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Old reporter notices some changes on the field

Caption
(CNA photo by SCOTT VICKER)
Pitcher Paige McElfish and Nodaway Valley infielders wear face masks during a recent game, after teammate Josie Carter was injured by a batted ball earlier in the season.

I turned 56 years old this week.

I started covering sports full-time at age 22 in Atlantic, after three years of part-time newspaper work in Fort Dodge and Iowa City.

So, I’ve seen a few ballgames.

Here are a few observations from the state of the game in 2013, as we go full-bore into the postseason tournament run this weekend:

• Parents are bolder.

There was a time when parents knew the dugout area was off limits. That communicating with your child during competition was strictly taboo, and any efforts to do so would be met with a stern lecture from somebody on the coaching staff.

Can you imagine during a basketball game, as a kid steps to the free throw line, and a parent walks to the baseline and shouts some last-second tips about bending the knees, and following through?

Yet, that’s about what’s happening at some softball and baseball games. I was at a softball game during the past week when two separate dads offered such “help.” One walked behind the on-deck circle as his daughter was getting loose, and said something about her swing.

Another walked next to the edge of the dugout and told his daughter something about changing to a more open stance.

In both cases, the team’s coaches were in the first and third-base coaching boxes, so they had no idea this was going on.

Look, I know you mean well, and I’ve been there. I was the jerk behind the backstop shouting tips to my sons at various stages of their careers. In time, I understood it was wrong.

And, once I got into coaching, I realized how undermining it is. As a coach, if I want one of my players to change her stance, I’ll be the one telling her. And, one thing a player on deck doesn’t need is a distraction from her own focus time.

Your job is to attend and support the whole team with a positive attitude. It’s not to guide your child to a college scholarship with your expertise.

Coaching is hard enough without having the kids hear a bunch of mixed messages during a competition. And, in most cases, it seems to me the kid just wants the parent to go away during these “interruptions.” Remember how easily embarrassed you were as a teenager?

Oh, and by the way, to the parents who were “put out” by where I was positioned to shoot photos during recent softball games: You can be mobile in your lawn chair and find other spots. Plus, the bleachers usually aren’t full.

I’m limited in the fact that I can’t shoot photos through the fence, and when possible I try to avoid making them draw me a media box on the field of play.

I’m there to cover YOUR team, which includes YOUR kid. So, all I ask for is a little leeway in doing my job for a couple of hours.

• High school teams are getting younger and younger, and there’s a learning curve that goes along with that.

Back in the day, I remember discussions on the Little League Board about the push to finish seasons by July 1, for vacation purposes and the like. Not to mention the good early July baseball weather you’re sacrificing for some wicked evenings endured in April and early May.

My position was, a schedule that’s too compressed with games leaves little time for learning the game in practice environments, when you can truly stop and explain why you’re asking them to do something.

Likewise, a high school schedule is sometimes so crowded that it’s tough to work in consecutive practice days, unless you go in the morning for awhile on game days.

The end result of all of this is watching a lot of kids in eighth and ninth grades learn fundamental things during varsity games. Baserunning and fielding cutoff principles are the primary things I’ve noticed.

When varsity teams were primarily made up of juniors and seniors, you didn’t see as many lapses like these:

1) Kids forgetting to tag up at third on a deep fly ball, or at second if the fly is deep enough in right or center.

2) Runners not going halfway on a ball in the air with less than two outs, instead hanging back near the base; or worse yet, forgetting to keep running until the ball is caught with two outs. With two outs and a ball hit to left field, I saw a young courtesy runner hesitate coming off second, to see if it would be caught or not. Geez, if it’s dropped, he should be scoring!

3) Runners on first and second thinking they have to advance on a dropped popup, when in fact, the umpire called the infield fly rule.

4) In little leagues, you see outfielders just winging the ball into the pitcher’s area in the middle of the infield. That should not be happening in a varsity game, when a ball is caught in right field, and the runner on second mistakenly ran too far off the bag on contact.

That throw should be on a line above the cutoff’s (second baseman) head to the shortstop covering second, and you have a double play. That should be second nature in a varsity game. I see too many outs left on the field because people aren’t thinking ahead where they are going to throw the ball.

Man, I still have nightmares about coach Ed McNeil screaming at us in practice if we showed any tendancy of being unsure where we were going with the ball after catching it. And, that was practice!

On the other hand, an experienced, well-drilled team is still fun to watch. At tournament time, as the rounds progress, that’s the type of teams we get to cover.

• On a more positive note, safety is coming more into the forefront on high school ball diamonds.

At Nodaway Valley, for example, you’ll see several softball players wearing protective face masks. There’ a good reason for that. They nearly witnessed a teammate get killed this season.

Josie Carter was playing second base in a game at East Union. Coach Ray Stewart, an experienced EMT volunteer in Fontanelle, explains what happened:

“There was a hard, one-hop drive to Josie at second. It scooted right over the top of her glove, and got her right between the eyes. The sound of the ball hitting her face was just like it sounded when it came off the bat.

“I was out on the field before the ball stopped rolling. I mean, I thought it could have killed her! She went down to her knees, and then face first in the dirt. She started to come to a little bit, and as I raised her up, the blood just came out like gushers.”

Carter suffered a broken nose, and missed some softball time after surgical repair.

The day after the incident, Jay Harter, father of shortstop Sadie Harter, went to Des Moines and got masks for everyone on the team who wanted one. They paid for them, but he made the trip to get them.

As the season wound down, you saw the pitcher and everyone in the infield wearing the masks. And, Carter in right field.

It’s great to have happy endings like that, as well as the great news Creston first baseman Mackenzie Andreasen got a while back about her mother’s successful cancer surgery. Suddenly, batting stances and winning games doesn’t seem like life and death.

“It kind of puts it all in perspective,” Creston coach Mike McCabe said.

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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