Jeff Phillips: The Rebranding of a Little League Team

 

TJs ballplayer

When I started playing for my little league team, I donned a jersey that was a chocolate brown, with a mustard yellow oval across the chest to outline the cursive name of our sponsor. TJs was a local restaurant in our small Maine town, which I never ate at, it was sort of fancy. A few of my friends would take on short stints there as dishwashers. I put in a good 3-year-stint as a ballplayer for TJs. The way our league worked, once you were selected for a team at tryouts, you were on that team for the remainder of your eligibility by age group: 10-12 years old for this one. Like a little tenure, with more stability than some professional ballplayers experience.

TJs was my team. In the first two years our bearish, red-bearded coach, Mike, worked us hard, but I don’t recall anyone taking his frustrations personally. He put the most pressure on his son, Ryan, a lean, pre-portly version of himself. Mike had played Minor League baseball, on a farm team for the Boston Red Sox, but he was never called up to the Majors. The loss of that dream was transferred to Ryan. His son would excel at baseball and fulfill that for him. Ryan would get all of the pitching opportunities, despite other players, like myself, being pretty good pitchers, at least at practices.

I played center field, just like my favorite player, Andy Van Slyke. I got a mention in the sports section of our local newspaper for making a game-winning catch at the fence. I would look at that news clipping and at the Fleer Ultra baseball card I had of Andy Van Slyke with a silver emblem proclaiming “Golden Glove Winner” and I’d feel good about my contributions to the team. I’d be taking the Van Slyke path and be a fine fielder. I wasn’t the best batter, I never knocked one over the fence, but I did get an inside-the-park home run. Looking back on those first two years on TJs, I mostly remember small glories.

In my final year, we got new uniforms: a deep purple with bolder cursive lettering, less pixelated than the first iteration of stenciled nylon. That year, I mostly remember people losing their cool. A kid on an opposing team would throw his bat way over the backstop and it would hit someone’s little brother.  My teammate Josh was kicked out of a game for bad mouthing the home plate umpire after calling the final strike of his at bat.

Then there was the game my friend Scott missed a ground ball coming at him while at shortstop. Our coach kicked the dirt. “Unbelievable!” he shouted. Scott heard this, took his attention away from the fielding going on behind him to focus a death stare at the coach. It was a look I’d never seen in my fellow fun-loving teammate, a scrawny kid that loved the beefy Mo Vaughn. His pointed face both tightened and dropped into something Neanderthal. I was able to see Scott’s face because I was in the rotation to sit out that inning, so I was hanging out in the dugout. He looked at our coach for a few moments and it was palpable. The gameplay seemed to pause.

Scott threw his glove down in the dirt and pointed at coach. “You! I’m done with you! I’m sick of this!”

Scott started walking off the field. “I’m sick of you!” he added.

“C’mon honey.” Coach was always calling people honey.

As Scott walked past the 3rd baseline, the coach’s wife, Maureen, shouted out “that kid is nothing but a spoiled brat! Nothing but a spoiled brat!”

Scott’s mom, sitting just a few seats away on the bleachers, turned toward Maureen and shouted back “Excuse me?!”

The two women screamed at each other for a few minutes. I couldn’t see it because the green cinder block walls of the dugout were in the way. When the yelling tapered off, Scott and his mom left.

We finished out the remaining innings; I think there were only two or three. Coach was quiet. I don’t remember how his son responded the outbursts, I wonder if his absence from my memory is indicative of his spirit’s desire to hide. The rest of us felt like our spirits were muzzled. Having fun or doing well felt like it would take something away from what just happened. We weren’t quite sure what had happened. The game up to that point wasn’t necessarily tense, but there was that sudden anger that dampened everyone’s momentum.

Prior to that game we had each gone around our neighborhoods to sell candy bars for a fundraiser to pay for new equipment, which was next on the list after we got those purple uniforms. The game where everyone lost their tempers was also the day we were supposed to bring our collected money. Since Scott and his mom took off before the money could be collected, my mom and I drove to pay them a visit, collect his candy bar earnings, and to see how they were doing.

