This story was written by Dan McGowan and originally appeared as a column in the Boston Globe.
I pitched both ends of a doubleheader over the weekend, scattering a few infield hits, allowing just two (completely unearned) runs, and picking up the win in both games. My right arm was a little sore after the game, but I’ll be ready for my next outing this week.
Before you write letters to my bosses urging them to place me in the starting rotation at Fenway Park, a disclosure: I was pitching to mostly seven- and eight-year-olds who I coach at Mount Pleasant Little League in Providence, and if I were a little better at this volunteer job, they’d have whacked the ball all around our 250-foot field.
This year marks my 15th season coaching in the same league in Providence (it starts out as coach-pitch before switching to kid-pitch midseason), which means that some of the kids on my roster at the beginning of my career have gone on to play in high school, graduate college, and start their own careers.
Whenever I see my former players, there’s always a funny memory to discuss that barely involves baseball. Like the time we took our team to see the Pawtucket Red Sox (RIP) and one of the kids tried to order a Blue Moon because it sounded cool. Or the little girl on my team last season who didn’t appreciate having an early practice one Saturday morning, and declared, “you owe me some me time.”
My win-loss record over the years is not going to shatter any records, but I have picked up a few pro tips for helping children understand this confusing game. So if you’re considering coaching your kid’s team this season, here’s some free advice.
Find a Coach Diane
I had just turned 21 the year I started coaching, and I had grandiose visions of eventually taking Mount Pleasant all the way to the Little League World Series. At the first practice, I tried to teach the kids how to turn a double play when they still didn’t know how to double-knot the laces on their cleats.
That’s when Diane Cazzaro, a mother of two boys on the team, marched onto the field and took over. She suggested the kids learn to play catch first (good call) and also became the muscle on our coaching staff.
The kids knew I would let them get away with anything in the dugout, but Coach Diane knew how to give the angry mom stare, and everyone fell in line. She taught me how to keep kids moving and having fun in practice, but I think she was even more competitive than I was. She knew how to stack a lineup of 15 kids so that we always had a chance to score, and she knew where to place the best players in the infield to make sure we could make outs.
It didn’t hurt that one of her kids, Angelo, went on to be all-state at Mount Pleasant High School.
Don’t coach alone
Once Coach Diane’s kids moved up to the older league, I recruited my friend, Chris Raia, to coach with me, and he’s now in his 10th season with the squad. We won the championship his first year, so he knows a thing or two about baseball.
Most importantly, having multiple adults on the field allows for double the teaching to happen in practice. If I’m throwing batting practice, he’s teaching them each position in the infield. While he’s stopping kids from having water fights in the dugout, I can teach kids to make “train tracks” so they remember where to stand at the plate.
Bonus: Having a second coach also allows you to catch more adorable sayings from your kids. A few years ago, Coach Chris congratulated our seven-year-old third baseman on making a nice defensive play, and the kid turned around and said, “Thanks. I’ve been exercising.”
Kids are more resilient than you think
My heart breaks for a player every time they make a mistake in the field (like forgetting the ball when they try to tag runner) or strike out at the plate, but the truth is that most of them know how to bounce back quickly. Last year, on the first day of kid-pitch, one of my players was hit in the face with a ball. There was blood, tears, and a lot of panic from the parents.
But it wasn’t long before she had a helmet back on her head (and an ice cream in her hand) and she was ready for another at-bat. While I was closing my eyes and praying that she didn’t get hit by another pitch, she managed to get her first hit. Then she said, “I showed that ball.”
Everything is a teachable moment
You know how your kids drive you crazy when they ask “why?” about everything they see or are told to do? Baseball is a great chance for payback.
Because there are so many confusing rules (like having to tag a runner instead of getting the force out), you have to make sure that your players always understand why they are doing what they’re doing. Rather than telling a player to touch third to get the out, ask them to explain why they’re supposed to touch third for the out. It helps with critical thinking, and often leads to hilarious responses, like “because I can’t throw it very far.
Celebrate all wins
Here’s the spoiler alert that I don’t let the kids know about: At the end of the season, they’re getting a trophy and a party whether they win every game (which we’ve done) or lose every game (which we’ve done twice). They’re probably not going to remember the wins and losses, but they will remember how it feels to succeed.
That’s why we try to put every child in the best position to feel like they’ve accomplished something during the season. For some kids, that’s simply making contact with the ball (I’ve learned to throw the ball like a dart to hit bats) and for others, it’s catching a line drive and pulling off that miraculous, unassisted triple play.
Leaving the kids smiling and wanting to play again is always the goal. But it’s always fun when your former players go on to accomplish big things. On opening day last week, while I was pulling off my best impression of Pedro Martinez, an 11-year-old who used to play for my team was playing on an adjacent field. He hit his first home run and pitched his team to victory.
And like Big Papi, my eyes were sweating.