Just How Important Is Good Coaching in Little League and the MLB?
“Go! Go! Go!”
Those are the two phrases that most Little Leaguers hear from their first and third base coaches respectively when they attempt to steal a base.
Then generally, if the Little Leaguer is called out, one or both coaches take responsibility and apologize to the kid, and if they are safe, the coach gives their usual “great job kid!”
The great Giants centerfielder Willie Mays once said, “Youngsters of Little League can survive under-coaching a lot better than over-coaching.”
Well what about Major Leaguers?
As we approach the start of spring training, I believe we should take a look at a couple of the more overlooked coaches in baseball unless they make a mistake...the first and third base coaches.
Aside from the ordeal that was the death of Tulsa Drillers first base coach Mike Coolbaugh which prompted the creation of the helmet rule, we haven’t heard all that much about the coaches waving their arms widely to signal runners toward home.
We all know the responsibilities of the third base coach. They are the eyes for base runners coming around second and third whose back is facing the play, however the position as a whole is often well overlooked.
We typically only talk about the third base coach when he is in a bad position where the runner can not see him, or worse is in the base path and actually makes contact with a runner.
There is also the occasion when the coach makes a bad judgment and gets a runner thrown out at third or home. Otherwise, we hardly talk about a third base coach.
As for the first base coach, we almost never hear about him. Occasionally when there is a close play that goes against the runner, the first base coach may get upset and argue with the umpire.
However other than that, they are usually just the person holding a player or manager back to prevent an ejection.
Thus what is often lost in the hustle and bustle of 162 baseball games is how important both coaches are to a team’s offense.
The first base coach’s responsibility is not necessarily to hold back players from getting ejected (although I suppose it is good that they do).
However they must interpret signs from the third base coach in the event that the runner does not notice, as well as help remind runners the situation that is in front of them.
Both the first and third base coaches need to be on the same page with each other and the dugout, and they need to be paying close attention to every situation as it approaches, often times planning ahead two or three batters.
I will admit that when it comes to the first and third base coaches in the major leagues, I too often overlook them (unless again, someone makes an error in judgment).
To take the Mets as my example, many people knew that Razor Shines was their third base coach by mid season, mostly because of a few poor decisions in sending runners, but also because he actually had his own personality that he displayed to the fans.
Does anyone know who the first base coach was last season? Does the name Luis Alicea ring any bells to Mets Fans?
If you knew that one, how about from the 2008 season? In fact the Mets had two first base coaches in 2008. Tom Nieto began the year at the position, however was then replaced by Ken Oberkfell after Willie Randolph was fired as the team manager.
My point is that often times we as fans do not even know who is coaching first or third base for our favorite team, and we should take more of an appreciation of it because a good coach on both sidelines can really help turn more singles into doubles, doubles into triples, and the overall base running of a team better.
Now let us shift gears back to the little league baseball diamond. I have been a little league umpire for the last six years, and I’ve seen the type of coaching (or lack there of) that goes on.
In general, the third base coaching duty is taken by the manager of the team, who has developed basic signs with his youngsters for when he wants them to steal a base, take a pitch, swing away, or bunt.
The first base coach in Little League is responsible for doing one thing, and that is telling the runner to go after the ball crosses the plate when the runner is allowed to steal.
This is usually done by the dad who wants to help with the team but does not want to keep track of the score book.
In some cases, we even see teammates down the first base line.
My problem with this is that it is not even under-coaching if there is a child or adult coaching first base. My problem with it is that there is no attempt to teach kids how to observe their third base coach for the signs, or learn to steal, or read a pickoff move once they get to the age where they can lead.
There is no learning. While some kids have the brains to pick it up as they get older, some do not, and those are the ones who could have all the talent in the world and not be able to go anywhere because they aren’t taught how to play the game properly.
This situation leads to a guy like Angel Pagan of the Mets, who last year showed he can drive the ball, hit the occasional home run, play good defense, but he can not run the bases.
While some of the responsibility falls on the player, the coaching these players receive prior and during the games from their coaches down the lines needs to address the problems.
In fact, I’m sure if you could go back in time to when Angel was a young Little Leaguer, you would see that he had no real first or third base coach to help him learn how to steal a base, where your feet should be when rounding the bag, and even how to tag up on a sacrifice fly.
Now I’m not attacking every little league coach in America, because there are plenty who do put in the time and effort to try and teach the game, and even though many of the players they tutor do not go anywhere in the minor or major leagues, they have a better understanding and love for the game that I believe many players currently in the big leagues lack.
Now I’d like to take a look at one of those previously mentioned signs in particular, the “take a pitch.”
