Diamond Certified: The worst of times
Diamond Certified: The worst of times
The Pappo Athletics' Seamus McGuinness takes the mound. Photo by Bill Collins.
Baseball can be a cruel game. The phrase “that’s how the ball bounces” has never been more appropriate than when applied to baseball. The sport’s cruelty can sometimes be reflected in the results of Little League games.
Sometimes, even the best coaches have losing seasons. This was the case during my son’s final season in Alameda Little League. Coach Mike Barnes’ 2013 Majors team went on to become champions, and his 2014 team, the Pappo Athletics, boasts an 8-3 record so far this season. But Barnes’ 2012 season offers a perfect illustration of just how cruel baseball can be.
Alameda Little League’s 2012 season got off to an enthusiastic start for Coach Barnes. Barnes, who was entering his sixth year of coaching as head of the Mudcats Majors team, has always preached to the boys “that if they work hard, work on becoming a TEAM, work on individual skill sets, and have fun, the wins will come simply as a byproduct.”
But on a bright Saturday morning in late April, Barnes found himself on the third base line at the end of a long, hard-fought game, surrounded by his players and half a dozen parents. His team had just earned its seventh loss in seven games.
Barnes had to calm his players. But even more imperative, he had to calm the parents, who had remained mostly positive throughout the season despite frustrated expectations of good things to come. Parents who recognize this league as the potential start of a successful sporting career for their young players expect to tally some wins as a “natural byproduct” of their sons’ hard work.
As an assistant coach under Barnes in my own sixth season in 2012, I had seen and heard my share of stories of poorly coached and managed teams: Teams that had lost every single game in a season; teams with coaches who perhaps did more yelling than coaching. But Barnes’ story was NOT one of those stories. He was distinctly different.
In my estimation, Barnes was quite possibly the best overall team manager in the league that season, an experienced veteran. Hopefully, this was leading to experience that all young players would carry with them for the rest of their life. It wasn’t about winning, but about leaving the season with a great feeling of accomplishment, and memories to last a lifetime.
But even as the losses stacked up, I realized that this would prove to be no ordinary baseball season, and no typical coach.
Coach Barnes doesn’t just coach his players, he motivates them. Every season, he works with them to bring out the best they have, under any circumstances. “Each season it takes me a while to gauge my team, and to get a feel for them,” he said.
But he’s also quick to take note of his players’ off-the-field personality traits. “The level of play and how we compete each and every time we take the field is wonderful, but it’s the small things that stick,” he said. “I love this team!”
Barnes noted the idiosyncrasies of his current crop of young players, like the care one player takes to braid his hair perfectly under his cap. Or the ritual “lucky meal worms” another eats between innings. Yet another has a “good luck” shirt he loves to wear.
I love this team! An infectious trait that rubs his young players the right way, as they take the field to play their best.
At the pre-teen level, players’ natural talents are more apparent than they are earlier in their lives, and “positional” play is much more common. Instead of rotating young arms and young legs from position to position, most players stick with certain key positions, throughout the entire season.
Barnes recognizes this, and brings out the best, each player has. Talent and ability are not the only things he assesses; he looks at what each player can do to improve his team’s ability to win.
As Coach Barnes peered into the eyes of his players and parents on that spring day in 2012, he looked desperate. After each loss, he had made a promise: It would get better, things would be brighter, the team would win a game. He believed in his team, and we in turn, should believe in his coaching. But this was the seventh loss in a row!
Some could argue this philosophy is what led the desperate coach to do what he did after the next game … loss number eight.
If you’ve got Alameda Little League news or stories to pitch about your team, e-mail me at email@example.com or contact me via Twitter @WilliamRCollins.