Nardball: An Ode to the National Pastime
by Jeff Lewis

With the steroids scandal casting a pall over Major League Baseball, America is once again in need of a reminder of what makes our national pastime special. To that end, I present you the first in a series of vignettes on aspects of the game that won’t merit federal investigation anytime soon, I hope.

Dateline: Carmel, California – 1987

Whether or not youth baseball, ages 9-10, is the worst spectacle in all of sport is worthy of debate. Try watching a full game between teams without any of your relatives on the roster. It can’t be done! The adult mind simply cannot tolerate that absurd level of unrelenting incompetence, unless you are wearing your rose-colored parenting goggles. The only sporting event that I’ve seen that compares is a basketball game between eight-year-olds that uses the college three-point line, but that’s a topic for another time.

I posit that when most people think of youth baseball, the picture they conjure up is the Little League World Series. It’s a tedious event with too many strikeouts, overzealous coaches, crying and its fair share of cheating, but it grossly misrepresents the true nature of youth baseball: base on balls. The pitchers in the Little League World Series are good, so the boredom arises from one strikeout after another. Normal kids, and especially nine- and ten-year-olds, are—for want of a better word—crap.

Pitchers can’t throw strikes, the catcher can’t toss the ball back to the pitcher without overthrowing him ten percent of the time, and the outfielders chew on their gloves. Mostly, though, little league is a series of lulls containing walk after walk, with an occasional strikeout, punctuated by occasional moments of action, when the ball gets hit in play. When this happens, there are two possible results: a) the ball goes to a coordinated kid, who quickly makes an out, or b) the ball seeks out an uncoordinated kid, who picks it up and throws it to a point somewhere on the diamond; if a coordinated kid retrieves it, the play ends, but if another uncoordinated kid picks it up, the cycle continues until it reaches the glove of the coordinated kid.

Youth baseball is a tough gig for a coach with a heart or a conscience. My dad was a longtime high school coach whose philosophy towards little league was that everyone should get to play all the positions. This didn’t always jibe with the parents of the “future Major League stars,” who thought the bad players belonged solely in the outfield, not on the pitcher’s mound. Carmel’s Clint Eastwood era—a high water mark in the town’s opinion of itself—no doubt added to the “star” mentality (Clint’s Opening Day speech to the league: “I’ll make this brief: Play ball.”). Among my brother’s teammates one year were the sons of a famous children’s cartoonist and of a member of the 1984 NL Champion San Diego Padres.

After years of coaching his kids, though, my dad had learned to combat the “star parent” phenomenon by drafting players based on the friendliness of their parents rather than on the kids’ playing abilities. This was a stroke of genius, one that I will use if I ever coach little league, but it can result in a poor pitching staff.

During this particular season, the league instituted a couple of rules that made games farcical. First off, runners were allowed to take leads, even though most catchers couldn’t even throw out a walking runner, with no lead. My brother was the fastest player in the league and his specialty was getting hit in the helmet, stealing second and third, and then scoring on a wild pitch. It was an easy matter to score, as long as the hitter was crafty enough not to make the final out before the pitcher had made three pitches. Sometimes, it only took one pitch, when the catcher threw the ball into the outfield. This was fun to watch for an older brother, but it’s not really the way the game was meant to be played.

The other flaw in the league charter was the six-ball-to-a-walk rule, ostensibly created to cut down on walks. From my vantage point in the stands, however, this only succeeded in increasing the length of each walk and making it crystal clear to everyone: this pitcher really sucks.
I lay out these critiques of youth baseball as a backdrop for the heart of my story, one that spotlights the youthful exuberance that saves little league baseball from itself.

Dateline: Carmel, California – A game in May, 1987, bottom of the third inning

While waiting near the dugout to relay a message from my mom, I listened to my dad finish his mid-inning defensive assignments. I noticed that when my dad finished, two of the three kids who went unnamed—I’ll call them Thomas and Jonathan—gave each other a high five. When the inning started, my dad stood at the dugout opening to give the team support. Thomas and Jonathan hopped over to the bench and sat down about ten feet apart, facing each other. Thomas produced a ball and each of them put on their batting gloves. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing, so I watched, enthralled.

While the pitcher on my brother’s team proceeded to walk the bases full, Thomas rolled the ball on the bench to Jonathan. About two-thirds of the way down it rolled off the side and into the dirt. Jonathan got up, pounced on it and then returned to his seat, facing Thomas. He rolled it back, slowly.

It conked out, failing to reach Thomas, who leaned forward to grab it. On the balls return journey, Thomas again rolled it off the side of the bench and again Jonathan returned serve with a slow roller—with a little more oomph than the first time. This time it was accurate and as it inched its way towards Thomas, he beckoned it with each hand, while keeping his legs rooted to the bench.

“Come on, come on,” Thomas murmured, as he waved the ball towards him. “Come on. Come on!”

When the ball made contact with Thomas’s crotch, he pumped his fist vigorously: “YES!” Jonathan’s arms shot up in the air. “Nards!” he yelled.

Thomas’s yell wrested my dad’s attention from the field. “Oh, Jeez! How many times do I have to tell you to cut that out?” The two friends looked sheepish as they stood up and pretended to show interest in the game.

The next week, during batting practice, I noticed that they were back at it, happy as clams. What’s more, Nardball’s appeal had spread—three teammates now watched attentively, learning the finer points of the game within the game, not to mention a very literal interpretation of the umpire’s erstwhile call, “Play ball.”

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Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis