Sunday, June 10, 2001

Confessions of a Bench Warmer

As a parent of two kids, there are innumerable activities they're involved in which require parental involvement and support. In the past, I've always tried to step up to the plate when some help was needed. But having taken the lead role in the past in any number of venues, more recently I've stepped back and become an assistant. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the kids were getting smarter and better than me. As they get older and more experienced, their skill level is slowly percolating upwards, passing my somewhat limited abilities.

After all, it's easy to coach first grade soccer. All you have to do is yell, "Dribble, dribble.... don't push, go for the ball!" But things start to change as the kids grow up. The natural athletes and performers start to emerge. No longer do simple enthusiasm and trite "Work as a Team!" speeches cut the mustard. You actually have to understand and be able to explain a zone defense, or a give and go, or a rundown. Otherwise, someone is liable to raise their hand and ask, "If there's only one out and we have a guy on second with the infielders in, should we put on a suicide squeeze or hit away?" Uh... let me get back to you on that one, OK, Skipper?

That being said, and in spite of my lack of expertise, I'm more than willing to pitch in and help out the boss. And so I offer to do whatever grunt work there is whenever I can, from taking responsibility for a particular event to running drills on a Friday night practice. After all, with a clear mandate (and instructions) from the coach, I'm the adult, they're the kids... so it should be a piece of cake.

This season has been no different. For the Little League team my 11-year-old plays on, I show up as often as I can, throwing countless grounders or pop flies or warming up pitchers. I like the kids, their energy, their enthusiasm. By and large, they're committed to playing, learning and having fun... all that any of us can ask in any situation we're in, kids or adults.

So I reported for duty before the game as usual this past week, glove in hand, ready to plug any leaks. The coach started dispersing the kids around the field, then called me over and handed me a bat.

"Run a couple of infield drills, OK? Hit to each position, then throw to first for the out. After they go around once, do it again, working on going to a different base to get the lead runner. Got it? Thanks." And with that, he turned to go over rosters with the opposing team.

Now, all that made sense. The drill sounded solid, made good sense. The kids knew what was coming and shuffled in their positions, watching me head towards the plate, ball in one hand, bat in the other. All the players knew their roles, both them and me. Only one problem with this rosy scenario.

I can't hit.

I can't hit. Oh, I can instruct my son in the proper batting form. I can demonstrate the proper stance to take a bunt. If called on in a friendly game, I can even make contact occasionally. But I've never been able to hit fungoes or grounders to a particular spot. As MC Hammer rapped, "Can't touch that."

But I had my mandate. I pointed to the kid at third, then swallowed hard. Tossing the ball in the air, I took a mighty cut... and missed completely. The kids said nothing... everybody, after all, gets one break. I tried again. A minor tip, with the ball rolling 3 feet in front of me. The kid next to me at the plate in full catcher's regalia looked up at me from him 4 foot vantage point: "Hey, man's what's a matter with you?" Oh, nothing I responded... just gotta get warmed up. Once more I tried, with scarcely better results. I looked at the catcher. He looked at me. With the honesty that only kids can get away with, he summed it up.

"You stink"

Yeah, I replied meekly, I wasn't much good at hitting this way. "But you're an adult, man... you're supposed to be able to do this." I wanted to say to him it wasn't important, that I had a good business, a family, some money in the bank, a late model car. But none of it made any difference. I agreed with him. I stunk.

But rather than break down in tears, as I might have done when I was a kid, I tried again, and got one over to the third baseman. He fielded the ball awkwardly, and made the throw to first a bit of target. With that little bit of distraction, I seized the initiative, yelling out instructions and suggestions. It took three tries to get a ball to the shortstop, a couple to second base. The kids laughed at me a little, but got into my 3 steps back, 1 step forward rhythm. We managed to work the drill a few times, and no more, thankfully, was said. Finally, the coach called us to the dugout.

As we headed to the bench, I sidled over to the kid in the catcher's gear. The inner 11-year-old in me needed some reinforcement that the kids wouldn't be laughing at me on the playground, that someone would sit with me at lunch, that I wouldn't get picked last when it was time to choose up sides.

"How'd I do?" I asked casually.

"Huh?" Now that I think about it, the response made sense. For while it was a big deal to me, striking at insecurities I'd been harboring since I was a kid, the incident was so minor as to already be off the radar screens of the others on the field. Then realizing what I meant, he looked up at me.

"Fine, coach. But you still stink."

Out of the mouths of babes....


Marc Wollin of Bedford admits that playing good enough is his very best. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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