This Spring, I coached a local Mount Pleasant 8-Under recreation baseball team (the Rays) playing in a kids-pitch format, meaning the kids are pitching to the batters — instead of a pitching machine or coach. This is the first time pitching to and hitting against other kids, so a challenging format to say the least.
The Rays won our regular season championship and therefore I was chosen to coach one of two Mount Pleasant All-Star teams, scheduled to play in two tournaments — Mount Pleasant and Aiken, respectively. From my Rays team, I brought over four players, including my son, Brady and my top assistant coach, Jeff Tkacz and his son, Connell. Connell and Brady were two of the league’s best hitters and fielders, building a solid foundation.
With the standard 12 players, we won our first tournament (best two out of three) against the other Mount Pleasant All-Star team. That tournament stayed in the same format as our regular season — kid-pitch – and we won on the strength of our pitching with Brady, Kenny Schilling (also from my Rays team) and Patrick O’Connor leading the way.
Going into All-Stars, I knew I was going to lose Jeff (as a coach) and Connell for the Aiken tournament, so I was going in to Aiken with a maximum of 11 players and one less coach. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem because we play with nine in our local league format.
What I didn’t know at the time, was that I was going to need 10 players. The tournament rules state that you have 10 players play in the field (four outfielders and the normal six infielders), rather than the standard nine. More to come on this later.
This was also when things started to unravel.
Even though everyone committed to the two tournaments, after we won the first tournament one of the players’ parents said they couldn’t make it to Aiken due to other obligations.
Down to 10.
That same day, I learned I was going to lose yet another player — one of my best and few power-hitters — due to a family obligation that the parents originally thought they could avoid.
Down to nine.
The other big challenge was that we were taking these kids from a kid-pitch league (our strength) to a pitching-machine format. We now had a little over a week to teach these kids how to hit off a machine which essentially shoots what looks like knuckle balls. Very difficult.
To make matters worse, I was going out of the country to Mexico, so I had to recruit some other parents to fill-in as assistants for the two practices I was away. Plus, I still needed to fill my roster.
While in Mexico, I got the gut-punch of finding out that my ninth player broke his leg on the last day and the last play of football camp. I felt horrible for him – he’s great kid and a great player – but selfishly, I felt bad for the team and for me. I feared we were going to have to call the whole thing off.
The kids would be crushed and so would I, to an extent.
Down to eight.
To make matters even worse, I also received word that one of the other players’ parents were going to a wedding and he was probably out as well.
Down to seven?
Luckily, I have good parents (and good friends) who offered to take the player to Aiken and put him up in their room.
Back to eight.
The Monday before I came back, they had another practice and the kids still weren’t getting the machine. They weren’t hitting.
The day I got back into the country was a Wednesday and two days prior to the tournament. This was also the day I finally got the rules. This is also when I found out about the 10-player rule, so now I had to recruit two kids at a minimum rather than one.
I had already been scrambling, as I had asked one of the parents who initially backed out. They were on the fence but were leaning toward rejoining after making some last-minute arrangements on their end (thank you).
Up to nine. Sort of.
I then reached out to another parent whose child played on another team in our league – he got a few hits off us — so I knew he could play. Luckily, they are friends of ours (and our kids) and live in our neighborhood, but it was still not a done deal. They wanted to make sure he was comfortable.
We made a deal with both kids’ parents that they could come to that night’s practice to see how it all went. I then told Brady and the other coaches to help make them feel welcome.
In practice, I made a special point to take both kids aside and talk to them, to make sure they were feeling comfortable and not overwhelmed. Mid-way through, we got a resounding yes that both kids were ok to join us for the trip up to Aiken…and finally could say we had a team.
Back to 10.
Game on in two days, but we had our work to do. The kids still weren’t hitting.
I realized that we may have been overcomplicating things. Coaches from another team suggested that we point to the batters right before every pitch. This was a way to warn them to be ‘ready.’ As I watched them struggle, I started to think that the pointing was distracting, so I asked the assistant coach running the machine to stop pointing to see how the kids would react.
Amazingly (or not), they started to hit a little more, so we decided to have one more practice the next night, to reinforce this new-found information, and continued to see their confidence grow with each hit.
I am a fair coach. I believe I’m good with the kids, but I do ask and expect a lot of them and in turn I get a lot out of them. That said, this situation was a whole new ball-game – with picking two kids up at the last minute, integrating them and the others on short notice, traveling and staying overnight to play in a weekend state tournament against kids that had played off the machine all year, under rules that were new to us. It was crazy but exciting and now we were on to Aiken hoping for the best.
What I enforce is that we are all a part of a team, rather than individuals. I knew that the field we were about to play on was huge compared to what we typically play on. Right before Game 1, I walked a few of the outfielders onto the field to show them where they’d be playing. As we looked around, I said that one of my No. 1 rules is that we have each other’s backs. Each one of us backs the other up — from the coaches to the players. A mistake is only bad if we get down on ourselves (or each other) and stop playing baseball. My belief was that if they helped each other, we’d mostly be fine.
