By David Saltzer, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer
There are many reasons why I’ve been away from the keyboard lately. It’s not that I haven’t had things to say about the Angels (I have–they are improved and have more depth–I’m more optimistic about this season), it’s that I’ve really lacked the time to say them.
While my time to write about baseball has been limited, my time spent with baseball has dramatically increased. After years of being an assistant coach for both of my sons’ teams, this year I stepped up to manage teams in two different levels of Little League. My eldest plays in AAA (10-11 year olds) and my twins play in AA (9-10 year olds). And, when no one else in the league stepped up to manage teams, I found myself saying “yes” to fill the vacuum.
What I didn’t know at the time I agreed to take on the challenge of managing was just how different managing a team is from coaching a team and just how much it would affect how I perceive the game, especially at the Major League level.
In terms of time, I understood, I think, more than most fans, when professional baseball players and coaches talk about the grind of the season. I’ve seen how much they work. I know how many more hours they put in during a day beyond the time spent playing the game. Most fans have no idea just how many hours around the ballpark players, coaches, and managers spend each day. It’s a lot more than one would think. After a while, it’s a grind.
So too is managing Little League. And I mean, a real grind. I have practices or games at least 6 days a week between the two teams. That’s on top of a full-time job, and all the things I have to do as a parent. Most of the time, I have something to do for one of the teams everyday of the week. And if I don’t my boys still want to go outside to work on some aspect of their games. I’ll admit it: I’m tired. I’m just not as young as I once was (though I think doing all of this is keeping me younger than I would be). My taxes still aren’t paid, and I haven’t balanced my checkbook in 2 months. But, my teams are doing well.
Mentally, it’s a grind. We’re playing the same opponents all the time. After a while, the games are becoming a blur. We play some interleague games as well, which means we’re travelling. I never really know where I’m playing until the day before the game (even though it’s all on my calendar), or if I’m the home team or away team. No two fields are the same. The rules may be the same, but when there’s big tree in a neighbor’s yard beyond the left field fence that may or may not be in play, it plays differently. When pros talk about the grind of waking up in different cities all the time and going to different ballparks, I’m starting to get it.
Most Saturdays, I’m on the field managing my teams for 10-12 hours. I’ll start at 8:00 and often go until dark. And then, one or more of my coaches will want to meet up later to review what we observed during the games, develop the agendas for the upcoming week’s practices, and let loose for a little bit. Some adult beverages may flow, but we’re still focused on the team.
A little while back, on a Saturday, a miracle happened. I got off the field around 2:30 (I had overlapping games and had to leave one game to start managing the other). I didn’t know what to do with myself. So, I went home, plopped on the couch, and of course, put on the Angels game. I can never get enough Angels baseball.
And then it happened. I had an epiphany. Deep in exhaustion, while watching the Angels play, I began to wonder: how far off is it from managing a Little League team from a Major League game. And I mean this in all seriousness. I know on our site we have lots of people who have managed Little League teams, Pony Ball teams, and travel ball teams. And I want to open up the discussion to get your thoughts. Sure, we’ll never know just how tough it is to manage in the Major Leagues, but, there are many similarities between managing, and in some ways, each present unique challenges.
I remember the exact moment I had this thought–it was when Scioscia got thrown out of the game, ostensibly for arguing balls and strikes (and, maybe it wasn’t him so much as the other players and coaches). I was thinking back on a pitch that one of my players got called out on by a 12-year old umpire, that bounced in the dirt in front of the plate and was at least a foot off of the plate (I know, I could see the mark in the dirt from the pitch). There’s nothing I can do as a manager except look at my player and tell him that it’s okay and wasn’t his fault. I know the umpire messed up. The umpire knows he messed up. He’s a kid and still learning. Honestly, I’m happy he’s out there, and at least gave a clear and definitive call, even if it was the wrong call. There was no point in arguing the call, no matter how bad it was, because it wouldn’t accomplish anything except prolong my frustration with it. In the end, it’s a kid’s game, and I left it in the hands of the kids. We went on to win, and the player forgot all about the bad call, especially when he got his snack shack ticket after the game.
But, before this goes any further, I want to be clear: this is not an epic Scioscia is a good/bad manager or should be/shouldn’t be fired thread. If you want to write on that subject, take it elsewhere. This is my article and thread. It’s about the joys and challenging of managing baseball for kids and comparing it to managing professional players. I’d appreciate people keeping it about that. While I will talk about Scioscia, in this thread, he’s a generic fill-in for any Major League manager.
At the heart of my epiphany was this: In the Major Leagues, the tolerance for variance in the play is minimal, but the consequences are substantial. Put an inferior team up against a superior lineup, and they will lose most of the time. If the pitcher misses his spots, he will get lit up. And, the consequences can be millions of dollars, both the players and the teams, as ultimately every game affects the standings for the playoffs.
When managing kids, it’s the exact opposite. You can have the best team, but something can happen at school, and they will have a bad day. If they don’t have a good night’s sleep or a good snack before the game, who knows what will happen. Throw in the effects of the umpires, and any team can win or lose every game. Except in the end, it’s not really about winning and losing–it’s about community, friendship, and developing skills. And, if that isn’t enough, after every game, everyone gets a snack shack ticket, which makes it all worthwhile.
So which is the more stressful situation?
I mean, think about it for a second. If a Major League starter goes down, he will be replaced by someone, who may not be quite as talented, but is still better than 99.99999% of the population. The difference between a starter in the Major Leagues is whether he is better than 99.9999% or 99.99999% of the population–or about 0.00009%. The difference on a Little League team, is to quote “Airplane 2” a “tad” bigger. Anyone that Scioscia brings in as a replacement will still be capable of making all the fundamental plays and will know the rules of the game. In Little League, well, the players are more like a box of chocolate–you never know what you’re going to get.
For those of us who have managed, coached, played, or watched a Little League game, let’s face it, there’s a wide range between the abilities on the field. I never really know which team will show up–the one that can record all 18 outs in a game (we play 6-inning games) via strikeout, or the one that gives up 5 runs on no hits and 12 errors in an inning. A player may not have his/her best stuff (yes, there are some girls playing in our league, and, they are really good players–one may be the best hitter in her division), but the consequences for that might not be so bad. The other team is made up of kids too, and they have their up and down days. They may swing at plenty of pitches out of the zone to help my struggling pitcher get through an inning. Or, they may make a bunch of errors too. And in the end, it’s all supposed to be about fun and community, so it’s not like anything major depends on it.
And, that goes for the umpires too. What passes as an acceptable performance is pretty wide. The differences between the strike zones in the Majors might be a difference of a fraction of an inch. I’ve seen strike zones in Little Leagues that have varied by several feet.
How all of this plays out is extremely stressful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving every minute of it. But, I also fully believe that if I make it through this season, managing two teams, I can skip seeing my cardiologist for the year.
So it started me wondering how Scioscia would hold up over the course of a season managing a Little League team? What if he had to abide by the same rules and pressures that I had? Similarly, how much easier would my season be if my players were more comparable in skill and ability, like Major Leaguers? What if I had to handle more of the duties of a Major League manager?
As I started to think deeply on the subject, I realized that there are parts to our jobs that are very similar. I have to fill out a lineup every game, just like Scioscia does. Juggling the lineup is a hallmark of managing. And, it’s one of the most profound ways that a manager can affect the game.
But, just because we both fill out lineup cards doesn’t mean that it’s entirely the same. In Little League, every player gets to play (and I’m glad it’s that way). And, in many levels, every player has a minimum number of innings that they have to play in the outfield AND the infield. Imagine if Scioscia had to play every pitcher at least 1 inning defensively in the infield and outfield of every game! Can you imagine having to play Garret Richards at third base and replacing Mike Trout in centerfield with Martin Maldonado every game? That makes it very complicated to say the least. Balancing the defensive alignments is way more complicated than adjusting for any right/lefty split.
Injuries happen too, at both levels, but again, it isn’t the same. If I run out of players, I don’t have a Minor League system to rely upon–I’ve got to beg, borrow, and scrounge to get a replacement player from another team. And, I can only play them in the outfield. If one of my players gets hurt for a week, I will have a much harder time fielding a team, even with fewer games, than Scioscia will if one of the starting players goes down for a similar injury. He has a much bigger bench and the whole organization to rely upon, whereas I have the players on my team.
Another area of overlap is in managing pitchers. We both have to deal with pitch counts. Scioscia has some players coming back from injuries and doesn’t want to overuse them. But again, the margins and consequences are very different. If I, as a manager, allow a player to throw too many pitches, no matter how tired s/he is, or how well s/he is doing, s/he will be ineligible to pitch for a set number of days. I am required to keep a running log on every pitcher and the total number of pitches thrown each and every game. If I violate that, I will be banned for a game. If Scioscia goes too far with a pitcher, the consequences aren’t as steep. No manager has ever been banned for a game because he was riding a hot pitcher, especially through the playoffs, or while pitching a no-hitter.
As for dealing with the press, I get that it’s an important part of the game in the Major Leagues, which makes managing even more difficult. But, I know most of the beat reporters for the Angels, and guys like Jeff Fletcher and Mike DiGiovanna are good guys. They are serious reporters and they ask tough, probing questions. But to be honest, that’s nothing compared to an upset parent who is convinced that batting her son 8th in the lineup is going to cost him a future baseball scholarship. The more I’ve dealt with parents, and to be honest, the parents on my teams are great (that didn’t happen to me–it did happen to my friend who coaches in a different league), I’d say they are way more difficult than fielding questions from parents about what’s going on in the game. Imagine if Scioscia had to explain to Cliff Pennington’s parents about his batting order or give them tips on things to work on at home to improve his swing. I now get why Scioscia speaks in cliches. It’s a lot easier to answer the questions with stock answers than having to tell the truth at times. What if Scioscia had to give out a game ball after every game the Angels played? How would he answer it for every loss? The answer is in cliches.
Now all of this isn’t to say that I think I can manage in the Major Leagues. I’m not that foolish. But, it does make me wonder which is more stressful. While Scioscia did have his son Matt in the Angels organization for a while , he didn’t have to manage him through all the ups and downs of a season. He didn’t have to take his son off of the mound when he couldn’t find the strike zone. While Scioscia is very intense throughout the game, and is very mentally and emotionally committed to the game, it’s not quite the same as when it is your son up there are the plate, with the game on the line, and down to his last strike.
Sometimes, though, I do think it would be more fun if a Major League game were played like a Little League game every now and then. At least 3 times a game, we have to call timeouts because one or more players have to tie their shoes. There are times when I’ve seen coaches and managers go and tie a player’s shoes when s/he is at-bat because it’s too difficult for the player to do so while wearing batting gloves. And, there’s nothing like watching a kid in right field dancing to his/her own music during an inning. It’s even better when they’re doing the potty dance, and then having to call a timeout to replace the player in the field. Imagine if Manny Ramirez had to do that instead of the Phillies had to slow-walk to the plate to buy more time for Angel Pagan.
The way I see it, the difference between managing in Little League and the Majors is that in Little League, the tolerance for variance is huge, but the consequences are tiny. In the Major Leagues, the tolerance for variance is minor, but the consequences are huge. It’s the same game, with different priorities.
So now, I’d like to open it up to you. How about sharing your thoughts on managing and coaching in Little League (or equivalent) versus doing so in the Majors? What are some of your best memories? What were some of your biggest challenges?
I will get back to writing more about the Angels now that the season is back. I do have a lot of thoughts and opinions about the team, and, as my schedule winds down with Little League and work, I’ll get back to writing about the Major Leagues.