When Casey Stengel was managing the hapless New York Mets in their first year of existence in 1962, Casey became so frustrated with his team’s lack of fundamental baseball that he once exclaimed in frustration: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
That moment was well over 50 years ago, and of course, Casey, as he was wont to do, was exaggerating more than a bit.
But a few weeks ago, in a most provocative column in the New York Times, sportswriter Bill Pennington echoed Casey’s sentiments — sentiments, by the way, that not only do I share but they are shared by countless baseball coaches and fans across the country.
In short, Bill’s article basically said that due to the expansive growth in recent times of private coaches for hitting and for pitching instruction, we have now produced a ton of young ballplayers who are well skilled when it comes to those particular facets of the game….but unfortunately, the other parts of their baseball skills have been either somewhat left behind, or ignored, or just not taught. To be fair, Pennington wasn’t blaming the private instructors; he was just reporting what he has found.
In other words, young ballplayers today know that when college coaches or pro scouts come looking, they’re focusing on certain basic skills – can a pitcher throw really hard, and can a kid hit well and hit with power?
The problem is, all the other key stuff involved in playing baseball, like knowing how to field one’s position, or how to put down a sac bunt, or how to run the bases is either ignored, or just assumed that it can be taught later on. And as Pennington points out, it’s now fallen upon college coaches to spend copious amounts of time to educate college kids on the basics of the game.
It’s a startling observation and accusation…but it’s all true. Here’s a direct quote from Bill’s article:
“In the last decade or so, a generation of top ballplayers has, in most cases, spent little time learning how to accurately throw across the diamond, catch a fly ball, field a ground ball and turn a double play, run the bases effectively, make a tag at first base, or God forbid, bunt.”
I anticipated a lot of calls on this topic, and indeed they poured in. Some callers pointed to the fact that most youth baseball leagues are coached by either Dads who don’t take the time to teach the basics, or for that matter, those Dads really don’t know the basics. Or that there’s just too much emphasis on playing a lot of games instead of having more practice sessions where drills can be implemented and taught.
Even worse, most practices just evolve into one long batting practice session where kids hit and the others just shag. That’s totally counterproductive in so many ways! A real practice session needs to focus on everything from cutoffs and relays, to how to run the bases, to how to play defense, and on and on Baseball is a complicated sport to play well, and in order to play it well, there’s lots of material that needs to be taught, and taught well.
To that end, Pennington pointed out that there’s lot of teaching material and guides that can be found easily online (such as MLB’s PlayBall.org) where youth, travel, and HS coaches can not only educate themselves on the finer points of the game, but where kids can learn inside baseball as well.
He also said that in his reporting, he discovered that lots of big-time college coaches at the D-I level recruit kids who can hit or pitch, but then the coaches literally teach them the finer points of the game. That may hard to believe in this day and age, but it’s apparently a national trend.
CAN THIS TREND BE REVERSED?
Bill was also told by some top college coaches that they are now looking at the entire player’s skills set when they go to showcases to recruit. They want to see if the kid knows more about the game beyond just throwing hard, or hitting well. They want to see if the younger has a real feel of how to play the game.
But Bill did feel that this kind of turnaround – where kids begin to learn ALL aspects of playing baseball at an early age – is going to take a long time, and it’s going to take a real change in our current youth sports culture. I agree with Bill: baseball needs to be “reinvented” at the youth level if the game is going to survive in the years to come.