Coach: A few simple fixes could put the fun back in baseball
I have been a huge baseball fan all my life. Played it at the highest level (except pony league, high school, college or pro), coached it for many years and, like so many others, have rooted for our beloved Cubs and White Sox since birth.
Yes, I am one of those. They are both from Chicago, so they are both my teams. I know many vehemently disagree and find it morally, if not religiously, improper to not choose just one team. Hey, it is what it is.
But I digress. Which, by the way, was a leading candidate to replace "Coach's Corner" as the title for this regular weekly column.
Back to the issue at hand: My interest in baseball is waning. Rapidly. To the point that it is almost on life support. More so at the pro level than youth leagues and high school -- which I still enjoy watching.
I worry that it is not just me, but that this feeling may start trickling down to the younger crowd. The game is to slow. Players switch teams too much. Too many strikeouts and walks and home runs and not enough live action? It is not so much the length of the game that is the problem, but rather the inactivity during the game.
Before the baseball community of Northbrook, Glenview and Deerfield jumps all over me, I think it is safe to say the overall numbers for participation at young ages have been pretty good in recent years. After some brief moments of decline and worry a few years back, the game seems to be back on solid footing among the kiddos. Great to see!
But I still feel trouble lurking. Underneath this apparently healthy beating heart could be a murmur. An undetected, but possible, health issue that could cause issues for baseball in the near future, especially as it competes with the growing popularity of lacrosse, volleyball and soccer, just to name a few.
With that as my hypothesis, here are some suggestions to improve the game and make it more fun. . Note that all of these apply to youth- and high school-levels, not the major leagues.
Start the season earlier
Here is one of the biggest problems in high school baseball. The season ends around May 20 to accommodate the state series, which takes about three weeks. Meanwhile, most teams -- including all the lower-level teams -- are done playing by the third week of May (don't forget that, after the first week of the state tournament, 75% of the teams are out and done playing). As a result, there is no baseball for most varsity teams and ALL lower-level teams during the last two or three weeks of school, when the weather finally is conducive to playing. Not good. Solution? Start the season a bit later and push back the state tournament a couple weeks.
Let players call the pitches
I have mentioned this before. Get away from the coaches calling EVERY pitch from the sidelines at the high school level. This slows down the game to a crawl. The catcher has to look over to the coach on every pitch, who then decides his desired pitch type and location before relaying it to the catcher. Then the catcher has to relay said signal to the pitcher, who must process what pitch to throw and get the proper grip before finally getting ready to deliver the pitch. Too long! It was much better when pitcher and catcher called their own game. It becomes a learning experience for young kids and gets them more involved in the experience. An occasional pitch called by the coach? No problem. But every single one, like now? No.
Allow a bigger strike zone
This one is for the umpires. Loosen the strike zone just a little. Too often we have a perfectly hittable pitch, maybe an inch below the knee cap, called a ball. Or chest high at the letters, just a touch high, again on a perfectly hittable pitch. We need to remind the fine folks in blue that it is really cold outside, and we want to keep the game moving! