By Steve Kallas
Once upon a time (from the beginning of the 1900s through about the end of the 1960s), virtually all of the best athletes played baseball. Starting in the 1930s (thanks to legendary baseball builder Branch Rickey) through the 1940s and 50s, there were hundreds of minor league baseball teams with players who, if they didn’t make it to the majors, went back to their everyday lives all over the country with an incredible understanding of how to play the game and how to teach the game.
So for decades (the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and into the 70s), you had the best athletes being taught by knowledgeable coaches who often had professional baseball experience. The most difficult game to teach (and to excel at), these great coaches, either in high schools or even in local leagues, taught a few generations of kids how to play the game correctly and intelligently.
But that was then, this is now.
SO, WHAT’S HAPPENED TO BASEBALL COACHES IN THE LAST 25 YEARS OR SO?
Well, that’s easy. Certainly in the New York City area, things began to change dramatically with the rise of the New York Knicks’ NBA championship teams of 1969-70 and 1972-73. These late ‘60s through mid-70s teams ignited a passion for basketball that, for decades, was already there but had not yet become the dominant sport that it would become in future decades. In addition, the number of minor league baseball teams dropped drastically in the last 40 years or so.
Where did that leave baseball coaches? Well, over the last 25 years or so, many of the top athletes in the area moved to other sports; first basketball, and later football (to some degree) and then, in the last 20 years or so, to sports like soccer and lacrosse (to name two). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, as an unintended consequence of that migration away from baseball, you simply didn’t have the quality of athlete and quality of coaching that existed for the first 80 years or so of the 20th Century.
Can you find great baseball coaches nowadays? Absolutely. But, back in the 1970s and before, in New York City, for example, every neighborhood had one or two or three former professional baseball players who had toiled in the minor leagues for a number of years and came home to local neighborhoods to live normal lives. These former pro players were sought out by parents who simply wanted to have their kids taught by the most knowledgeable guys around. They often were Little League and Babe Ruth league managers and many would happily help a kid who was eager to learn how to play the game.
But those numbers have gone down drastically in the last twenty years. The lack of excellent “baseball guys” has hurt the development of young players. And while, with the advent of elite travel teams (more on that later), there is still excellent instruction available, it’s simply rare to find it at the grass-roots level of the game that, once upon a time, everybody played as a matter of course.
WHAT ABOUT THE HIGH SCHOOL COACHES?
Well, high school baseball is a mixed bag these days. Again, once upon a time, you lived to play for your high school. Not necessarily true nowadays. Some high school programs are still legendary programs with legendary coaches (Jack Curran of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens and Dom Cecere of Eastchester High School in Westchester County, New York immediately come to mind). But some others are virtually glorified rec programs. The season has always been difficult in the Northeast due to poor weather. The better school programs often run fall baseball as well as the regular season in the spring. But many coaches today aren’t even “baseball guys.” Sometimes they are “soccer guys” or coaches in other sports who really don’t have a feel for the game, how to play it or how to teach it. In addition, many times baseball coaches get the job because they teach at the school or because they are friendly with an athletic director. By definition, often-times these coaches can’t run a baseball team or build a baseball program.
With the advent of “pushy parents,” some coaches make “deals” with kids and their parents for playing time. The right-minded parents, who grew up in a different world where the best players played and the coach was king, often unknowingly hurt their own kids by expecting that the system would be as it was for virtually the entire 20th Century. Those parents (and their children) often learn hard lessons (squeaky wheel gets the oil, back-room deals rule, best players don’t necessarily play, etc.).
It’s important to note that great coaches like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere were both minor league ballplayers themselves. While their longevity is unusual (Coach Curran still coaching at Molloy (now over 50 years there) in his 80s, Coach Cecere approaching 50 years as a high school baseball coach), their background is exactly the same as thousands of excellent coaches who grew up in the 1930s or 40s or 50s or 60s.
These coaches, when they are finished coaching (and, thankfully, there is no sign of that yet), won’t be easily replaced. But, when they are, it’s hard to believe that the new coaches will have anywhere near the great baseball training that these guys got as a matter of course 50 or 60 years ago.
And this is not to say that there aren’t a lot of great baseball coaches, including younger coaches, who are coaching today. But it is to say that, without question, there are not nearly as many as there once were and they aren’t getting the elite athletes exclusively (as they once did), who long ago left baseball at a young age (11, 12, 13, 14?) to “specialize” in basketball or football or soccer or lacrosse.
Another big problem in high school sports is the advent of parents coaching at the high school level. Often Little League coaches (and now the Little League “mentality” moves to high schools) with little or no college, semi-pro or professional experience, these guys often invariably play favorites or their friends’ kids, irrespective of talent levels. This is a relatively new problem in high schools and it will get worse before it gets better.
WHAT ABOUT TRAVEL BASEBALL?
Now a multi-million (billion?) dollar industry, the explosion of elite travel teams in the last 20 years has changed the face of baseball forever. But, frankly, if you’re a player and have any hope to play in college or get drafted, this is where the game has shifted to in the last 20 years. Often times your high school season is merely a warm-up for summer ball, where serious kids routinely play 45-50 games in 60 days (again, in the Northeast; they play even more down south and in California).
Travel baseball also has its own problems. It can be expensive, it is virtually a job for young kids and the starting age for these teams gets younger and younger (there are now travel teams for 10-year-olds and even younger in some places). While you can get a top coach (Dan Gray of Pro Swing in Mount Kisco, New York is one of the best, if not the best, travel baseball managers in the tri-state area), there is also room for guys who really don’t know how to coach but are excellent salesmen, pitching false hopes of college scholarships to parents who don’t know any better (at a cost of thousands of dollars, of course).
And it’s interesting to note that, even a modern-day, younger coach like Dan Gray has that quintessential training for coaching baseball that coaches like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere got decades ago. Gray was a star college player at SUNY Binghamton who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and played five years of minor league baseball in the Dodgers organization learning the “Dodgers way.” He is also a Division I baseball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Like Coach Curran and Coach Cecere before him, he learned how to play the game the right way, played it himself at a very high level, and is the right guy to coach young kids today. He’s a “baseball guy” and there just aren’t as many of them today as there once was in the country.
WHAT ABOUT LITTLE LEAGUE COACHES?
Well, there have always been problems at the Little League level. But, again, they are much worse today than they were decades ago. Once upon a time, parents were intelligent enough to seek out the former pros to manage teams and coach their kids. Today, finding the “right” coach often has nothing to do with one’s knowledge or coaching ability. Rather, it has to do with getting your buddy who will start your kid, bat him high in the order and get him on that all-star team, whether he deserves it or not.
These stories exist throughout the country and, frankly, there is very little right-minded parents can do about it. The best advice for these parents, if they want their children to attempt to become serious ballplayers, is to get them into an excellent travel program relatively early and try and rise above the politics of Little League and (nowadays, sometimes) high school baseball. There is virtually nothing you can do at the Little League level (unless you are going to join the “in” group and hurt other kids so your kid can advance). And, frankly, even at the high school level, while you hear stories about parents getting coaches removed, absent a strong athletic director, there is little that can be done when a coach is biased or incompetent (or both).
SO, WHERE HAVE ALL THE (GOOD) BASEBALL COACHES GONE?
Well, to paraphrase a famous song, they’ve gone far away. Many have retired and are retiring. Few top quality replacements are available. Many top athletes play, and top coaches coach, other sports.
What all this means for the right-minded baseball parent is this: there are still excellent baseball coaches around; you just have to look much harder to find them.