Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Place No. 11: Cape Cod League; and No. 11A: Milford, Conn. Newmakers

Amateur baseball can be fun to watch. No huge salaries or egos, and you can be relatively certain that no one is on steroids.

Josh Pahigian points to the amateur Cape Cod League for spot No.11 in his "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The Cape Cod League is summer baseball that attracts some of the best college players in the country and plays before decent-sized crowds.

I’ve never been to one of those games, but I did have some experience with amateur ball in New England, and steroids were the least of my troubles.

Baseball Place No. 11A: Milford Recreation Department Girls Softball

I was covering Milford schools for the Bridgeport Post in 1989, and working on a story about how the city recreation department was having trouble finding umpires for its leagues. My wife was working nights and I certainly knew and loved the sport, so I later offered my services.

“Tell you what, Dave,” the department head told me. “What I could really use is one more coach. I have enough new players for a team, and a one of the parents said he’d do the job – if he had some help.”

How could I refuse?

The Newsmakers, with assistant coach -- No. 41, of course -- in the back.

I soon found out what they didn’t tell me up front. First, that this was considered a feeder league for the high school program, which means it was fast-pitch softball.

Second, all the other teams had older girls who had already played together for at least one season, two in some cases.

We had the youngest, least experienced players and were starting from scratch.

And, the other parent who wanted to coach was the editor of the Milford Mirror – my competition in the newspaper business.

I was actually OK with all of those. The fast-pitch game couldn’t be too different, and Chris, the editor, was a nice guy. And because I was part of the daily paper and he was in charge of a weekly, it’s not like we were in direct competition.

And I learned he was cunning. At the end of the first practice, we gathered the sixth-graders together to discuss important business, like picking a team name and colors.

Considering the occupations of the coaches, Chris and I thought “Newsmakers” would be a neat and different name, and blue and white would be fine colors. This was met with indifference from the players.

One suggested “Wildcats” and thought the colors should be hot pink and black. A lot of the girls liked the idea. A clear majority, in fact.

Chris and I conferred. “Dude, I don’t want to be caught wearing hot pink and black.”

“Good call,” he replied, and then turned to the group. “Ladies, we’re going to take a secret vote.”

Reporters always have pads and pens, so materials for ballots were not a problem. Each of the girls wrote down their choices for name and colors, and Chris went off to “count.”

Amazingly, “Newsmakers” and “blue and white” were declared winners. I didn’t ask, and I didn’t want to know.

The girls were nice, and practices were fun. One of the players introduced herself as “Caryn, with a C” and that’s what I called her, every time.

I covered the schools, and when I pitched batting practice, players would have to say one thing about their school before their first swing. I learned a lot of stuff.

We had a great summer getting some exercise and learning the basics. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

This is not to say there were not unique challenges.

We soon encountered a problem tougher than picking a team name. His name was Chad, and he apparently was the sixth-grade heartthrob.

Knowing he’d have an adoring audience, Chad started showing up at the school when we’d have practice and perform skateboard stunts in the parking lot while my infield swooned. They were completely distracted as he showed off. Occasionally, he’d fetch an errant throw, which only brought more swooning.

After two days of this, I took drastic action. From the mound, I yelled, “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii Chaaaaaad! Whatcha doing over there? Skateboard stunts?”

“Ahhhhhh! Dave’s talking to Chad! Dave’s talking to Chad!” some of the players squealed in horror.

Chad stopped dead in his tracks, looked over, also in horror, and fled.

We also learned the dangers of a fast-pitch league, the greatest of which was base-stealing. My catchers could barely reach second base on a fly even before they were loaded down with pads and a mask.

Our only hope of throwing someone out at second would be if the runner A) fell down and could not get up again, or B) was on crutches. And I’m not even sure about the crutches.

It didn’t take long for other teams to realize this. Every walk became a double on the next pitch. So did every base hit, and every error. We gave up a lot of runs.

Fortunately, some of the other teams had the same problem. My job as first base coach became telling them to run to second on the first pitch. There was some reluctance at first.

“I think they know I’m gonna run.”

“Caryn with a C, I’m sure they do. Everyone in the park knows you’re gonna run. Don’t worry about it.”

The first time, she ran half way to second, got frightened, then ran back to first. I had to convince her to go.

We didn’t win too many games, but we were blessed with understanding parents.

“We’re going to get crushed today,” one of the moms said before one game.

“Why do you say that?” I ask.

“The other team has breasts,” another mom chimed in, meaning, of course, that they were all older and bigger.

I’m pretty sure no coach in the Cape Cod League has ever heard that one.

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