Ah, summer! It’s that time of year when young men’s minds turn to the whack of horsehide on ash. Bat on ball. Mandible-straining wads of bubble gum. Colorful uniforms. OK, I’m talking very young men. I’m talking T-ball.
And very young women too. I’ve coached some T-ball, and the best T-ball player I ever had was a girl named Misty. She once made an unassisted triple play. She had a great stick too. I was in awe of Misty. She probably has a couple kids by now.
And, OK, I’m not really talking about horsehide on ash. I’m talking aluminum on sponge. The wooden bat is an anachronism. The ball used in T-ball is often referred to as a “rag ball,” meaning it has a cloth exterior and is slightly malleable. The rag ball is a necessity because the authentic article — the tightly stitched real baseball — will leave a bruise. Pain is anathema to a wholesome formative experience. A well-struck rag ball will still draw wails from a T-baller, though the victim invariably is more startled than hurt.
T-ball derives its name from the “tee” — a rubber pedestal on which the rag ball is placed. Players swing at the stationary ball, attempting to put it in play. This is not as simple as it sounds, especially when your field of vision is the earhole of an oversize helmet. No pitching allowed, because very few T-ball players can throw. Or hit. Or catch. Or tie their shoes.
I once viewed T-ball as a perversion of the great American pastime, something undoubtedly conceived a generation ago by Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo. They were bent on liquefying the spine of Western civilization. (The West retaliated with cell phones and designer blue jeans.)
I no longer believe T-ball is a sacrilege, because T-ball is about the greatest entertainment one can find for free. It also teaches tykes about sportsmanship, teamwork, where the bases are, sand sculpture and, most important, what jerks adults can be.
For the uninitiated, I’m pleased to offer this T-ball primer.
Let’s start with defense. The only players who can field or throw with anything approaching proficiency play in the pitcher’s spot, and at first base. At least 80 percent of the putouts in T-ball are made by this combo. Frequently, the pitcher will field a grounder and simply run the batter down as he or she totters obliviously toward first like a doomed wildebeest on the veldt. Well, runners usually head toward first. Sometimes it’s third. In any case, the unassisted pitcher putout obviates the problematic “throw.”
When your team is in the field, nobody is left on the bench. That would create a liability problem. All players — as many as 15 — are dispatched to the field en masse. Adult “coaches” are sprinkled in among the defenders as designated screamers. Kids assume heretofore unknown positions, such as left-of-left-center fielder, far-right fielder, midfielder, longstop, etc. This constellation of tiny bodies greatly increases the odds that a batted ball will be stopped — provided it strikes a fielder, who is generally waving at his or her mother, or creating a gravel scale model of the pyramids at Chichén Itzá.
There’s a refreshing degree of anarchy in T-ball. Once a ball is put in play, defensive positions become afterthoughts. Most players who recognize that the ball actually is in play scurry after the rolling orb and will stop at nothing, including knocking over hapless teammates, to get it. But simply grasping the ball is only half the battle. The fielder must then keep it from being stolen by a teammate determined to be the one to throw it toward the now-vacant infield. Thus, “takedown” and “the takeaway” are terms that have become common to T-ball.
Only the most skilled T-ball defenses ever get three outs in an inning, or even an entire game. A half-inning usually ends when all of one team’s batters have batted, or when a certain number of runs — say, eight or 10 — have scored.
On offense, strikeouts are not unheard of. The best coaching instruction is “Hit the ball.”
Teaching kids to run the bases is a daunting challenge. True story: During a practice, a T-ball coach instructed a wayward batter to run and stand on first base. Hit the ball, run to that base and only that base, the child was sternly told. The team’s next game was played on an adjoining field. Our star pupil smacked the ball, then sprinted past the pitcher and across center field to the neighboring diamond, where he dutifully stood on first.
Perhaps 10 percent of the players grasp the concept of force-outs during the course of a season. Such abstractions as “tagging up” are pretty much out of their league, if you’ll pardon the pun. But then, tagging up isn’t necessary unless a batted ball is caught on the fly — something that occurs with the frequency of eclipses.
Many T-ball leagues discourage sliding. I always encouraged players to slide, even if they were simply running to the snack bar for the vital post-game treat. Spontaneous sliding is good for the soul.
I sincerely hope that this brief orientation will enhance your T-ball viewing experience. By all means, take in a game at a diamond near you. Take a lawn chair, sunscreen, something to drink. Acid helps too.