JOHN SHIELDS

Writer, Humorist,
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A LOT OF BALLS

One More Coach and They’d Have a Starting Lineup  by John Shields | August 17, 2005

A photograph in Saturday’s daily struck me.  With several large guys standing, and standing out, in the back row, I thought at first it was a picture of some over-30 team that’d won its church league softball championship.
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When Hitting Instruction Isn’t Part of the Job Description  by John Shields | July 21, 2005

As a baseball coach, I struggle to express how strongly I feel about having Mark Downs Jr. of Dunbar, Fayette County as a fellow member of our great sport’s coaching fraternity.
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Volunteering for the Chain Gang  by John Shields | June 9, 2004

Today in the suburbs, Johnny, age 11 and the youngest of my three children, asked if we could replace our basketball net with a chain one. 
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Questionable Reporting on the Fly by John Shields | June 16, 2004

When Gazette columnist Steve Sherman reported in his otherwise entertaining 5/27 article on the recent New Hope-Solebury Varsity-Alumni baseball game that I’d “booted a few balls in the process” of playing the field, my first impulse was to write a letter to the editor demanding a retraction.
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Lacrosse v. Baseball: No Contest   by John Shields | May 25, 2005

We read almost daily how lacrosse is becoming increasingly popular among today’s youth – at baseball’s expense
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One More Coach and They’d Have a Starting Lineup

A photograph in Saturday’s daily struck me.  With several large guys standing, and standing out, in the back row, I thought at first it was a picture of some over-30 team that’d won its church league softball championship.  But when I looked closer, I saw that there were kids in the photo, too.  Twelve of them.  Their dark uniform jerseys and tiny frames had blended right in with the men’s shirts and girth, so that six of them, at first glance, were invisible.  It was like that kiddie puzzle, the one where you have to find all the animals hidden in the trees.

Turns out it was a youth baseball team in the Doylestown Athletic Association that had won its league championship.  The men in the picture were the coaches – all eight of them.

I know high school teams with 20-man rosters that manage quite successfully with three.

More than one avenue of commentary suggested itself to me on seeing this picture in the paper.

The first thought that came to mind was “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if our classrooms had teacher-to-pupil ratios like that.” 

Then I got to wondering: Why eight coaches, and is this a good thing or a bad thing? 

One might argue that, with the virtual one-to-one attention the players were receiving, skills could be taught and learned more effectively.  On the other hand, one could counter that, instead of the usual two or three, now there were eight players who had to listen to their fathers’ stream of comments and criticisms.  The truism that every coach is hardest on his own is a truism for a reason.

I’d like to think those eight guys put their heads together and came up with a unique approach to coaching.  Maybe their day jobs were so demanding that they had to work out a rotation for running the practices and coaching the games.  Maybe they were proponents of strong coach-player ratios for the reason mentioned above.  On the other hand, maybe they were into having a stacked team, with winning the paramount objective.  I’ve seen far more examples of the latter, sad to say. 

The blurb beneath the photo mentioned that the team “posted an unbeaten record in the Minor League and the league championship.”  That implies a playoff scenario.  In my opinion, holding playoffs at that age is not in the kids’ best interests.  In playoffs, the tone of the contest changes fundamentally from the happy, instructional, participatory atmosphere of the regular season to something altogether more edgy and adult-driven.  Do nine- and ten-year-olds really need that?  But our sports-fixated culture demands that we crown winners, and the practice filters down to ever-younger levels. 

I would not be surprised to learn that the team in the photo also happens to be the travel or tournament team for that age group.  Coaches with aspirations of advancing in the tournament like to have their players playing together as much as possible.  And eight fathers coaching means eight fathers who know the game and who are passionate about it.  Which means that at least eight of those twelve kids in the picture are players. 

If I’m the league president, and I have eight guys telling me they’re interested in coaching, I’m going to, first, jump for joy, and then spread all that talent and dedication around so that more kids will benefit. 

But this is my ingrained cynicism speaking.  The interests of the entire organization and the development of its most skilled players do not have to be mutually exclusive, and in the best-run organizations they’re not.

Still, eight coaches for one team is an anomaly.  I’m thinking Survivor.  I’m thinking alliances.  I’m wondering which one got stuck with the helmets?

 

©2005 John Shields

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When Hitting Instruction Isn’t Part of the Job Description

As a baseball coach, I struggle to express how strongly I feel about having Mark Downs Jr. of Dunbar, Fayette County as a fellow member of our great sport’s coaching fraternity.  Mark is taking some heat these days, but every sport needs young coaches with exciting new strategies for achieving success on the playing field, and, in that respect, Mark’s recent actions transcend anything that’s gone before.

Some youth-sport coaches just go through the motions, but Mark Downs Jr. approaches the business of coaching and molding young, impressionable minds with passion and purpose.  How much passion?  So much that, according to a recent AP press release, he was arrested and charged with paying one of his tee-ball players $25 to hit a mentally disabled teammate in the head with a baseball so that the coach – that would be Mark – wouldn’t have to put the boy in the game.

Tactically, this was a brilliant maneuver in that it would allow Mark to circumvent his league’s rule requiring each player to participate in three innings a game.  Rules like that only tie the hands of creative coaches like Mark Downs Jr. 

Police said the boy was hit in the head and the groin with a baseball just before the game and didn’t play.  For this, local authorities charged Downs with criminal solicitation to commit aggravated assault and corruption of minors.

But wasn’t Mark just fulfilling his role as a skill developer?  After all, isn’t “hitting instruction” a big part of baseball?  And how about throwing accuracy?  Mark must be doing something right.  It’s not easy to aim for the head and the groin and actually hit them.

I do have one concern, however.  It was reported that Mark had two daughters on his tee-ball team, but it was not stated whether one of them was the player to whom he paid the $25.  That would be overstepping some ethical bound, I’d think.  Now we’d be talking nepotism, and nobody likes it when relatives profit by their connection to those in power. 

What a problem it must have been for my fellow coach.  There he was, trying to win the tee-ball championship of his local youth baseball league, and he’s stuck with a mentally disabled player on his team.  Although the boy was eight years old and probably towered over his younger teammates, what tee-ball coach wouldn’t want to shed that baggage?  How could such a player hope to match the fielding, throwing, and baserunning brilliance of the five- and six-year-olds on his team?  If you’ve ever seen a tee-ball game, you know what I mean.  The skill set of tee-ballers is impressive, even to the untrained eye.

Why, I’ve seen some tee-ball outfielders turn cartwheels while the ball’s in play.  Others are able to crane their necks in all directions, even as the ball is coming right at them.  Some are even able to turn their backs on the play taking place in their own game to watch a game going on elsewhere.

But the most impressive are those who have the Zen-like ability to tune out the game entirely, from start to finish.  Now that’s detachment.

But from the mentally disabled child, what was the best that Mark Downs Jr. could expect?  The enjoyment of participating?  A grin a mile wide?  The thrill of catching a ball or getting a hit?  (Not to be confused with getting hit.)

No, that’s not what wins championships. 

Or is it?

Take it from a fellow coach, Mark.  You can’t please everybody.  You do what it takes to win, and if it means hurting the feelings – and, all right, the body – of a child to achieve your ends, so be it.  Ty Cobb took no prisoners, and he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Now you’re headed for the Hall yourself.  The other one.

 

©2005 John Shields

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Volunteering for the Chain Gang

Today in the suburbs, Johnny, age 11 and the youngest of my three children, asked if we could replace our basketball net with a chain one. 

If you’re a person with an affinity for irony, or the city, or both, you’ll appreciate that one.  I grew up in the city – in Swampoodle, to be precise.  Twentieth and Lehigh, across from the old Connie Mack Stadium.  I played a lot of schoolyard basketball, most of it at two locales – Peirce Public School at 23rd and Cambria, and Whittier Playground at 27th and Clearfield, ten blocks from my home.  I didn’t mind the walk to Whittier because the baskets there had chain nets.

The baskets at Peirce, where I did most of my playing, didn’t have nets.  Shooting at a basket with no net makes for a disputatious sporting event:

“That was in.”

“No, it wasn’t; it was under.” 

In, under, over – with no net, they’re all airballs, so what’s the difference.  

But at Whittier…chungh.  When a jumper dropped cleanly through, there was no mistaking the sound.

My friend Tom contends that a chain net ruins a basketball by wearing away the pebbles until you’re left with a smooth ball you can’t control.  I wouldn’t know; I never had a ball good enough to notice it had gone bad.  

At Peirce you were limited to a halfcourt game.  There was no court as such, just two baskets side by side, their backboards bolted directly into the brick wall of the school. One was a foot higher than the other, with the 11-foot basket being the losers’ court. Between them, at one of the doors leading into the building, was a granite landing step.  There were certain fundamental skills you had to master to play the game successfully at Peirce, and caroming off the wall when you drove the lane was prominent among them.  Dribbling up onto the landing to launch a jumper from the corner was another.

Add the absence of nets to such non-traditional court features and you can appreciate how a kid might venture farther afield, as it were, in search of courts where the sound and the word were one: swish.  Chain nets like the ones at Whittier were better than no nets at all, of course, but the Elysian Fields of city basketball courts were those with regulation, white-cord nets.

You cannot prove by me that such places existed.

Oh, once or twice I played at courts where the fossilized strands of what once could have been a real net hung in tatters from the rim.  But the life span of a cord net in the city is about that of a light bulb in the stairway of a housing project.  So, if you were a city kid, you resigned yourself to the fact that never the twine shall you meet.

And that’s one of the reasons you moved to the suburbs first chance you got. 

In the development where I live, the ratio of backboards to kids gives new meaning to the phrase “one-on-one.”  In driveway after driveway, baskets sprout from the ground like fiberglass sunflowers.  Their nets are pristine, nylon 12-mesh, and there’s not a rim that doesn’t have one.  If – not when – they rip, they are…replaced.  Some have E-Z-return flaps attached so little Tyler doesn’t have to fetch the ball after he makes a basket.  Kids shoot at their baskets alone, or in small groups of two or three.  The baskets can be raised or lowered to foster the self-esteem of kids of all sizes, each of whom has a ball with non-eroded pebbles.  They don’t have to fight to hold the court, because they own the court.  In winter, they get to use gyms and play fullcourt games, coached in the fundamentals by fathers who prove the dictum: We teach what we wish to learn.

Johnny knows what chain nets stand for – city ball.  And if he wants some of that to rub off on him, he has my support.  I’ll even refuse to buy him a new ball when the chain’s rubbed this one clean.

 

©2004 John Shields

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Questionable Reporting on the Fly                                                                 

When Gazette columnist Steve Sherman reported in his otherwise entertaining 5/27 article on the recent New Hope-Solebury Varsity-Alumni baseball game that I’d “booted a few balls in the process” of playing the field, my first impulse was to write a letter to the editor demanding a retraction.

Then I realized, hey, I write a column. 

So here’s what really happened. 

Yes, I was playing for my team, since we were short of players, and, yes, I did drop a ball while playing first base.  But where Steve dropped his own ball, metaphorically speaking, was in his missing the nuances, the subtle forces at work, that made the act almost an Herculean achievement. 

Consider this: In the moments leading up to the actual miscatch (I prefer that word to error), I had successfully navigated a task that confounds and – let’s not mince words here – injures lesser athletes than myself.  I’m talking about backpedaling.  Do you know what an act of faith it is for a middle-aged man with cartilage-shredded knees to backpedal on clumpy grass with his neck craned back and his eyes looking up at nothing but sky and a spinning cowhide sphere?  But does Sherman award me any points on the courage meter for that effort?  No. One of the alumni players, himself now aware that his best years are long behind him, recognized the magnitude of this elder’s achievement by telling me, “Hey, you got under it at least.”

How hard is it to catch a popup when you’re into the late innings of the second game of the doubleheader that is your life?  Well, a fellow (old) coach who’d come down with a three-month case of vertigo told me that his neurologist told him the best test for determining if you’ve gotten over the condition is to be able to catch a popup.  “All that vectoring you have to do.”  Yet there I was, backpedaling and vectoring, proving to the world that the only vertigo in my life was the Hitchcock film I have at home on videocassette.  And just about to squeeze that ball for the third out when it hit off the heel of my glove and fell to the ground.

Let’s talk about that glove for a minute.  Do you think I would have dropped that ball had I been properly equipped with a first-baseman’s glove?  No way.  But all I had was my son’s top-of-the-line Wilson A2000 pitcher’s glove.  At 11 ¾ inches from the tip of the middle finger to the bottom of the heel (which is how baseball gloves are measured), it’s no match for a longer first baseman’s mitt.

But, John, you counter, shortstops and second basemen use ten-inch gloves, yet they catch high pops and Texas Leaguers all the time. 

Yeah, well, do they have to worry about coaching the game at the same time?  You try coaching and catching at the same time.  And with no wind blowing.  You see, I had already factored in a right-handed batter’s slice on balls hit to the opposite field.  But my mental calculations didn’t take into consideration the still weather conditions we were experiencing.

Fielders often remark how hard it is to catch a ball in the sun, but there’s an art to catching a ball with the sun to your back as well.  Steve Sherman probably forgot that in his reporting.

