BY HOLLY SHAW
My father taught me how to play baseball. He coached high school softball. My grandfather was a pitcher for the Hollywood Stars minor league team, and my sisters and I played every tournament you can imagine, getting our bruises and bloody noses along the way. My family loves the game.
My foray into coaching Little League this year stemmed from guilt over never teaching my son, our youngest, to play baseball. He cheerfully participated as I signed him up for tap, art classes and singing lessons with his older sisters. But when he turned 11, I felt guilty for never having taught him to catch or throw a ball, so Montclair’s inaugural Little League season was the launch we both needed.
As a kid who grew up with a ball in her hand, the baseball diamond feels like home to me. But nothing prepared me for the satisfaction of teaching elementary and middle school kids how to play the game. I’ll admit the first couple of practices made me nervous. Baseball can be dangerous — even in Little League. I was given four kids who had never played before, including my son. How can I teach kids who have never played how to catch, bat, run bases, learn the basics of the game and keep them from getting hurt? When you mix experienced players with kids like my son who know nothing, it can go sideways fast.
I dragged my twin sister, Heather Wallace, into helping out at practices even though she didn’t have a kid on the team. During the first couple of practices, we separated the kids and taught them the basics. My fellow coaches, Adam Scigliano, John Sung and Rick Kloiber, not only believed in me but brought experience and fun to the team. When you sign your kids up for Little League next year (and you should) you will be lucky to have them. Progress came slowly.
My dad didn’t believe in just throwing the weakest kid into the right field and holding his breath. He used to say, “If they want to play, let’s teach them to play.” So that is what we did, week after week, game after game. We started at the beginning and enjoyed watching these little guys soak up every drop of training. And just like that the boys started to surprise us.
I relished the moment when the boy with curly hair who had worked every off minute practicing his swing finally got a hit after weeks of strikeouts. Then, another boy who lacked confidence got his hit and was so surprised that he almost didn’t run. When he did … he carried the bat with him! Another kid who had absolutely no experience finally made contact with the ball and miraculously got home on the hit. The following week, he caught a pop fly in a clutch moment. He looked at his glove, saw the ball and we watched the glee rush across his usually stoic face. I cried. My sister cried. The men cheered. And slowly, I learned to trust my instinct about where to place kids on the field, who should pitch and the batting order.
There is something magical about the struggles that come with baseball. Our most recent game, a playoff game, had us behind. The opposing pitcher struck out player after player while our star pitcher was struggling. We kept the spirits up with chants and encouragement but even I didn’t think we had a chance. But then something magical happened. That new kid miraculously made contact with the ball and got to first base and the team came alive with possibility. Then another hit, and a clutch hit by the struggling pitcher with two outs and 0-2 pitch which drove the winning run home.
As baseball season closes, I will miss the face of the kid who strikes out and walks back to the dugout with shoulders slumped, then turns around and cheers for his teammate at the plate. I’ll miss the kid who isn’t athletic but cherishes every minute of the game and yells things like, “I believe in you” to his brother at bat. I will miss the kid we call Flash, whose nickname was given for both his stylish flair on the field — the bright red shoes, and his love of stealing bases.
I am reminded that sometimes life isn’t perfect. How this small band of misfits believed in themselves enough to make it to the championship game will always mystify me. But, they did. They came alive with passion, determination and sheer grit. Baseball is a lifelong skill that extends far beyond the ball field, and I can only hope and believe that the lessons learned here will stay with these little guys as they go on to become whoever they become. I am going to call Montclair’s first ever Little League season a huge success, and I look forward to many more seasons.
Holly Shaw is a Montclair parent, a former Board of Education candidate and a coach for the Blue Jays in Montclair Little League’s Major Division.