The Quotable Coach by Todd Wernstrom
“Boys, there are no stars on this team. You’re all equally terrible.”
I love coaching Little League baseball. And, yes, I said this to a dugout full of 9-year-old boys last spring. And, no, they were not “all equally terrible.” In fact, many of them were highly skilled and possessed of real baseball sense for their age.
Baseball is hard in the way life is hard, but thankfully, without real human tragedy. And that’s why baseball, particularly at the youth level, is such a perfect vehicle to be serious about something without it actually being serious.
I played baseball as a kid. My 15-and-under baseball coach was a police detective. It was impossible for him to get out an instruction or encouraging word without the f-bomb being the operative part of his sentences. He scared me, but not in the way one might think. He was the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport, and he made me the most prepared and best baseball player my natural ability, such as it was, allowed me to be. My only fear was of disappointing him. If I screwed up, I never raised my palms as if to say, “But, coach, I didn’t know where I should have been on that throw from left field.” I knew. If I didn’t get there, the next thing I heard was, “Wernstrom, what the fuck were you thinking out there?!” Or something equally accusatory. He was right to accuse.
Of course, that was a different time. You can’t use the F-word on nine-year-olds any longer (sigh).
“Did you at least get a nice of view of the ball that just went by?” I said this to a batter who just struck out looking at three pitches.
I said that because many years ago, during the first game on that 15-and-under team, I struck out three consecutive times. Coach gathered us around at the end of the game, one we won by a very slim margin. He launched into an obscenity-laced tirade, calling us out on the minutia of not taking the proper lead, throwing to wrong bases, not being vocally supportive of each other, among many other infractions. He then looked at me and said something like, “You boys could learn something from Wernstrom. He wasn’t afraid to swing the bat.”
In five seasons of coaching (as an assistant and as a head coach), I’m proud to say that we have never told a boy not to swing the bat. The boys know that they are empowered to swing away, regardless of the count. They also know that striking out looking is likely to result in the entire team running a sprint after the game. They swing because they know their coaches believe that they can make contact, no matter how inexperienced they are, and no matter how often they miss.
When I coach, there are rules. Rule No. 1 is: “Always know where the ball is.”
I didn’t make up this rule. My then six-year-old son Hugo’s first baseball coach did. That coach is the dad of my kid’s good friend. I didn’t participate that season, other than go to some of the games. But each time I went, I was struck by how similar Hugo’s coach was to mine (except for his cleaner language). Hugo’s team was better organized than any of the others. The boys, to the extent that six-year-olds could, knew what to do with a baseball when it was hit to them. They didn’t run with it. They threw it. They didn’t flop around on the ground to field a ground ball. They knew that if a fly ball was hit, not to take off running when they were on base until they saw the ball was going to drop. That team beat the crap out of every team it faced, and it wasn’t because it had all the good athletes. It was because they knew where the ball was. Most of the time, anyway.
“Hey, Outfield, at least pretend you’re aware there’s a game taking place!”
This snappy directive, which I shouted recently, falls under Rule No. 1, but its point is more nuanced. Baseball is a game of moving parts. Granted, the moving takes place at a more leisurely pace than, say, soccer, but the team on the field is really like a nine-man synchronized swim team. When the shortstop moves to his left to chase a ground ball, eight other players have precisely choreographed companion movements to make. (Easier said than executed at this age, true).
Our rules require that each boy gets innings in the infield and the outfield every game. That is a lot of dance moves to get down. But by rotating them into their neighboring position’s shoes, they see that just because the ball is hit to the shortstop doesn’t mean he’s going to field it. The question they ask themselves is “What am I supposed to do about it?” We very nearly lost our first game of this season because at least five balls went through the infield and then past our outfielders because they were surprised that our infield “stars” misplayed them. As my old coach might say, “Do your fucking job, and don’t assume the kid in front of you will do his.”
“Good, maybe you’ll ask fewer questions and conserve some energy,” I said to a kid, after I was informed by his dad that he woke up with a slight fever, but wanted to give it a go.
Joining a baseball team is like volunteering for the Marine Corps. By making this choice – albeit one that is often made by a parent, rather than the kid – you forfeit certain rights, at least for the short term. You tacitly agree to being molded into a cohesive unit. There are no individuals in a Marine platoon.
Baseball is no different. Each player has to be on the exact same page as the others in order to succeed. A combat platoon is trained to direct concentrated gunfire on an exact location. A youth baseball team needs to learn how to get a well-hit baseball from the deepest reaches of centerfield to home plate in no more than three throws (two being preferred). That takes drilling.
We drill the boys to accomplish two things: improve their basic skills, obviously, but more importantly, to take the “me” out of them. Not so they become robots – though the idea of a team of automatons flawlessly executing a 6-4-3 double play does have more than a little appeal – but so they become a true team.
I’m still working on my favorite “interlocutor,” the recipient of that last quote. He simply can’t keep from asking a question every time I say anything about anything. But he also understands that he shouldn’t. And that makes him a great teammate.
“Hey, why are you smiling?!” to the boy (my son) after taking a pitch to the top of his batting helmet.
I knew the answer: because he wasn’t hurt and he was playing the game he loves.
Todd Wernstrom is a wine distributor in New York City where he lives with his wife, three children and a crazy (but cute) little dog. At 13, he was rudely welcomed to competitive (as opposed to sandlot) baseball by being barreled into by a runner while waiting for a throw from right field, proving that Rule No.1 is as much figurative as literal.