A Little League field (not mine)
Last evening, Jose Valverde had a bad night. Actually he’s had a couple in a row and hasn’t been overly effective the entire season. What Jim Leyland does with him for the rest of the playoffs is unknown to me and last I checked Leyland wasn’t asking for my advice (Dump him, Jimmy). But I can empathize with Valverde. I’ve had bad days too.
Way back when I was in Little League baseball, they played it a bit differently. OK, they still used bats and ball, but the way the leagues were put together was different. Once you were on a team, you were there as long as you were eligible to play at the age level. There was no switching teams every year. That was good if you were on a decent team, bad if you were with a bunch of losers. Also you had four years at a particular age level instead of the current two years. The levels where I grew up were 6 year olds played t-ball, 7-10 were the next level, and 11-14 were the old guys. Basically, you spent the first year on a team as a scrub unless you were very good, started getting significant playing time your second season, then did most of the starting your last two years. Me? I could run and could catch most balls so I spent the first two seasons of the 11-14 league as the center fielder. Then it was over to first base for the final two years.
I was usually the leadoff hitter. I was quick enough, but mostly I had a good batting eye. I almost never struck out, had a good on base percentage (which is a stat I’d never heard about), and could swipe second and third with the best of them. We did well, coming in second or first all four years. But there was this one day I had my Valverde moment.
I was 12, we were the visitors, and I led off sure I could get on base against this kid who was pitching for the other team. We’d faced him before and I’d done well. I don’t remember the exact stat line, but I know I had hit off him. So up I came, Mr Confident. He tossed three balls right over the plate, I took one for a strike and swung and missed the other two. Out one. OK, it wasn’t a great way to start a game, but I would have other chances.
The problem was that for the next eight batters I was the only out. My teammates smoked the guy. We got six runs off him. So there were two men on base when I came up again. Here was the first of the other chances and by God, I wasn’t going to go down on strikes this time. So I swung at the first pitch, knocked it on a line right back to the pitcher for out number two. Fortunately the two guys on base were alert and neither was doubled up to end the inning.
Well, that was bad, but the inning was still alive. So my teammates teed off again, plating 8 more runs. With a runner on first, here I came again, your number one first class designated rally killer. The first pitch was a swinging strike. It was over for me. I took the next two, not really looking at them. So the inning ended with 14 runs, a ton of hits, a few walks, an error or two, and three outs by the leadoff hitter, me.
I ended up back in the dugout. I have no memory of actually walking over there, but my guess is I wasn’t carried. My coach? He was a genius. He immediately pulled me from the game. I was in such shock that I was of no use in either the field or at bat (at least the latter was sure). Odds are I would have stood in center field in utter shock and let God knows how many balls go over my head, to my left, or to my right without even moving. So I sat in the dugout for the rest of the game not really paying attention (we won on a mercy rule in four innings, I think). I was absolutely and completely sure that my world had just ended.
I got over it. We had a good season (finishing second), I continued to leadoff and never again made two, let alone three, outs in the same inning for the rest of the season. And more importantly, it didn’t hurt me. I grew up, got married to a wonderful woman, had a son, have grandchildren, and have frankly had a pretty successful life, even if I did make all three outs in one inning.
By the time my son started Little League they had changed the rule, limiting each team to a maximum of five runs per inning (it was a local rule, not a Little League sanctioned rule) which meant you could have a maximum of 10 batters an inning (five runs, three men on, two outs or four runs, three men on, three outs). That meant out of nine batters no one could make more than two outs in an inning. I used my three outs in one inning to remind players that they couldn’t, no matter how hard they tried, do worse in an inning than I did. It seemed to help some of them. It certainly got a few good giggles.
So if you’re ever coaching Little League (or managing Jose Valverde in the Majors) and one of your players screw up royally, feel free to use my story. Maybe it’ll help some kid. At least it should get you some laughs.