Youth coaches plant seeds, hope ballplayers sprout
The Molalla Mohicans have players in the second, third and fourth grades, including several who are play8ing baseball for the first time.
The visiting baseball team was taking infield, so there was some time to kill on the Molalla Mohicans bench.
Kyle, what time do you go to bed at? 9-year-old Logan Sandberg asked
Is it school the next day? teammate Kyle Chavez replied.
Sandberg: Well, yeah.
Chavez: Oh, eight-thirty.
A few minutes later, Mohicans coach John von Eynern and assistant Doug Swain huddled with their Midget National players a group of second-, third- and fourth-graders with limited experience for a quick pep talk before sending them onto the field for the start of another Clackamas County Junior Baseball Association game at Clark Park.
Most folks who are associated with Molalla Youth Sports or who have come up through the CCJBA system know that the Midget level is only two steps above T-ball. They also know that within each classification there are three divisions Federal, American and National and that Federal is the top division in terms of skill level, followed by American and National.
What von Eynern and Swain are working with is the rawest of the raw. Thats not to say that the next Mike Trout or the next Clayton Kershaw isnt sitting somewhere on the Mohicans bench. But most of the Mohicans are kids who skipped T-ball and Rookie ball, and this is the first time they've played baseball.
What you see at a Mohicans game is a course is Baseball 101, taught by two fathers who have a combined 35 years experience coaching youth baseball in the area.
Its a lot of basic fundamentals, von Eynern said. When its time to play, we keep it serious for the most part, but theyre just 8-, 9- and 10-year-old kids. Theyre not going to remember what happened 10 minutes ago.
We want to make it a fun atmosphere and try to work with each kid and teach them what they need to learn to get to the next level.
During the Mohicans pre-game warm-ups, von Eynern and Swain lob wiffle balls in batting practice, emphasizing the need to see the ball and to concentrate on hitting the ball out front.
Its all about the hitting at this level, von Eynern said. If you put the ball into play, youre good to go.
Getting players to stand in the batters box and swing is half the challenge, especially if theyve been hit by a pitch, which most of them have. And no matter how many times the coaches tell the players, It only hurts for a second, there is an innate fear that most kids have when theyre facing living pitching for the first time.
That means for many, their first step as a batter is backward, not forward.
The Midget game comes with a generous strike zone so generous that a player who stands 3-foot-9 may have a strike zone that is 4-foot-2. In other words, a pitch that is over the plate and eye high or slightly higher occasionally gets called a strike.
The expanded strike zone makes sense, because it encourages kids to swing at anything that is close, cuts down on walks, and keeps the game moving.
Almost every batter who comes to the plate hears the same series of tips. Back elbow up! Start to swing early! Move closer to the plate!
The one suggestion that throws a lot of Midgets is when theyre told to, Move back in the box. Half of them take a step toward the catcher. The other half take a step away from the plate.
Obviously, a lot of them are still learning.
All kids mature at different ages, Swain said. At this age, you dont know whos going to be a ballplayer and who isnt. But if we can teach them the basic fundamentals, maybe we can get them down the road until they do mature and then see if they want to play some more.
Each inning, Midget teams bat until they make three outs or score five runs, whichever comes first. Games are only five innings and there is a two-hour time limit, both of which can test the attention span of most Midgets.
When Molalla fell behind 6-0 in the fourth inning, one of the Mohicans reserves got restless.
Coach, I want to be pitcher, he said.
Yeah, and I want to be Vice President, Swain said back through the fence.
Really? Why not President? the player asked.
Nobody would vote for me for President, Swain said. Vice President, Ive got a chance.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Mohicans had a 5-5-1 record, keeping them in the hunt for a postseason berth into the pre-County playoffs.
And while a trip to County would be a nice bonus, thats not what motivates von Eynern and Swain.
Said Swain: What were really trying to do here is make these kids better ballplayers and hope they love the game enough that they want to come back and play next year.