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Season Stats: Few Hits, Fewer Runs, but No Errors in Attitude

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If I were working for the Fox Group--those guys who’ve been swinging some pretty mean axes over at Dodger Stadium--I’d probably be designated for reassignment to T-ball.

It all started so hopefully, this season of heart and heartache.

In the spring, a friend and I decided to balance the grind of work by coaching a ragtag team of kids who, by virtue of their advanced ages of 7 and 8, had graduated to “Pee Wees” in the Eagle Rock Recreation Center’s baseball league.

At that level, the boys and girls no longer swat cushioned balls perched atop plastic poles. Instead, coaches lob pitches to them, usually from bended knee. Also, unlike T-ball, you keep score, meaning there are winners. And losers.

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The league, sponsored by the Los Angeles City Department of Parks and Recreation, named our team the Cubs. For inspiration’s sake, fellow coach Jeffrey Reiner and I emphasized the cool jerseys and not the cold reality that the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since when, the turn of the century?

Last Saturday, our season ended. You could call us a streaky team. We lost 14 consecutive games. We won none.

As the sweaty kids sat on the dugout bench before their final postgame juice box, Jeff and I asked how many had enjoyed themselves, how many thought they were better players than when they took the field a few months back with little or no Pee Wee experience. Every dirty hand shot up.

“I don’t care whether we won or lost,” my sports-crazy 8-year-old son, Jesse, said that night before drifting into dreams of Griffey and McGwire. “I had fun.”

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From the mouths of little Babes.

Somewhere along the line, between the innocence of adolescence and the hard knocks of adulthood, the notion of fun inevitably is overtaken by the pursuit of victory. For better or worse, that’s increasingly the way of life. Sure, kids like to win. Who doesn’t? It feels good, giving us bragging rights around the schoolyard or water cooler. But, conversely, must youngsters who haven’t even broken the double-digit age barrier feel bad about losing?

Judging from my admittedly limited experience, some of the Cubbies who took it hardest seemed to be picking up cues from parents who didn’t particularly subscribe to our laid-back philosophy: Effort counts more than runs.

As Jeff, a filmmaker, put it, “You end up drafting the parents as well as the kids"--sometimes a blessing, sometimes not.

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Before taking the coaching plunge I had heard the horrid stories of Little League parents brawling on the field and shaving a year or two from their kids’ ages. Nice role modeling, folks. Nothing that extreme marred our season, but, ask my wife, not a game passed when I didn’t mope home vowing never again.

I feel your pain, Billy Russell.

There was the evening, for example, when one father, whom I never saw smile, exclaimed from the stands: “I could do a better job than you!” I told him, in slightly sharper words, to get off his behind and try. Funny, his son never smiled much, either.

Then there was another dad, the coach of a city championship football team, who huffed in disgust when we didn’t meet his expectations. When his son was at bat or in the field, the football coach incessantly chattered loud instructions. The boy, a nice and agile kid, sometimes seemed unsettled.

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And then, toward season’s end, came the final insult. The coach of another team told Jeff that our apparent lack of killer drive had become the talk of our managerial colleagues.

It’s human nature, I guess, to focus on the incoming arrows because they hurt, especially when they pierce self-doubts close to the surface. Were the mounting losses really our fault? Should we have juggled the infield and batting order yet again? Should we have been harder on the kids? On ourselves?

But then along comes the father of Sophie, our lone girl, whose bases-loaded double a few weeks ago was a Cubs highlight.

As the season wound down, Sophie’s dad told us how much he appreciated the kindness and respect we showed her and the other players. An obstetrician, he called us tops in the league, a generous assessment delivered in his best bedside manner.

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There were other families, too, who conquered the frustrations of defeat with smiles, lifting their children’s spirits with high-fives and cheers, whether the youngsters got on base or, more often, got out.

Looking back, I’ll remember many things: The players excitedly yelling “Hi, coach!” The tender encouragement they offered to struggling teammates. The way they persevered even when the score was hopelessly lopsided.

I’ll also remember my goodbye to a little fellow named Jonathan, who wore his cap so low you had to tip back his head to see his bright eyes. When I reached to shake his hand, he opened his arms for a hug.

Although it certainly would have been satisfying to notch at least one victory, I’ll gladly settle for winning a few pint-sized friends.

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In the end, most of the youngsters had such a kick just suiting up, and took such pride in seeing their game improve, that our 0-14 record never really sunk in, as it did with a few near-mutinous parents.

As proof, take first baseman Evan Reiner’s proclamation moments before the season finale. “If we win today,” he informed his dad, coach Jeff, “we’ll make the playoffs.”

There’s always next year, Evan, and many more to come.


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