So, have we established that the ball I dropped would’ve probably been scored a hit in a real game?  Good.  Now, to correct Steve’s inaccurate description of me booting “a few balls.”  He was obviously mistaking me for someone else (and, by the way, that high throw that got by me was scored an error on the third baseman, or would have been if one of my players had been keeping the scorebook). And, contrary to what Steve reported, I was never in left field, though I’m flattered that he mistook me for the sophomore we had playing there.  I played two innings in right field, where I caught the only ball hit my way.  It was a fly ball I had to run a significant distance in a forward direction to catch, forcefully calling off Pat Moore, my assistant coach, at the last second.  Pat, who reports to me, will attest both to my calling for the ball and to the athleticism of the catch itself, which I made Willie Mays, basket-catch style, though not intentionally.  I am not a showboat.

In two fielding chances, then, I demonstrated an ability to go both backward and forward.  That is statistically significant.

Maybe Steve was confusing me with Donald Becker, the Gazette’s staff photographer, who is six inches shorter and THIRTY YEARS YOUNGER! than I.  Donald, whose name is to Steely Dan as Allen wrenches are to IKEA, was there to take pictures but got conscripted into playing centerfield for our varsity team.  It’s a good thing those baseballs he dropped weren’t camera lenses. 

Rather than focusing on the perfectly justifiable miscues of the New Hope-Solebury baseball coach, who, as I’ve just demonstrated, was probably one of the stars of the game, maybe Steve Sherman should use his writing powers to persuade his paper to hold more infield-outfield practice for its staff.  You never know when they’ll be asked to suit up.

 

©2004 John Shields

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Lacrosse v. Baseball: No Contest

We read almost daily how lacrosse is becoming increasingly popular among today’s youth – at baseball’s expense.  As a baseball man, I’m distressed by this, so I revved up my search engine to marshal some good counter-arguments against this Johnny-come-not-so-lately sport that originated with the Indians.  Over the years, famous literary pieces and comedy routines by the likes of Tom Boswell and George Carlin have explored the contrasts between baseball and football, but I found nothing pitting baseball against lacrosse.

That leaves it to me – baseball coach and writer – to get the balls rolling.  I offer this modest little list.

Herein, then, (with apologies – but not really – to our high school lacrosse team and its coach), The Top Ten Reasons Why Baseball Is Better Than Lacrosse:

10. Unlike lacrosse, baseball is not easily confused with the Los Angeles International Airport.
9. When lacrosse is televised (wherever that is), have you seen any fan in the stands exultantly displaying the foul lacrosse ball he’s caught?
8. Aesthetically, what does a lacrosse field offer us that’s any different from a soccer field?  Both are bland, green rectangles differentiated only by where their circles and lines are painted.  Wait, I forgot the corner flags.
7. Corollary to reason #3: Is there a prettier field of play in all of sport than a baseball diamond at game time?
6. We already have four back-and-forth sports in football, basketball, ice hockey, and soccer.  Who needs a fifth, unless we’re willing to vote one of the others off the island (preferably the one that uses the phrase “Nicely done.”).  If it weren’t for baseball, we’d have no team ballsports that aren’t of the this-end/that-end variety.
5. Only baseball offers the tactile and meditative pleasures each game of lining the batter’s box and grooming the pitcher’s mound.
4. The deception in lacrosse is one-dimensional.  Faked shots, give and go, and backdoor cuts – things that are common to all the back-and-forth sports.  But good baseball deception, with its intricate system of signs and timing plays, is like a master magician’s sleight of hand.  It leaves you wondering: How’d they do that?
3. Has lacrosse yet produced a classic to match the incomparable “Who’s On First?”  What … “Who’s in the Wing Area?”
2. Will a lacrosse ball ever soar as high as a towering fly ball?

And finally, the long-winded #1 Reason Why Baseball Is Better Than Lacrosse:

1. In lacrosse, the focal point on the field is the goal, which is a perfect six-by-six-foot square.  (I’m already getting sleepy just typing that description.)  What happens to that goal?  Not much.  Lacrosse balls go into it, like soccer balls into soccer nets and hockey pucks into hockey goals.  Baseball’s focal point, on the other hand, is home plate.  Like homes and plates everywhere, it fosters disputes and regularly gets dirty.  It is stepped on, slid across, and brushed clean.  Paradoxically, it is struck by balls but not struck by strikes. Its dimensions and angles (most definitely not square) dictate what is fair and what is foul, and what is a strike and what is not – giving it great jurisdiction over players’ actions, like a court of law.

So, if you had to choose between dating a lacrosse goal or a home plate, is their any question which one you’d ask out? 

I rest my case.

 

©2005 John Shields

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Bucks County, PA
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