“C’mon, throw strikes!
“Relax out there! Bear down! Have fun! Throw harder!”
Have you heard that at a baseball game? Have you yelled it? Can you stop? Please?
I heard it all when I was a baseball pitcher. The year was 2020, the summer of COVID. I remember it like it was just last week.
In fact, it was just last week, and I was a grown man pitching to 10-year-olds in an honest-to-God baseball game. And I was … not great.
“What were you doing playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic,” you might ask. “And why do you suck so much?”
Let’s answer the first question first. Over the summer, baseball leagues around the North Shore have had a slow, safe, gradual restart, spending a month or more in small single-team pods conducting physically distanced practices only. Earlier this month, teams got the green light to start playing some games, and it’s been a blast: air-fives and dingers, strikeouts and sanitizer.
Now to answer your second question: hey, that’s mean. Nobody talks to me that way. Except for my kids. And several of their teammates. And lots of their friends.
How did we get to this point? Well, I’ve been coaching baseball for a few years now and my older kid just bumped up to a new age level. No more T-ball or pitching machine for these guys, it’s all player pitching with one little wrinkle: if there are too many walks, the coach comes in and takes over pitching duties. The thinking is that grown-up adult baseball people should be much better at throwing baseballs straight than 10-year-old kids. But what if some of those grown-ups didn’t actually play a bunch of baseball when they were kids? What if they’d played a ton of other sports but not baseball, not realizing how much fun it is even when pandemic rules prevent you from spitting sunflower seeds everywhere? What if that first time on the mound last week was actually the first time in his life he’d thrown a pitch in a real, live baseball game? Like, for real – first time ever!
So, anyway, my first pitch bounced in the dirt behind the batter and smacked into the backstop. My second pitch wasn’t better.
It’s not so easy! There’s a lot to think about: you want to throw it straight so that it is in the strike zone. You want to throw it hard enough so that the players have a chance to get a good hit off of it, but not so hard that you’re striking out the batters – no one is impressed by a grown man striking out a 10-year-old. Well, my seven-year-old is impressed when I strike out his older brother, but that doesn’t really count.
And there’s something that people are even less impressed by than a grown man striking out a child: a grown man drilling a child in the head with a fastball.
The good news is I managed not to bean any kids, but I also managed to throw a bunch of balls while somehow also striking out a few of my own players.
As I reflected on the game, it dawned on me that if coming in to throw a few pitches as a grown man made me nervous, what must it be like for a nine-year-old?
Most of the same concerns are there for the kid pitchers when they step on the mound: Don’t walk everyone; don’t drill a kid in the face (well, most of them have that thought); don’t disappoint all the parents watching in the stands; don’t let your teammates down; don’t look foolish in front of all these people.
It’s a lot! It also dawned on me that there are a lot of challenging things we ask young kids to do, in sports and otherwise, and we ask them to do it while controlling their emotions and with fans, well-meaning and otherwise, constantly yelling at them.
I was surprised, in fact, by how much of the talk around the field reached my ears, and how much I thought about it. “Throw strikes! Throw harder! Can we get a different pitcher?” Granted almost all of that talk came from my own son, but still.
It made me realize how important it is, when speaking to someone in a high pressure situation, to remain completely positive, if not completely silent.
“Looks good. You’re right there. You’ve got this.” Those are the words I’m going to have on the tip of my tongue when talking to an athlete in a pressure situation. There are times for constructive instruction, but across the diamond, to a 10-year-old doing something challenging, in front of dozens of people – that is not the time.
When you’re in the stands and you see a kid do something imperfectly and you think to yourself, "that looks easy, why don’t they just do it right?" Consider, for a moment, what it is we are asking them to do. Could you do it perfectly? Are you sure?
Consider it, at least. And then consider saying “you’ve got this,” or even saying nothing at all.
You got this!
Andy Prest is sports editor for the North Shore News. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly. email@example.com