At the annual fundraising auction for Matt's school, we bought a signed copy of Tony LaRussa's "Three Nights In August" book. The book is about a 3-game series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs as seen through the eyes of Cards manager, Tony LaRussa. I'm hoping that the book gives me some added coaching insights as we start our second year managing a youth hardball team down at historic Heine Meine field in Lemay.
The St. Louis Cardinals have adopted Heine Meine as one of their "Cardinals Care Fields". If you want to see true baseball in a restored, historic neighborhood setting, make a visit to Heine Meine field sometime this spring or summer. The atmosphere is great, the baseball entertains, and the concession stand has everything you're looking for at reasonable, midwestern prices.
The team I manage, the "St. Louis South Sox", is entering its second season, playing at the "Midget 2" level. Players range in age from 12-14. Bases are at 80 feet and the distance from the mound to home is 54 feet. Next year, the boys will move up to the big field, with full size, major league dimensions. Still, with 80-foot bases, it's a long throw from third to first for a twelve year old.
In 1980, before he played for Tony LaRussa, a skinny Mark McGwire played in an exhibition game at Heine Meine for the US Olympic Baseball Team. In that game, McGwire hit a towering a home run deep into the adjoining neighborhood of tidy, frame houses.
Last year the South Sox, named for the players who all come from different south side neighborhooods, finished the season with 5 wins and 7 losses. We enter the 2006 season with hopes for a solid year, having added more pitching, hitting and defensive strength. The team has a crisp, new look, and for the first time, an actual corporate sponsor - Bommarito Nissan. As the boys came over last nite to pick up their new uniforms, you could see the excitement on their faces.
Matt has played with some of these boys since first grade. Johnny "Boom Boom" is one of them. John plays first base for the South Sox. John has always loved playing baseball, and is growing into a fine first baseman. He has the lanky build and stretch play you want to see over at first. Of all the boys, John was the most eager to see the new uniforms. He had his dad call yesterday, and they were among the first to arrive last nite to pick them up. You could see a gentle smile come across his face and a gleam in John's eyes as he inspected the new uniforms and the "South Sox, sponsored by..." red and white team banner.
As crazy at it may sound, one of the top reasons we moved to St. Louis from California was to raise Matt in a baseball-drenched environment. We're living that life now, and it is a wonderful thing. Uncynical, these young players have baseball dreams. Based on a show of hands, almost every South Sox player has hopes to play high school ball in a couple of years. Their hearts are filled with anticipation.
So far, I've learned two things from "Three Nights In August". LaRussa does not follow conventional wisdom in any part of managing. He always tries new things. One of them was to move a powerful, dangerous hitter into the leadoff spot. Traditionally, you save those hitters for the middle of the lineup. LaRussa figured that challenging a pitcher early, before he can settle into a rhythm, would be a good strategy. With added pop in the South Sox lineup this year, we're going to try that same strategy.
Another lesson LaRussa shares is his job description of the role of a major league manager. Getting pampered, multi-million dollar, athletes to play at the top of their game is a difficult thing to do. To do so, LaRussa believes his job is mostly about
"unlocking players' hearts".
Coaching 12 and 13 year olds presents a similar challenge. These young guys are ballplayers on the inside, building up their potential. Unlocking their hearts will help unleash that potential. If by the end of the season, the players come together and the team plays with "heart", then no matter the win-loss record, it will have all been a very good year.