the opposing team, that we had the “Golden Arm” on our team. That kept a lot of baserunners glued to the bag. The Trophy, which one parent so eloquently stated, would be his future wife’s worse nightmare, stayed in the dorms with him the entire week, before bringing it home to be proudly displayed along side his home run balls, hall of fame ring, trading pins, and even a team engraved commemorative wooden bat.
I can’t speak for all the players on our team, but from the looks on everyone’s faces when they posed for an impromptu picture wearing their newly adorned rings, I’m guessing these boys, and their parents had an experience of a life time.
~ j.t. Baruch