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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

Send Them In, Coach. These Little Girls Are Ready to Play

March 11, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

So, we're out playing catch on this fine March morning, a wonderful day when flowers and ballplayers are all blooming at once. Right in our little frontyard.

Every few throws, the ball misses its mark. First, it hits my car. Then it thunders off the garage door. Finally, it ricochets off my ankle, leaving a welt roughly the size of Denver.

"I thought this was softball," I tell the little red-haired girl.

"It is, Dad," she says.

I examine the ball. There is nothing soft about it. From what I can tell, it is a 10-inch chunk of molded concrete, with concrete seams and a granite core. When it hits your ankle, you know it.

"Throw the ball, Dad," says the little red-haired girl.

"OK," I say.

For weeks, the little girl has worked with me here in the frontyard, giving up her valuable free time to get me ready to coach her softball team.

She knows her dad has coached baseball almost forever. But never softball. And a transition like this doesn't just happen.

To her, baseball is a hard-edged game played by boys like her brother, callow young men who eat dessert after every meal--not just dinner, but breakfast and lunch, too.

Cake. Ice cream. Peach cobbler. They don't care. They use their sleeves for napkins and belch proudly when done. To her, they're the kind of people who play baseball. Big, belchy people. She's heard they play only to win.

"You know, Dad, softball is just a game," the little red-haired girl says.

She tells me this over and over again, that it's just a game, whispering it in my ear every night before she goes to sleep and leaving notes on my windshield every morning.

I don't know why she has to keep telling me this. I think she must have me confused with some other dad, one of those beginner dads who don't have a clue about how to behave on a ball field.

"I'm not a beginner dad," I tell her. "I've been around."

"All right," she says, as we head off to the first practice. "Just remember, it's only a game."

Ten minutes later, I'm standing in the middle of a large ball field, surrounded by first- and second-graders carrying softball gloves and chatting about the Hansons.

At my side is the head coach, who has also never coached softball before. Only baseball. Only ballplayers who belch.

"What do we do now?" I whisper.

"Don't have a clue," says Bob.

But before you know it, we are:

Learning everybody's name: The introductions go well. There are four girls named Caitlin and a couple of Courtneys. The rest are derivatives of either Caitlin or Courtney.

Remarkably, there is not a single Brittany.

"Where's Brittany?" I ask.

It seems there is always one Brittany. Not having a Brittany would be like not having a Courtney. An amazing statistical aberration.

But through some mix-up, there is no Brittany. Just Courtneys and Caitlins.

And before you know it, we are:

Stressing fundamentals: "Fundamentals are the secret to baseball," I tell the team.

"This is softball," the little red-haired girl reminds me.

"Whatever," I say.

So Bob and I spend the next 30 minutes teaching them how to handle grounders.

"Get your butts down," I say at one point, forgetting that "butt" is one of the four most humorous words in the world to 6-year-old girls.

"Get your butts down," the players repeat over and over again, prompting great tidal waves of laughter. At one point, several Courtneys almost pass out from laughter.

"Breathe deep," I say. "Don't pass out."

"And get your butts down!" my daughter yells.

Which brings us to:

The team philosophy: It's a great speech, a speech about perseverance and hustle and always trying your best.

The little red-haired girl has heard it maybe 50 times, at soccer practices and Thanksgiving feasts, a long rambling speech during which her dad quotes Harry Caray and Captain Kangaroo and a bunch of other great Americans she's never heard of.

So, as I speak, she falls soundly asleep. Several other girls, seeing a coach's daughter actually snoring, also begin to nod off. By the time I am done, only one player appears to be awake. I think her name is Caitlin. Then again, it might be Courtney.

"Are you sure you've coached before?" the little girl asks.

"Since the dawn of time," I say.

"Good," she says. "Because we really want to win."

*

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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