Scott was still a little shaken up. He sat fidgeting on a small stool in their living room. His mom had calmed, she was laughing off her exchange with Maureen as the most ridiculous thing she’s ever been part of. We hung out with them for a little while drinking some summery drink. Scott concluded he was done playing baseball under Coach Mike. He wasn’t coming back. His mom supported the decision, probably relieved too she wouldn’t have to go back and sit next to her new enemy on the bleachers. She said she was proud of Scott for saying something to Coach.  And my mom and I understood. We said we’d miss them at the games.

On our drive home, we noticed a familiar green car following us. As we pulled into the garage, that green car coasted into the driveway behind us and parked. Coach Mike got out.

“Jeffrey, honey, I’d like to speak with your mother.”

I went inside.

When my mom came in from the garage a few minutes later, she said Coach had seen us leaving Scott’s house and was worried that we were taking sides against him. My mom assured him she wasn’t looking to get in the middle of anything.

A petition later circulated from other parents who witnessed the blowup. They wanted to remove Coach Mike permanently.  My parents asked me if I wanted them to sign the petition. I thought about it for an evening, but I told them I didn’t want them to sign anything that would ban him. He wasn’t a perfect coach, he could get crabby at times, but he never made me feel belittled. In fact, there were times he made me feel good. That time I got a write up in the paper for making a game-winning catch. That was because he submitted it. Scott had a different experience. Coach getting huffy got under his skin, triggered something. I always thought, coaches sometimes get huffy and that may just come from a place of wanting us to do well and  win.

I could tell Coach Mike loved baseball and he loved coaching. He seemed to live for it. There was a sadness in him that was also apparent because his dream only took him so far and he was left with the next closest thing.

I told my parents I didn’t want them to sign anything  to kick him out of the league because he at least deserved an opportunity to learn from the fracas, to ease off pressure on pre-teens to be champions. And he did. He was much more mild-mannered the rest of the summer.

A couple of years later I had Coach Mike again, this time for basketball through the rec. His wife continued her loyal attendance. Her rapt focus on the play-by-play caused tension to accumulate in the muscles along her neck. Her lank, black hair would flop back and forth as she followed the ball. The color would drain from her freckled face and pouts quickly opened wide to let out groans of displeasure. Mostly she sounded like a cacophonous bird, but when Maureen lost her shit at a referee’s bad call, she seethed and spittle sprayed as she brayed. Coach Mike tried to calm her down, but she carried on, her conduct devolving into a terrible tantrum. He had to leave the game early to drag her out of there. It was like seeing Darth Vader lift Emperor Palpatine up and away from shooting electricity into Luke Skywalker, when you see a side of him that is indeed good.

It was as though something was on the line. If I were to learn she had bet large sums of money on the outcome of the game, Maureen’s hissy fits would make more sense. But nobody bets money on little league games, because who would dare bet on non-professionals? Logic would direct a person to ante up on only the best of the best.

Little league is an odd pivot point in one’s life. Free play is funneled into something that is structured, where you have a clear victor and a clear loser. For some, the connotations aren’t easy to shrug off. Maureen was almost the wife of star ballplayer. Mike didn’t deliver. Her tame son somehow wasn’t wired to bring a life or death edge to his gameplay. That must have caused her to boil. The temperature continued to rise each game he didn’t display that drive that could, at the very least, allow her to be the mother of a star ballplayer. If Mike didn’t show himself to be zealous and determined, perhaps Maureen would later confront and accuse him of not caring about their son’s future. If it’s true that people tend lose some of their fire as they age, I’d hate to be witness to that moment when the coach’s wife experienced her first competitive loss; a send-back in Sorry!, a bankruptcy in Monopoly, or a rough tag out in a neighborhood round of pickle.

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