I continued to reinforce this concept throughout the tournament and in real-time I saw it come to fruition. Game after game, kids like Drew Manheimer, Jack Koerner, Jack Lake, Hampton Weiters, Christian Monahan, Anthony Morocco, James Boger, along with Kenny, Patrick (two of our top hitters and defenders) and Brady. All of them continued to have each other’s backs, making play after play after play, picking each other up each step of the way. It was awesome.
The first game was always — at least initially — going to be our hardest game. We played one of two Aiken teams, but were able to take an early lead. Aiken kept fighting us back, scoring runs in every inning that we did. I just knew this was going to come down to the final out. In the last inning with us up 11-9, Aiken was hitting with runners on second and third and two outs. A hit would’ve tied the game at the least. The batter then hit a high bouncing ball towards Brady. He had only one option — although I’m not sure how he thought of it — Brady grabbed the ball in mid-air with his bare hand and in one motion fired a strike to get the runner out at first to end the game. Amazing.
Next, we were on to the hotel pool to breathe, relax and then to bed, as our next game was Saturday afternoon at 12:45 p.m. and it was going to be a scorching 95-plus degrees.
We won the second game pretty handily, 20-5, giving the kids the chance to have some fun at the hotel pool while the parents and I waited to see if we would be playing that night or if we were a high enough seed to play the next morning.
This gave the kids all the time they needed to bond and do what kids do. This was their time to not really care about who we played, when we played or how many games we played. That was my job.
We eventually got the good news that we were the No. 3 seed playing at 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning. If we won, our next game would be at 2:30 p.m. and the championship game was scheduled for 4:15 p.m., if we got that far. So potentially we could play three games in a row on Sunday in 95-plus degree heat. No sweat.
The Sunday morning game was a bit closer than our last, as we only won 7-3, but we hit the ball when we needed to and fielded the ball extremely well.
For the 2:30 p.m. game and after a quick lunch, the boys played with a lot more energy and enthusiasm than what I had seen all tournament earning a resounding win of 16-1, and it wasn’t even that close.
Going into the Championship game, we felt pretty good about our situation. We had already accomplished more than was expected, although I always thought we had a chance to win it all. After four games and four wins, I knew we could win the whole thing.
When we found that we were playing Fairfield, I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t thrilled either. We were familiar with them as we had a few games after theirs (or they after us). They were a very solid team, appearing to have been together for a lot longer than our guys. They were a much bigger team too, both in size of their kids and in numbers of fans and coaches. They seemingly had matching everything – chairs, umbrellas, bat bags, uniforms, parents with matching shirts and jerseys and polos for coaches. They even had their own introduction/walk-up music. It was a bit over-the-top for a recreation All-Star team.
It goes without saying that they came with an overwhelming amount of fan-fare and to say our kids weren’t intimidated would probably be unfair, but we tried our best to distract them from all of that.
Fairfield, batted first, and hit the ball well and all over the field. In that inning, they scored seven quick runs, which hadn’t happened to us all season, let alone in the tournament. I believe that really damaged our guys’ enthusiasm and that was tough to come back from. That said, we battled, and scored three runs in the first two innings, but each time we had a threat to score more, we ran into an out. There were a few more chances, but overall, we just ran into too many outs, balls didn’t bounce our way, calls didn’t go our way and we just couldn’t hit or field like we did the last few games or all season.
Our momentum was seized away and coupled with playing three games in a row. My guys just ran out of steam eventually losing the game but not our heart.
These kids cared. Some cried, some were angry, but in the end, most of them showed great character as they really came a long way. I told them all how proud I was and how proud they should be.
After the trophy presentation, there was a moment when I was cheering one of the kids up. Unbeknownst to me, the kids with the help of another coach and initiated by Brady, were working their way to pour a giant jug filled with ice and Gatorade over my head. By the time I realized what was going on, it was too late. It was awful – yet — it was great. It was perfect.
As we made our way to the parking lot and our cars, I continued to console a few of the other kids and told them that it was ‘OK to not to like to lose,’ but to not let that define them. That they should feel good about what they ultimately accomplished and to certainly strive to win the next time.
When it was all said and done, and maybe once they realized they all got trophies, a bunch of us were eventually smiling, laughing, shaking hands and hugging. The biggest hug I gave, was to my son, Brady, as he was my rock throughout. He led the team in hits and fielding and honestly dealt with everything better than I could have and certainly better than I could have expected. He didn’t cry, but when I got in the car and turned around to ask him if he was alright, I noticed he was on his iPad. He just simply said that he was fine, that he wasn’t sad at all. That’s when I realized that he really was ‘fine.’ That it was fine and that we really did achieve something great. Perspective.
This was a great bunch of kids with a lot of talent, great hearts, along with great coaches and parents.
I certainly will miss coaching and working with them, but it was a long season and we all have our summers to get to, I’m so glad for that. And I believe their parents are too.
I just wish we got that one last win to cap it off.
Seth Dieter lives in Mount Pleasant and is married to his wife of 15 years, Whitney Dieter. They have three kids, Cole (11), Brady (9) and Grayson (5). Dieter has played baseball for as long as he can remember and has been coaching both adults and youth for the better part of the past 15 years.