Let me tell you a story.
As you may know from reading this column, one of the things I do is manage a Little League team. Not T-ball, like I used to do, with the tiny boys and girls; but Juniors, the level for 13- and 14-year-old boys.
Junior level Little League represents a major, and sometimes insurmountable, jump for kids, as it is the first level played on the full-sized baseball field -- 90 feet to first base, 60 feet 6 inches to the mound -- as well as lead-offs, pick-offs, curve balls, etc. Only the slightly shorter fences (300 feet) distinguish a Junior field from that found in any Major League baseball park.
Adding to the challenge is the enormous physical and psychological changes boys at this level go through during the course of two years. Last year's 13-year-olds were children -- few were much taller than 5 feet, with squeaky voices, sullen junior high school attitudes, and, distressingly for the better athletes, most could barely make the throw across the infield to first base without bouncing the ball.
This year, the same kids, now 14, showed up with that uniquely stretched look of newly minted adolescents, deep voices, the first wisps of moustaches and zits, and girlfriends sitting in the stands. They threw rockets across the infield, broke up double plays and picked off runners at second base. My jaw dropped during one practice when my centerfielder casually uncorked a 250-foot strike to home plate.
But the most impressive, and memorable, change was in the attitudes of the kids. Covering the spectrum of class, personality, talent and experience, they were not a naturally compatible group -- and last year that led to a number of arguments, a few thrown fists and a lot of razzing of each others' performance. This year began the same way -- and not surprisingly, that lack of cohesion in the dugout led to an equivalent lack of teamwork on the field … and in the first half of the season we lost a lot of games, often horribly.
Then something amazing happened. We were playing a very good team, and we had somehow managed to take a two-run lead by the end of the sixth inning of the regulation seven inning game. But, in the top of the seventh, the other team not only tied us, but went ahead by three runs.
In keeping with the pattern of the season, my team should have folded: three quick outs, pack their gear and slip out into the night. Instead, they finally found themselves as a team. They talked to each other, cheered each other on, fought their way back.
And they won.
They were a different team from that day on: focused, self-assured, supportive of one another. Every kid who struck out returned to the dugout with information about the pitcher's strengths and weaknesses. The infielders talked to each other about different play scenarios; and they backed each other up when the ball was hit. The catcher kept up the pitcher's morale when the latter started to fade. And the kids even came out to the field early, just to put in extra warm-up time.
They won nine out of the last 10 games, often beating teams that had slaughtered us early in the season. Once, when they were behind in the late innings, one of my players walked over to me and said, "Don't worry, coach, we'll come back." And they did.