Pitching legend Robin Roberts once said, “Generally in the Little League you’re up against a good pitcher who throws like hell. What does the coach say? Get a walk. Isn’t that a beautiful way to learn to hit? For four years you stand up there looking for a walk.”
This could not be more truthful. I can remember from my days of playing (being a short left handed speedster), and from watching the coaches as I umpire. This is where the “over-managing” that Willie Mays was talking about comes in.
Little League is supposed to be about learning to play the game of baseball.
There are clinics that begin as early as February where volunteers go over the fundamentals of fielding and hitting, and occasionally some pitching. The younger children play with different rules that allow for them to make mistakes without slowing the game down too much or costing their team the chance to play the game properly.
So why then were we always told to crouch down really low and crowd the plate when we were facing a pitcher who threw gas? How are we going to learn to hit if we are looking for a walk?
The reality is that the coaches (who are usually volunteer dads) want to win the game.
Far too many coaches over-manage which causes the children that play for them to pick up poor habits that inhibit their development as a baseball player. Perhaps the worst part about all this is that the kids who are usually told to take the pitch are the ones who “can’t hit.”
Most of the coaches do not want to take the time to properly teach and prepare Little Leaguers to play the game of baseball, rather they want to make sure that those who have the “most visible talent” excel so they can move on to try and get to pro ball, while the rest of the kids are just there to help the coach fulfill his dream of winning that Little League World Series that he did not win when he was a kid.
The hierarchy that exists in Little League Baseball is one that I personally find to be extremely distasteful and upsetting. Although I do not want to call anyone out from my own little league, most will notice that the coaches who are volunteer dads will favor their son and his friends who are “better” than the other kids, even if it is not necessarily true.
Now I’m not suggesting we start treating kids like they all have the potential to make it the majors, because let’s face it, with the increased globalization of the game and the fact that the vast majority of young children in the United States want to play in the big leagues, the chances are not good of going anywhere other than the Junior and Senior Leagues.
What should be happening is that coaches in little league take the time to teach the game of baseball to America’s youth, and instead of over-managing to a point where some kids are turned away from the sport, get everyone into a comfort zone where they can try their hardest and continue to love the great game that is baseball.
Let us now jump back to the majors.
Spring training is a time for everyone to get loose and prepare for the marathon that is a Major League Baseball season.
Some teams will bring in guest instructors who are supposed to help the younger guys learn the little things that may be the difference between them being a superstar or a nobody.
For example when Rickey Henderson came to the Mets’ spring training complex in 2006 as a special instructor, he came to offer advice to Jose Reyes and the rest of the team become better runners.
The year prior, a total of 12 Mets players stole a combined 157 bases. In 2006, when Rickey came to help out, 19 players stole a total of 157. The year 2007 saw 18 Mets steal 202 bases. Finally, in 2008, the year Henderson left, only 16 Mets players stole a combined 138 bases.
Now part of the reason for the stolen base total dropped so drastically was the different mentality after the regime change, however the point is that the Mets did become a different team without Henderson and Willie Randolph.
To a degree, bringing in Henderson worked.
The Mets have made a commitment over the last few years to run more, and they have.
Now, although both the 2005 and 2006 teams stole an equal number of bases, the important thing to remember is that the 2006 team was an arguably an overall slower team than 2005. The important piece to take away is that seven more players stole a base again on an again, slower team.
However there is not enough of this extra tutoring going on in the Major or Minor Leagues.
To stick with the Mets organization, this year, they will have a number of former Major Leaguers managing its Minor League clubs, including Wally Backman, Tim Teufel, and Gary Carter.
While everyone (including myself) have griped about the overall horrid state of the Mets farm system, I would be willing to bet that if the previously mentioned men make an effort to teach, the Mets young players will become better, not more talented, but better baseball players.
That is another thing that is lost in the game today. All of these MLB players are fantastic athletes, perhaps the greatest athletes to ever play the game, but they for the most part are not baseball players.
The basic nuances of baseball are not handled like they should be. It always amazes me how guys can not put a bunt down or read a pitcher’s pick off move, or think where they are going to go with the ball when in the field.
I think it does give us a better appreciation for the players like Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, David Wright, among others. They play the game the way it is meant to be played, meaning they play smart baseball.
Thus as we approach what I think will be a very exciting 2010 season, we should keep in mind just how important good coaching is at all levels, at all coaching positions, and how the really great thing about baseball is that even if you are not the best athlete, you can excel by playing the game the right way.
So as the 2010 season approaches, let us all remember how valuable good coaching can be with a team that has talent, and that the younger you are, the more impressionable you are, which can lead to bad habits without the proper tutelage.
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