This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The baseball coach for my nine-year-old twins’ team is a middle aged Italian man named Tony Z. It never occurred to me that Denzel Washington sounded Italian. But I swear when Coach Z addresses the kids it sounds just like Denzel Washington over-acting some scene on a submarine where the bad guys are about to explode a nuclear bomb. Only this bad guy is trying to steal second, and the catcher isn’t paying attention. This is our first year under Coach Z. I am impressed with him now, but I had my doubts when we got started. He doesn’t talk at children like lots of adults do. You know those adults who fire this verbal stream of constant information at kids and hope half of it sticks? Not Coach Z. He asks lots of rhetorical questions, then gets frustrated when the kids try to answer them. For example, he might say, “Why you want to hit the ball over there?” Then the kid will say, “Well, I was trying to---.” And Coach Z will say, “No, I’m saying to you, why you want to hit the ball over there?” Luckily children are quick to adapt and they learned that when Coach Z asked them a question, he usually didn’t want an answer. It was just his way of telling them to stop what they were doing. Suffice it to say, Coach Z is systematic with his coaching and his information dispensing. It can make for a long practice.
Until this year, the coaches always pitched to the players. Now the players get to pitch. Coach Z let every kid on the team try out for pitcher. Both of my twins wanted to try out. Jacks went first. Jacks is methodical. Instinctive. A natural competitor. His tryout went as expected. Strike. Strike. Strike. Pitch after pitch. The coach would stop him. Correct something he was doing wrong. He’d listen, nod. Strike. Strike. Strike. There wasn’t much pepper on the ball. But Jacks was accurate, and the coach marveled at how well he took instruction. Now it was Wilkins turn. One of the assistant coaches was working with the catcher while the pitchers were trying out. He was standing about four feet to the left of the catcher. I thought about warning him. I didn’t. So Wilkins did some kind of crazy wind up where his leg went back over his shoulder, then came over the top with a big windmill delivery and fired a fastball at this coach’s head. “Kid, what the hell are you doing?” the assistant coach muttered as he picked himself up out of the dirt. Wilkins didn’t say anything, but he did give this coach, at least forty years his senior, that universal gesture with both hands up that signifies “bring it on”. Like maybe the assistant coach was considering whether to charge the mound. I’m pretty sure Wilkins picked up the signal while watching Sports Center. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only gesture he learned.
To Coach Z’s credit, he didn’t give up on Wilkins’ pitching career right away. That’s because Wilkins is big, and he’s left handed. Or, as Wilkins likes to describe himself, he’s a southpaw. So Coach Z took a good bit of time explaining the fundamentals and finer points of the wind up and pitching motion to Wilkins. And Wilkins would nod the whole time, but not really listen. He already had another ball in his hand and he wanted another shot at that catcher’s mitt. Finally, Coach Z pointed at the plate and Wilkins let it fly. The second pitch was high, skyscraper height, but it was in the general direction of the catcher. Coach Z was pleased, and instructed Wilkins through more rhetorical questions while Wilkins nodded and pretended to take note. This went on for a while, wild pitch, questions, wild pitch, questions, and Wilkins slowly zeroed in on the catcher until he found a way of throwing strikes. In truth, I was surprised Wilkins hung with it as long as he did. I have always worried that the game of baseball was a little slow for this kid. But then again, this was pitching. And a pitcher’s mound might as well be a stage. Wilkins is one of the team’s main pitchers now, and he has done fine. I’m not sure Coach Z’s pointers made much of a difference. Wilkins’ windup is all elbows and knees at weird angles, the type of body contortions that cannot inspire confidence in the batter. Then he’ll fire the ball toward the plate. Notice I said toward the plate. He is accurate with three out of four pitches. The fourth? That’s anyone’s guess. I’ve almost convinced myself this wild fourth pitch
is about boredom or drama. At this age, a lot of the kids can’t hit the ball, so there are plenty of walks and strikeouts. I’m beginning to wonder if Wilkins doesn’t just fire one at somebody’s head just to liven things up. Well, no opponent is digging in against him. At least the batters he pegs recover quickly enough. They’re wearing helmets fit for combat, which the ball just plunks off of, sounding like a collision with a hollow coconut. His wild pitches have also hit legs and arms, and after a little shaking those appendages seem to work just fine once again. On his first trip to the mound in a game Wilkins was so excited he could barely be bothered to wind up. His first pitch bounced across the plate. The second one thudded into the batter’s back, right between the shoulder blades. The whole crowd cringed as the batter sunk to his knees and tried to breathe. To his credit, Wilkins struck out the next batter, then did something with his hands. Then he struck out the next batter and did it again. It was a gesture around his chest, then pointing or something? It took me a second to figure out what he was doing. Then I was mortified. My son was crossing himself. He was thanking God for each and every strikeout. We’re Methodist. We live in a Catholic rich parish in Louisiana. After each strikeout, and occasionally after each pitch, my son was crossing himself on the pitcher’s mound, then kissing his first two fingers before giving the skies a little two finger point. Like a high-five to God. Like a “Yo big dog, here’s a little bump for the K,” kind of thing.
The problem was he was striking out plenty of batters. Some of them were swinging at strikes. And some of them were swinging at wild pitches in self defense. And some of them were swinging so they could hurry up and get back to the safety of the dugout. When Wilkins got back to the dugout, I informed him that the crossing and gesturing at God needed to stop. “You think God doesn’t like baseball?” Wilkins asked. “I think God doesn’t want credit for your throwing motion. Now knock it out.” At least we don’t have to worry about Wilkins hitting any of the batters in the nuts. In addition to this being our first year of pitching, this is also the first year where protective gear for the crotch is required. No cup checks are necessary with this bunch. Not a one of them. You’ve got to wonder what these parents were thinking when they went to buy the protective cups. Was it the mother, and she was saying to herself, “It might hurt his little penis to cram it inside something so small?” Or was it the dad inspecting the writing on the package before making his selection? “Damn if my kid wears a freaking SMALL cup! I’m going with a medium. Aw, hell, I’m getting the youth extra-large, gotta give the boy some growing room.” Or perhaps the players were wearing pants that were too tight. I don’t know, but they looked ridiculous. They walked funny. Like John Wayne with hemorrhoids. It was uncomfortable just to watch. We looked like a team of midget porn stars.
And the worst part was that the cups were obviously bothering them and the kids were not the least bit self conscious about trying to fix it. So in addition to a non Catholic pitcher crossing himself and giving God the props after each strikeout, our entire infield frequently and demonstratively adjusted themselves. The way they would all squirm and pull and tug on their bulging crotches made it look like the entire team rescued turtles that were trying to cross a busy road, and then stuffed them down their pants. It has been said that baseball is America’s game. After watching one extremely deliberate Italian American coach, and eleven adjusting, shifting, crotch grabbing kids, I would concur.