Swinging from the T

Published 6:16 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Children from the SYAA Shetland league cling to the chain link fence prior to a game of T-ball. Players ages 3-6 learn the basics of the game with hands-on coaches.

Even in America, kids aren’t just born knowing baseball

Everything about one of the baseball leagues at Suffolk Youth Athletic Association sounds like a great idea.

There’s heading off to the leftfield bleachers for a hot dog while your team’s batting during the third inning. There’s getting help from both teams’ coaches equally — right in the middle of the game.

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Everyone gets to run ‘round the bases at the end of each inning, regardless of how well they did at bat. Everyone plays a different position, to the extent there are any positions, each time out in the field. The batting order doesn’t matter, because everyone hits each inning.

No score is kept, and “innings” are merely a way of describing who’s at bat. Everyone plays for an hour, and then it’s time for another hot dog.

Soon enough, the T-ball players out at SYAA, ages 3-6, will be playing all-out, competitive baseball and softball. For this season, though, it’s all about learning the game of baseball, getting a chance to play it, and, finally, learning to enjoy it.

Eric Crafton is co-head coach of the Red Sox, the maroon-shirted T-ball team at SYAA. He’s coaching two of his sons, and he has an older son in the Pinto or coach-pitch division.

“Baseball’s my first love,” Crafton said after his Red Sox had just played the Dark Green team one evening at SYAA.

“We have Tides season tickets. My three boys and me, we go over there whenever we can, and we have a blast,” Crafton said.

Sherri Porter is the other head coach for the Red Sox, although whenever any of SYAA’s 10 T-ball squads is in action, there are always four or five coaches per team out on the field.

Between all those coaches and the players milling about, picking dandelions and whatnot, a T-ball field in action can be a chaotic, crowded place.

“It’s very difficult to describe,” Porter said. “It can be chaos sometimes. It’s sort of like herding cats, although this team has come along the fastest of any team I’ve been with.”

Part of the challenge is bridging the wide gap between a 3- or 4-year-old playing a sport, or doing anything group- or team-oriented for a first time, and a 6-year-old who’s now a T-ball veteran.

“With a 3-year-old, some of them maybe haven’t been to preschool yet,” Porter said. “For the little ones, it’s all about getting them so they are interested in more than just playing in the dirt,” Porter said.

The older kids, who will be moving up to coach-pitch in the fall or next spring, are starting to understand the difference between winning or losing, or at least making outs versus letting runs score.

“You have some of the team that’s really starting to understand the concept,” Crafton said, “and we’re moving players to different positions every inning. An older kid sees an out that could’ve been made, so you have to help them not get frustrated.”

If some fundamentals and athletic skills are achieved from March to May, that’s certainly great progress.

Ronnie Oliver coaches the Yellow Jackets. He’s coached PONY League and AAU baseball teams during the past couple decades. His sons played at SYAA, on AAU squads and at the high school level.

If anyone could be excused for pushing competition and baseball skills a little too much, it would likely be Oliver.

Instead, as he’s coaching his 4-year-old adopted daughter’s T-ball team, baseball fundamentals are way down the list of what’s important.

“With the first couple practices I tried introducing them to a few basics, but basically, the biggest thing was getting all of the kids to be comfortable with me and comfortable with each other,” Oliver said. “I need to be someone they can talk to.”

“It’s really more of a team-building process, even more than coaching baseball,” he added. “If we can get the kids to understand being on a team, being in a group, staying in line, knowing where to stay on the field, then we’re doing pretty well.”

As the season goes along, the frequency of hilarious plays not covered anywhere in any rulebook decreases.

That’s where a good — and patient — coach is important.

How does one teach batting order, for instance. One trick is to line everyone up on the bench in the batting order at the start of each inning. But one child hungry enough to leave the dugout for a hot dog can violate the whole batting-order strategy.

And base-running? Everyone loves to do it.

With the Red Sox on defense against the Dark Green team recently, a hitter sent a shot through the left side of the infield. As a runner took off from second, the Red Sox shortstop and leftfielder both joined him, leaving the ball to land where it might.

All three runners came around third base to score. No one argued the call, partly because there’s no umpire at the T-ball games. And everyone in both sets of bleachers, along with the seven coaches on the field, cheered.

What else can you do?