Archived Story

Baseball is difficult to explain to children

Published 9:03am Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

Do you remember when you learned baseball? I don’t. It seems like I just always knew, but I faintly I recall two ways of learning it. 1. Watching it. I watched television at home and during visits to Grandma Tootie Engstrom, an avid fan. 2. Playing it. I was never in a youth league, but kids played it at recess sometimes. Family members played workup baseball at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.

If you don’t know what workup is, you either don’t have family ties to a farm, are a communist or were born after video games ruined outdoor play.

Teaching soccer to a kid is easy. Kick the ball. Now kick it toward the goal. Now kick it into the goal. Good job!

Teaching basketball is easy. Even if younger children can’t play it yet, they can understand what is happening when they watch. Bounce the ball. Pass it sometimes. Throw it through the hoop. Score!

Teaching kids to skate on ice is hard, but how to play hockey is rather easy. It’s like soccer on ice. Instead of kicking a ball, use a stick to slide a puck.

Even football, with its complicated strategies, is fairly basic. Run or throw the ball and try to get it across the line for a touchdown.

Track, tennis, golf, disc golf, volleyball, bowling, auto racing, boxing, bobsleigh, sport after sport, the basic premises are fairly easy to explain to a child.

But not baseball.

Tee-ball started this month, and Forrest, my 5-year-old son, is on a team called the Red Sox. Practices are on Mondays. Games on Wednesdays. I missed the first practice because of a commitment, but I went to the first game.

It was a wake-up call. My boy doesn’t know baseball. What a horrible father am I!

The children in this tee-ball league are either going into kindergarten this fall or just finished kindergarten. Some kind of knew the game, but most were confused, too. I didn’t end up feeling too guilty.

All the children instantly understood the part about hitting the ball with a bat. That’s simple. They pretty quickly picked up that they run to a base after hitting the ball. Thanks to the white stripes, it didn’t take long to figure out the difference between fair and foul balls. And it didn’t take long to figure out that they run to the next base when someone else hits the ball.

Fielding, however, was another matter.

It’s hard to yell, “Throw it to first!” Which one is first?

I am enjoying being a helper coach. We grown-ups have just instructed them to throw to first, then the kids are taught that sometimes they just run to the nearest base when the bases are loaded. “Run to third!” Which one is third? I thought I was supposed to throw the ball.

The funniest part is when, for example, a ball rolls between first and second and half of the defenders run into the outfield to get it. “No, you don’t all have to go.” We grown-ups then teach them to remain in their positions. So then a ball goes nearby, but not exactly at them and they remain in their position.

Well, actually, they generally were smarter than that. Besides, if a ball rolls near a kid, most kids want to touch that ball. In fact, some would cry because they never got to field a ball during their turns on defense.

Some kids have their favorite bases. One kid wanted to throw the ball home, no matter the nearest base. I don’t blame him. The hardest part about baseball is that, on defense, there can be multiple ways to get people out. So one day before practice I grabbed a pen and paper and sat down with Forrest.

I drew the bases, the foul lines, the infield, and I said, “To get someone out, you have to get the ball to the base before the runner gets there.”

I explained the names of the bases: first, second, third and home.

Then I showed how if there was only a batter and the ball comes to you, throw it or run it to first. If there is a batter and a first baseman, throw it or run it to first or second, whichever base is closer. I continued on through bases loaded. Then I asked him again for each scenario what to do. He got the answers right, said he understood and wanted to go play right away. I told him OK but first remember this: “Before the person hits the ball, tell yourself what you will do if the ball comes to you.”

We arrived early on a practice Monday, and he and I found a vacant field. We practiced what to do for different situations. I showed him that if he can’t throw the ball all the way to a base, he can get it there with a throw that becomes a good roll. Throw it somewhat at the ground and it rolls the rest of the way. In fact, it probably is easier for the other kid to grab.

Forrest really liked playing first base and stopping rollers, so we did that for the remainder of the time before practice began.

It’s fun to reduce the national pastime to its simplest form. Tee-ball coaches are totally supportive of the kids. No one is concerned with the score or grown-up aspects such as proper crossover steps. It’s pretty much just hit, field and throw. But coaches and parents all know that the kids will enjoy the game more once they understand a few basics of a somewhat complicated-yet-fun game.

Baseball will be a game they play with friends for years to come. That’s a gift as precious as any on Christmas Day.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.