The Little Things and the Big Thing About Baseball

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By Chris Potts

From the Spring 2010 Caller

The argument that “baseball is a game of little things” is, to me, unassailable, as is the philosophy that high school sports should be used as vehicles to teach students lessons that can carry them through the rest of their lives. Holding these truths in tandem, you quickly realize that the avenue to reach these larger lessons is to build a cohesive team, a community of ballplayers. Unfortunately, there’s no handbook for this, there’s no one way to do it. Just like baseball, it’s putting all of the little things together in the right way.

When I interviewed for this job, I was told, “Baseball at Catlin Gabel is on life support.” But when I first met the team, I realized that they were a great group of young players who needed somebody to give them some discipline, some foundation.

We’re not a winning program. In my five years at Catlin Gabel, we’ve lost many more games than we’ve won. It’s not even close. I would argue, however, that we’re an extremely successful program. Each year, this group of students comes together. We’ve grown in numbers every year. Our baseball team is an inclusive and incredible, albeit unique, community.

What follows isn’t that elusive handbook for team-building. It’s a look at a few of the little things that we’ve done together.

Each year I choose a theme around which to build our team mentality. The theme for our first year was “Building Something We Can Be Proud Of.”
 When we won our first game, I worried that our players were so excited that they’d offend the other team. Then again, when you haven’t won a baseball game your entire high school career, wouldn’t you jump up and down and scream when you got your first “W?”
 
February 26—Manhood—Outside the gym, after practice, I pull one of the new players aside. He’s been struggling this week. He’s a good player (we’d say, “he’s got a lot of upside”), but we need to rebuild some of his fundamentals. He’s also never had to work this hard, physically, ever.
 
There’s a big transition between middle school sports and high school varsity athletics. We’ll be playing against 200-pound gorillas looking to play in college. Wrestlers. Linebackers. The kid I’m talking to is 14 and could probably make the scale hit 140 if I handed him a 20-pound dumbbell.
 
We do a lot of physical conditioning. The younger players typically take some time to adjust. During this physical adjustment period, the boy I’m talking with has lost all accuracy with his throwing. We’d say “he couldn’t hit the ground if he dropped the ball.” I’ve been playing catch with him during warm-ups to protect the other players. I’ve seen tears well up in his eyes during three of these first four practices. Time for a chat.
 
At one point in the conversation, I say, “This is why I love baseball, because you can learn lessons through the sport that you can apply to the rest of your life. Right now you need to learn to make the adjustment from 8th grade baseball to high school baseball. Just like how you’re making the transition from 8th grade academics to high school academics. In both things you’re going to have to get tough, you’re going to have to work harder than you’ve ever had to before and you’re going to have to learn to control your emotions. I think you can do it.”
 
I do think he can do it. I need a #3 starter.
During my second year, the theme was “Playing the Game with Class.”
March 1—Playing in the Mud—It’s still a little wet to be using the whole field, but we need to put in defense and relays as soon as possible. The first game is two weeks away. The field is still holding too much water.
 
The players circle around the third base cutout, and we talk about the geography of our field. There are three layers. First, there’s the soil underneath everything. That’s what the grass grows out of. Surrounding the bases, there’s a layer of clay that builds the foundation for the cutouts. On top of that is a top-dressing. I explain to the players that this stuff is baked at like 5,000 degrees so that it becomes porous and can absorb three times its weight in water. This, I believe, is the science portion of baseball.
 
We squat around the perimeter of the cutout, grabbing chunks of clay that we’ve churned up during defense and conditioning, and rolling them into balls. When we’ve grabbed the biggest chucks, I have the players throw them so that I can lay them out for one of my captains to tamp back into the clay foundation.
 
One of the sophomores says, “I get to throw mud at my baseball coach.” I’m not too fond of how this sounds, but I don’t think I can argue with him.
The theme of my third year was “Learning to be Competitive.”
We drive a long way to get to some of the games. To the Pacific Ocean, literally. The team was shocked when I instituted the no-headphones, noelectronics, human-interaction-only rule. “Why can’t we listen to our iPods?” The answer was no.
 
In deference to my totalitarianism, a group of students began singing on the bus rides home. They got very into it, going so far as to print out lyrics.
 
It was awful: adolescent boys screeching the lyrics to Britney Spears, NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys. It was an assault on human musical aesthetics. It was the sound of my group of boys coming together. It was music to my ears.
 
The dynamics always change after our first road trip.
During my fourth year, our theme was “Working as a Team.”
Close to the deadline for this article, I get an email from a former player. He’s hoping to be in town and catch the end of a Friday double-header. I want him to come to the game, to cheer us on, and for the younger players to realize that they’re a part of something bigger than the second game of a double-header.
This year’s theme is “Respect for the Game.”
April 26—Heart—An unusually large wet-weather system has rolled in. We’re in the gym, hitting practice balls, tennis balls, softies, and whiffles. We’re looking ahead at the season: 8 tough games in 11 days. The arms are ready. Though we’re having difficulty getting on base, I’m fielding the best defense in my time at Catlin Gabel. We’ve seen each of the teams in our league. We know we’re the underdogs, but there’s a palpable sense that we can put it all together and make a run at the playoffs. I’d say our biggest asset is our cohesiveness. This team is all heart.
Chris Potts is an outdoor education teacher at Catlin Gabel and is in his fifth year as the head baseball coach.