In April of 2003 I received a phone call from a neighbor of mine. He was the president of the Mustang League in Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball, and he needed some coaches. I told him I was reluctant to because of the news stories you hear about parents acting in unsportsmanlike ways. Mustang is Oak Park’s 9- and 10-year-old instructional pitch league.
After a few days thinking it over, I said I would do it. As it turns out, it was a great year. My son’s team that I coached did not win many games, maybe four out of 10, but they all learned about the game and sportsmanship. Every one of the kids on the team had improved dramatically from the beginning of the year and they all had fun.
Some of those kids are playing Pony ball now, some are in Bronco, and still some are in Shetland–all based on their own abilities. I have always said it is the team that makes the coach not the coach that makes the team. I still have a good friendship with a lot of the families who were on that team. I try to get to some of their games and keep up with their improvements.
With this being my fourth season coaching and helping out with the league here and there, I have to admit this has been my least favorite year, and I am almost glad that I will no longer be involved with Mustang as my youngest son is moving up to either Shetland or Bronco. Some of the families from that first year have heard my venting and have told me that it is a shame I feel the way I do. They then agree with me and my complaints.
I know what is broken, I do not, however, know how to fix it.
The problem is parents–and coaches. In the four years I have coached, I have been in three real arguments with other coaches or umpires. Two of those three happened this year. The one that got me the most upset is from a playoff game. It does not bother me that we lost the game, as none of the teams that I have had the honor of coaching has won a playoff game. It is the way we lost it.
I preach sportsmanship to the kids all year long. There is a way to win and lose gracefully, and I expect that from my players at all times. I will not tolerate any of my players trash-talking with kids from our team or another team, or any taunting of the other team or arguing with an umpire about a call. They learn this type of behavior from professional sports as well as the video games that they play. I have even sat both of my own sons for the remainder of a game because of unsportsmanlike play or attitudes, so I am nothing if not consistent.
Everything was going better than expected for the first three innings of play. Kids who had not been swinging the bat most of the year were getting hit after hit. The first three innings went by in a blur, only taking 50 minutes to play them. But this is where the trouble began. You see, the opposing third base coach told his kids to get out of the batter’s box after every pitch and take 5 or 6 practice swings. Not really that big a deal–two batters, 7 pitches, how bad is that? Well this continued on all through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. There was one batter who took 45 seconds to a minute to take the first pitch, every time he was up and still got out of the box after every pitch.
There is a two-hour time limit on each Mustang game to keep play moving as to not back up other games and to avoid play like this. The second half of the game took just shy of 2 hours to play. Every batter, every pitch, it adds up after a while. It also makes it hard to get into a rhythm on the pitching mound when you are 10. When I brought the time limit up to the opposing coach, we had been playing for 2 hours and 15 minutes and were going into the bottom of the fifth inning. My sons’ team was up 10 to 5. I told the opposing coach that if his players continued to get out of the batters box after each pitch I was going to call the game on time.
Needless to say, every batter, after every pitch, got out of the batter’s box.
Having talked to friends with kids who play Jr. Bronco and Bronco, I have been told that these actions would not have gone over in those leagues. The umpires would have told the coaches of the team using this strategy that he had better move things along.
As I mentioned, Mustang is a non-competitive instructional league. The key word being “instructional.” The emphasis is on teaching the fundamentals of the game and sportsmanship. There was no sportsmanship in the way the other team played offense in my eyes. To call your batter out of the box after every pitch to get into the opposing pitcher’s head is bush league play at this level.
Yes, things get more competitive come playoff time, but this is still Mustang. I understand that the umpires are only high school-aged kids, and if the guys calling major league play cannot get every call right, neither can these kids. The problem I see is that none of these kids, save one or two, will stand up to a coach and tell them they are wrong.
What does this teach the kids who are out there playing the game? That winning at any and all costs is acceptable? Have you ever heard that old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”?
No, I don’t have any right to tell you how to raise your kids. And I have no intention of even trying to do so. I would just like to see Mustang get back to where it was three years ago. The way it was when I grew up here in Oak Park and played Mustang baseball. A Mustang where you did not have coaches belittling their own players for missing ground balls, or swinging at a pitch over their heads. Where it meant something to be a sportsman, outside of being the kid who gets the Sportsmanship Award at the All-Star game.
A Mustang where coaches taught their teams the way to play hard and do your best without having to try to get into the heads of 9- and 10-year-old pitchers.