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T-ball coach has hands full getting kids "baseball ready'

Published Sep. 2, 2005

The critic let his feelings be known loud and clear.

"This is boring."

A few minutes of rolling baseballs to the aspiring Derek Jeters and the manager faced his first player revolt. It could be a long season; this was only the warmup before practice. No wonder Joe Torre gets paid millions of dollars to do this.

But, hey, these are Yankees, too. They are allowed to be temperamental, even in T-ball. Major League baseball opening day is a week away, but the brood of T-ball Yankees have been at it for more than a month.

Yours truly is leading the 10 kids, only one of whom is old enough for kindergarten, because a ready excuse was missing when the league called to report a shortage of managers. The coaching resume includes two years of what really amounts to tossing pre-game fly balls, yelling "baseball ready," and keeping the older offspring and other distracted 8-year-olds from spilling Gatorade on each other in the dugout. That qualifies as seasoned leadership at this level.

"Patience is probably the most important virtue necessary when managing youngsters of T-ball age," says the Little League Baseball Web site. No kidding. One player displayed his exuberance by trying to bite me. A high-five would work so much better.

T-ball is entry-level baseball _ the Little League division for 5- and 6-year-old children who hit the ball off a waist-high plastic tee. There is no pitcher or catcher. Everyone bats, runs the bases and scores each inning.

It can make for long stretches of inactivity for the fielders. Sometimes the kids are more concerned about who brought the post-game snack than on baseball.

The distractions are numerous. During one game, everyone stopped to stare at the single-engine plane flying overhead with a banner in tow that advertised a Tampa theme park. Not sure why this was such a big deal since most of the kids can't read yet.

A runner once rounded third base and detoured right toward the dugout. We had to bring him back to cross home plate.

An acquaintance and former manager volunteered that one player on his team used to run the bases backward from third to first. She offered an explanation when he tried to correct her.

It makes no sense to run the bases counter-clockwise, she argued.

Fortunately, the T-ball Yankees have been spared such intellectual debate.

But, they are prolific talkers. Chatting with the other teams' baserunners is a popular way to pass the time. So much so that the opponents forget to run while our team forgets to field.

We've had our share of between-inning dirt tossing, too. Probably my fault for stressing the importance of making good throws.

If nothing else, the kids are aggressive. At our first practice, they were assembled into fielding positions and then readied as a ground ball was tossed toward the infield. All 10 players ran after it. So much for covering your base.

On opening day, the kids suddenly noticed the crowd of maybe 40 to 50 people, several armed with video recorders, standing behind the backstop. They giggled in the batters box when they heard mom and day rooting them one. One player looked at the cheering adults in wide-eyed amazement while simultaneously swinging the bat.

Whiff. No problem. You keep swinging until you hit it.

It's a good sport. President George W. Bush invited T-ball players to compete on the south lawn of the White House last year. That's a carrot yet to be dangled to increase on-field performance.

"Catch the ball, and we could end up at the White House."

Motivation aside, the T-ball Yankees are having a better spring than their namesakes at Legends Field in Tampa.

We're injury free, so far. In Tampa, Don Mattingly, one of the Yankee spring-training instructors, had to spend several nights in the hospital after hurting his back during drills.

We will end the season undefeated. There is no score-keeping at this age. The regular Yanks lost 12 of their first 16 games this spring.

Best of all?

Our kids show better character. We haven't had to dismiss a million-dollar-a-year, backup outfielder for stealing a glove and bat from a teammate.