CARING FOR GRASS = CLASS: Caring for Your Baseball/Softball Field with Limited Resources

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,”

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

            One time during late August, I was sitting in a conference room at the IHSA office in Bloomington, Illinois. This is where the state advisory committee meets once a year.  It was an eclectic group of coaches from every corner of the state.  Sitting immediately to my right was a coach from a more affluent Chicago suburb.  He reminded me of Tony Soprano in stature and attitude, likeable but one that made me leery to approach. The previous spring, his team had won the 2A state title, when Illinois was only two classes, not four, as it is currently.  I knew this because, he was talking about it with some of the other suburban coaches that were congratulating him. Also, he was wearing a ring the size of a Volkswagen. It was really cool.  I sat back to listen to him speak.  Maybe I could pick up a pointer or some secret to get my team to that level.  I didn’t hear any secret strategies.  What I did hear was the difference in resources amongst schools his size and a school our size.  Our schools were in the same class despite his school having about 1,700 more students.   He was discussing their booster club that had a budget of $80,000 and that was strictly for baseball!  He discussed the 11 coaches on his staff.  In between my intermittent drooling episodes, I began to hear him discuss their field.  It sounded like a college field with the sprinkler system, stadium seating, new lighting, prescription dirt, and two other diamonds for the freshman and sophomore teams.   Then he mentioned the team of field maintenance men that kept the fields in tip-top shape.   We were competing in the same state class, but our worlds couldn’t have been further apart.  Now I don’t fault this coach for any of these differences.  He has a great job and does a great job utilizing the resources at his disposal.  He has the hardware to prove it.  My focus is on how the “have-nots”, which are more common than the program I just described, can do great things with very little capital.

            It is very easy for someone who comes from a program that has barrels of money to look at someone else’s diamond and say it’s “bush”.  Chances are that guy hasn’t picked up a rake since he’s been there.  His team of maintenance people who keep the field up are proof of that. The average coach must get his hands a little dirty in order to stay out of the bush category.  I’ll be the first to admit that 20 years ago our diamond was in that category.  For example, there were so many rocks in the infield we would occasionally walk around with buckets and collect them in order to get them off.  Also, for the first 90 years of our program’s existence we didn’t have dugouts.  We just put two wooden benches about 40 feet away from home plate to sit on.  Do you think that might have been a hair on the dangerous side? Hmmm, I wonder?  There’s nothing like dodging foul balls all afternoon. One season while playing as a freshman at my high school, I can remember a 4 foot mound of dirt that sat in the middle of right field.  I’m surprised other coaches didn’t just pack it up when they saw what a mess it was. 

            99% of all junior high and high school baseball fields leave something to be desired.  It’s really just like buying a house.  There’s always something to improve.  It’s just a matter of taking on the battles one at a time.  Improvement on our field began with a new prescription dirt surface.  The coaches that preceded me had seen it on other diamonds.  They lined up the equipment for excavation of the old dirt and spreading of the new.  Many times, jobs that require big equipment like trenchers or a backhoe require seeking volunteer time from local contractors.  More often than not they’re glad to do it.  Chances are they have a son or nephew that plays baseball. When everything was all done that diamond took rain better and was flatter than any in our conference.  Over the next 10 years, different improvements such as, a donated scoreboard, fenced in dugouts, a new backstop, and others were added. Some jobs are little, and some are huge. Here are some tips for getting them done:

1)   Find money from different avenues.   A school’s budget, fundraising, and seeking corporate donations, are all sources.  The first place to start is with your school or affiliated booster organization.  But don’t be surprised if you run into a brick wall when money is concerned.  The best way to approach them is with an organized proposal. Let them know that you’ve researched the most cost-effective way to get your pet project done.  Next, have a fundraiser.  There are a myriad of ideas out there for raising dollars. I’ve heard of everything from magazines sales to playing a 100 inning game.  Lastly, many corporations set money aside for donations.  Writing a few letters is never a bad idea.  Always address it to their “Community Relations Department”.  I have a friend who works for a nationally recognized insurance company.  He helped us received up to $250 every year.

2)   Do many of the cosmetic things yourself.  If you have a vision for the way your field should look, then get up and do it.  Cleaning up trash, weed trimming, straightening out edging, and painting are all economically miniscule projects that really require someone who is willing to work.

3)   Ask for help.  Parents, players, and school custodians are all your friends.  Some parents are dying to help you.  It gives them the same feeling of accomplishment that you get when a job is finished.  I had one parent that after a conversation with me fundraised over $2000 dollars on his own for an outdoor batting cage.  The players help put it up and take it down each season.   Ultimately, my favorite group of guys at our school is our custodians.  I don’t know what it is, but they love baseball.  They would much rather be working on a baseball field than be all kooked up in the school cleaning a chalkboard. In fact, one of our custodians coached a state champion summer league team.

