On My Side Of The Mountain

By Lee Cropp

When the doldrums of a hot, heavy summer set in, a lethargy wraps around each of us. This is frequently compounded by the biannual events of even-numbered years. We average human beings soon reach the level where nothing is worth the effort.

This year, at times, it has even been almost too hot to sweat (or perspire for those of you who do not sweat). Yet, as I learned this summer, there are things out there that make life really worth the effort. Thanks to my grandson I discovered the real “Boys (and girls) Of Summer.” I became intimately introduced to T-Ball.

T-Ball is the minor minor league version of Little League. It resembles baseball in a surrealistic way, unless you’re a 5 to 7 year-old. The field looks like a baseball field with a home plate, three bases, and an outfield; there are the same number of playing positions with the same labels — pitcher, catcher, infielders, and outfielders. However, there are important changes that allow kids to play the game with the abandon and imagination of their age. This, of course, leads to situations that are not exactly what the coaches had in mind while teaching their young charges at practice.

The most obvious change is, of course, the Tee. Probably named after the golf tee, it performs the same function, raising the ball off the ground to the optimum height to be hit in a meaningful way by the respective player; 300 yards straight down the fairway by the golfer or just over the second base by the budding T-baller. In the latter the Tee raises the ball to about waist height. Since the height of the batter’s waist varies widely, the Tee is adjustable. Of course, many of the mothers in the bleachers wish their offsprings’ waist was adjustable in height. What a potential money saver for buying clothes.

Most of the other changes, modifying the game for the K thru 2 scholars, appear to vary from area to area. At least so it seemed to me when I cruised the Net looking for a national T-Ball organization with standard rules. I could not find a national set of rules, but there appeared to be a set for every section of our county that plays baseball. I don’t think that eliminates anybody. Each set seems to be unique, tailored to needs of a particular region, and, one suspects, to a unique group of players. So the rules that I watched my grandson play under were created by the league, team coaches, and probably parents. Democracy, at its purest, being used at a level where it is needed and will work.

This particular T-Ball League of South Lincoln County had one distinction which I suspect was unique in all the T-Ball leagues throughout the United States, if not more. It was made up of only 5-year-olds. A mixed blessing: they did not have to compete against players a year or two older, which can make a big difference at this age; on the other hand, they didn’t have near-age role models that had played the game before.

Other rules and regulations, which may be as unique, are the real pitcher was a coach of the team batting. The batter got 5 strikes, including foul balls, then out came the Tee. Now he, or she, got three more strikes, which were usually not all used. The catcher plays in the normal position, backed up by another coach. The pitcher plays in roughly the usual position. But rather than a mound there is a big circle. After the ball is hit fairly, it could be thrown to the pitcher, in the circle, and all base runners had to return to the nearest base. The infielders play on the edge of the grass extending to the infield. The outfielders play on the edge of the grass extending to the outfield. From the bleachers the view appears to be a solid rank of warriors, shoulder-to-shoulder. There are also coaches near first and third base. The distance between bases is 45 feet. The game lasts 3 innings, or two hours, whichever came first. An inning was 3 outs, or 5 runs, also whichever came first.

Now for a short play-by-play. After the catcher struggles into the “tools of ignorance,” the first batter starts to the plate with dedication and a batting helmet on his head. Halfway there he is stopped by a panting, pursuing Dugout Mom with his batting helmet in hand. Making a helmet exchange, she retreats. In the field the first baseman and right fielder, who are practically shoulder to shoulder, are showing their dedication. The first baseman is drawing geometric figures in the dirt; the right fielder is gazing intently beyond the clouds. Obviously a future artist and space scientist. A word or two from the coaches returns the players to the present.

Now the coach prepares to pitch. He raises the ball to nose level and lobs it (the ball not the nose) towards the batter. It is an interesting object lesson in time and space. The coach, based on what the batter did in the past, attempts to place the ball where the bat was going to be swung in the present. It works out sometimes, but there sure are a lot of variables. After a strike and two foul balls, the batter and coach connect, and the ball is hit sharply (in 5 year-old terms) towards the shortstop, who is immediately assisted by the third baseman and the left fielder. The shortstop blocks the ball with his glove. After a brief discussion, which only 5 year-olds would understand, the left fielder picks up the ball and throws to first base. After a slow start, the batter, who had to be reassured by his coach that the ball is fair and he could run, decides to play it safe and slide into first base. The ball hops into right field, chased by everybody on that side of the diamond, except the pitcher. She is suffering a moment of indecision. The second basewoman (in this case) comes up with the ball after a brief struggle with the right fielder. As the runner runs hard towards second, the coaches’ impassioned pleas begin to register; the pitcher returns to the circle; and the ball is lobbed and rolled to her. The runner is stopped on third base. During all of this, there is a swelling counterpoint of instructions from the parents, which usually bear no relationship to the desires of the coaches.

As the next batter comes to the plate, a fielder trots towards the gate. There, met by the germane mother, the duo move swiftly towards the concession stand with its restrooms. In due time the player returns to the field and the game, which hasn’t even taken a deep breath while he was gone.

In the meantime, using his second swing at the ball on the Tee, the batter hits a hard bounder towards third base. The third baseman charges, as he was painstakingly taught to do, waving his glove. By pure coincidence, the trajectories of the ball as it hops along and the waving glove intersect. The third baseman stops and stares with something more than surprise and less than amazement–there is a ball in his glove. This unexpected event has chased from his head every word of instruction the coach has ever given him. What does he do next? Eventually, the pleading voice of the coach penetrates, the third baseman runs towards third base and the runner, trying to stretch it into a triple, is tagged out.

The game goes on, enliving the existence of parents and grandparents, giving us a purpose during this summer. Giving us hope for the future, both theirs and ours. The most important thing is that we have been given a glimpse into the world of 5-year-olds. It is a beautiful thing with innocence, hope, and knowing what is the really important thing RIGHT NOW. If they can keep even a mustard seed of this as they mature, there will be a better world out there. And they will, if we will just quit screaming contradictions to the coach.