Working the Pit (July 25, 2001)

There have been times in my life when I didn't have a job, a car, a house or much more than the clothes on my back. But I have always had a baseball glove. 

I love The Game, whether it be as a player or spectator. I played in Little League as long as they would let me, men’s softball for years and I have watched my three sons on the Little League field. The only part of baseball I hadn't been involved with was coaching. So when I was offered the chance to be assistant coach on my 10-year-old son's major league team, I gladly accepted.

Our coach was a seasoned veteran of the Little League wars and in pre-season practice my job was mostly helping him run the team through drills, do some one on one with the players, discourage wrestling and sandcastle building while the coach was talking and help figure out who to put where. But once the season started, he would be running the show from the field. So I would be working the pit. Making sure the batters came up in the right order, breaking up fights, stopping the players from taking practice swings and thereby dropping their teammates, and just generally try to keep some control of the unruly mob in the dugout. 

Being stuck in a caged hole with a dozen 10 to 12 year old boys is not for the timid. We did have one female player, but she wasn't your average girl. She was a tiny thing with a sunny personality and a permanent smile, But she could beat the living tar out of any boy in either dugout, and all the kids knew it. So she fit right in with this bunch. The Mendocino Cubs were a mighty spirited group, that's for sure. Spirited like wounded wolverines are spirited. I knew right away this was going to be an interesting season.

I soon discovered that having a good coach and getting the kids to listen to him were two completely different things. Any decision he or I might make was gleefully debated at great length, and assigned positions argued so thoroughly it would have left a trial lawyer exhausted and out of breath. Some of the lads had such a complete grasp of The Game that they were totally convinced the only reason there even were adult coaches was because of some dumb Little League rule. And they were probably right. Open rebellion was often just a heartbeat away. I have always considered myself a fairly tough fellow, but after the most mild mannered player on the team had quietly badgered me non-stop for two hours to let him pitch, I was a quivering bowl of jello. A beaten man. I would gladly have put him on the mound had it been up to me, if only for my sanity.

We won a couple games, lost one, liked the feel of it and just kept losing. During this streak I sat in the pit and watched some of the longest, most depressing innings I have ever witnessed. I'm pretty sure we set the all time record for most errors in one inning. I would watch the ball repeatedly launched ten feet over the firtbaseman's head, as the other team went from behind to way ahead. If one of our batters got a good hit it would steer unerringly into someone' s glove. And our pitching staff needed some work, to put it mildly. We had a nucleus of good, solid players, But we just couldn't get it together as a team.

And it all comes out in the dugout. Problems at home. Worries about school. Girls. Beefs with other players. Plus all the pressure of performing acceptably in front of dozens of peers and strangers alike. It's an emotional roller coaster down there in the pit. And that's all before the game even starts. 

Every kid left the dugout with the intention of either making a spectacular play in the field or putting the ball over the outfield fence. Nothing less would do. And needless to say, this rarely actually happened. So for many of these kids, when they dropped the ball or struck out, it was as if Life had kicked them squarely between the legs with pointy-toed boots. Like their error had let down the entire human race. Tears were not uncommon in the pit. Gloves were thrown and curses voiced. These were the bad times for the Cubs. 

But as a season progresses a lot of changes take place. Teams lose players, strong players fizzle out and weak ones get good. And I soon saw a change in the Cubs that I should have anticipated. The farther behind we were in the standings, the less pressure was on us. The less pressure, the more relaxed the players were. The more relaxed they were, the better they played. The better they played, the more their confidence grew. And then halfway through the season, while I was fighting off mutiny by the skin of my teeth, we actually won a game. And then another. And we just kept on winning.

These were the good times for the Cubs. Our weaker players came alive, often in spectacular plays so unusual I don't think there are even names for them. A couple of our bigger kids finally started hitting the ball regularly, and so did everyone else. And the kid who had badgered me to let him pitch actually did just fine on the mound. There were some hard fought games, but we still kept winning, Little League baseball is all about kids having fun. But any kid will tell you that winning is a lot more fun than losing. 

So it all came down to the last game of the season. It was against the first place team, and it was winner take all. If a fellow could have somehow tapped into the energy in the Cub's dugout that day, there would be no more power shortages ever again. They were pumped up like a bicycle tire at 300psi. 

The game immediately turned into a close battle. They would get a run. Then we would tie it up. They would get another and we'd do it again. By the top of the second I was ready to do some serious drinking, and by the bottom of the fifth I could hardly watch at all. We got a run up, but they caught us in the sixth and we went into extra innings.

If this were a Disney movie the kid who couldn't hit would get a grand slam and win the game. But down here on Earth, they got a couple runs on us that we couldn't make up, and that was the end of it. A heartbreaker for sure. But one hell of a game.

So I finished the season with borderline ulcers and a lot more gray hair. But I have always enjoyed the company of most kids more than that of most adults. And the Cubs were about as fine a bunch as you are likely to find these days. So who knows? Maybe I will end up back in the pit next year. I always have been a glutton for punishment.

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