BOOSTERS, NOT ROOSTERS: Parental Support During Games

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

-Herm Albright

 foghorn-3Parents can work with you or against you.  Do not forget when you play at home they’re there, and when you go on the road they follow.  I’m not knocking fan support, because I adore it.  Although, I am knocking fan detriment.  I want as many parents at our games as possible.  I want them to come to our games and enjoy seeing their young man or young lady represent his school and town to the best of his or her ability.  I also want them to support the other players on the team and the program as a whole.  No one needs a college of coaches in the stands that criticize players, coaches, and officials. Talk about bush league, that’s the worst.

            At the beginning of a season I host a parent meeting.  I require players to have someone to represent them at this meeting.  A mom or dad may not be able to attend in some cases. So I tell my player to get an alternate, like a sibling or a grandparent.  I’ve never had a parent meeting last longer than a half an hour.  The discussion topics are the team rules for players, the schedule, travel procedure for road contests, and parent expectations.  That’s right, parent expectations. I expect them to be part of the team.  My rules for them are:

1)   Be positive at home.

2)   Don’t address officials.

3)   Be a booster, not a rooster.

            Be positive at home.  Parents need to cultivate the team concept at home when their son or daughter is not around me.  If his or her child comes home after striking out 3 times, he/she doesn’t need someone talking down to them.  Nobody feels worse than the player. As well, maybe someone’s child didn’t play that day.  Of course, that kid feels bad about it. I’d be disappointed in a player of mine that didn’t. A parent that tears down the coach or another player to give their son some false pride isn’t sending a very good message.  Parents at home need to encourage their boys when times are good and bad.  Encouraging their children to work harder at practice and be more involved in off-season activities is the best thing a parent can do. 

            Don’t address officials.  If something needs to be said to an umpire, I will say it.  I have only seen rude and obnoxious comments from the stands work to the advantage of the other team.  You think the strike zone was tight before, just wait.  Umpires are human. There is no instant replay.  We must live with their calls.  99% of them are trying their hardest to be impartial.  If an umpire is hustling and calling the game consistently for both teams, no one can complain.  I feel there are good and bad times for a coach to talk to the umpire about calls.  There are no good times for parents to do so. 

            Be a booster, not a rooster.  I make mistakes. We all do. Hopefully, we learn from them.   No coach needs some know-it-all former little league coach critiquing his every move. Those type of parents are like pussy cats waiting to pounce on a mouse.  They view the game with negative glasses.  And like a rooster at 5 AM, begin cackling their head off with some foolish coaching advice.  No one in the crowd is impressed.  In fact most of the other parents separate themselves from that type of fan.  These roosters always like to crow at the worst possible time. For example, during a regional game, after a lead-off double, I had a player wander too far off 2nd base on a ball hit in front of him and get caught in rundown.  Prior to the miscue, I said all of the right things to him to remind him of the situation, and of course he acknowledged me. We all know the teenage mind is one of mystery, and he did the wrong thing.  In the rooster’s head, I’m sure he was elated.  He began to ruffle his feathers, stick out his chest, and crow sarcastically, “Nice goin’ coach, way to teach base-running.”  He was right. It was a poor base running play.  I was sure excited that he pointed it out and so was the player and his parents, I’m sure.  We went on to get 5 hits, 2 stolen bases, and score 3 runs that inning.  He shouted no compliments for our team. We went on to win the game 5-1 an advance to the regional championship.  The rooster had magically turned into a hen. Encourage your parents to disagree with you in private.  Shouting disapproval during a game helps no one.rooster

            A parent meeting is really an attempt to preempt any miscommunications between the parents and the coach.  Your expectations for your players are made clear on an in person basis.  A coach that hosts a parent meeting will find that he has a more positive relationship with the parents than the coach that neglects to do so.  The parents will be more likely to give you help when you need it.  As well, they will support you on disciplinary issues with players, because the rules were explained clearly ahead of time.

DIRTY LAUNDRY: How a Coach Should Deal with Player and Parent Problems

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

 Yogi Berra

 

            At some point, unfortunately, all coaches run into problems with players and/or their parents.  Some problems are major issues and some minor ones.  A well-prepared coach has a set procedure to deal with these occurrences head-on.  If problems are not dealt with quickly, assertively, and tactfully, they will boil over onto the field.  When this happens, the exact cause isn’t always apparent to the objective eye.  Although, the bush league atmosphere will be apparent.

            If a player has broken a training rule, has poor grades, has a poor attitude, or has done anything that clashes with team rules or my coaching philosophy, I feel compelled to say something.  Sweeping a problem under the rug only allows the problem to fester and become worse.  Too often, coaches try to ignore things.  I understand that as coaches of young people we must pick our battles, but you know how it goes, “give an inch, they’ll take a mile”. For example, I am a stickler about players being on time.  If I ignore the lateness of one player, the message is then sent throughout the program that it’s OK to be a couple minutes late. Pretty soon another player is late. Then, players start coming 10 or 15 minutes late.  Talk about “bush”. 

           I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t handle the situation on the spot.  The best way to handle most problems with players is in PRIVATE. Private can be behind closed doors or at practice 20 feet away from the rest of the team. Berating players with a loud, foul tone in front of the rest of the team may work once, but it will soon create an air of hostility.  Handling things one on one tells the player that you’re focused on his issues and his correction for the sake of the team, not embarrassment.  I have a friend that was also a high school baseball coach.  He was a great first half of the season coach. I know this because we used to play his teams twice each season, once at the very beginning of the season and once at the end.  When we saw his team the first time they looked sharp.  They were focused.  When this coach said jump they’d say, “How high?” Then during the progression of the season, his supposedly constructive criticisms became louder and more public.  When we’d play them at the end of the season, the players seemed skittish during pre-game warm-ups, as though they were walking on glass.  The moment one player would make a mistake this coach would verbally jump all over the guilty party.  This continued throughout the game.  His players lacked enthusiasm and were having no fun.  Rarely did he pull a player off to the side and “talk” to the player.  I’m not saying that he had to be a teddy bear, but people run from grizzly bears.

          The next scenario is when someone has a problem with you and your coaching.  Typically, the problems that I’m referring to are in relationship to playing time. Usually the problem is related to playing time.  Hell, I’d be disappointed in a player if he/she didn’t want to play more.  My first step is to address the players and parents at the parent meeting at the beginning of the season.  I feel that it is much easier to anticipate potential problems and not have any, than is it to not prepare for problems and then have to deal with them.  Our team’s procedure has 3 steps:

 

1)   I want to hear it from the player 1st, not the parent.  I want the player to approach me one on one, before or after practice.  If something is bothering a player enough, he or she should be mentally tough enough to address it with the coach. I will not discuss an issue on the phone.  On the phone, people say things they don’t mean.  As well, words are misinterpreted via lack of visible body language.  If the parent approaches me about a pressing issue, and it is the first time that I’m being made aware of it, I politely tell the parent that their son or daughter has not brought that to my attention. I then add that I would like their son or daughter to see me in private prior to the next practice. Until then, it is not a discussion point.

 

2)   After the player has addressed the problem with me, if he is not satisfied, I will make an appointment to meet with the player and the parent(s).   95% of the time it will not come to this.  Most players accept what you tell them during the one to one meeting if you give them honest reasons.  But keep in mind that that not everyone shares your perspective, honest or not.  The biggest and most important rule in this situation is to not discuss other players on the team during this meeting.  If you allow this to happen, the parent will quickly compare his kid to every player in the line-up.  As opposed to being a supporter of the team, the parent will tear down the skill and ability of any given player ahead of his/her child own on the depth chart.  The proper way to conduct the meeting is to focus in on what his/her child can do to improve.

 

3)   If there is no resolution to the problem at this point, I advise the parent to make an appointment with the athletic director or principal of the school.  In a school situation this option exists.  It really should only be used for emergency situations.  School administrators should have more important things to do than worry about who’s playing 3rd base and hitting 5th for the baseball or softball team.  You want to maintain the support of the administration.  Only involve them in very difficult situations.  They will appreciate it.

 

            By following this procedure, the number of peripheral issues that can distract a team will be filtered.  A player will think twice before going home after practice and griping, because parents’ initial reaction will become, “Did you talk to your coach about it?” If the player answers, “No,” then reflection upon the validity of the problem goes on in the player’s head.  Upon reflection, if it is still a problem to one of my players I want to help them figure it out. That’s part of building a cohesive “non-bush league” team.

Want to follow our season on Twitter?

St. Anthony Baseball: 2008 Regional Champions
St. Anthony Baseball: 2008 Regional Champions

I’ve just started a Twitter page for our fall baseball season.  My first reason for doing it was to communicate with parents in another mode.  Secondly, we have entered a cooperative athletic agreement with a school 12 miles away. I want to be able to get info to parents and grandparents related to rainouts, re-schedule, and etc. in an alternative methods to the norm.  Lastly, it gives me an opportunity to describe the trials and tribulations of the season.  

You can view the most recent Tweets on the right side of the screen, right under the Blog Stats 🙂

St. Anthony School: 2007 IESA Class 1A State Champions

St. Anthony School: 2007 IESA 1A State Champions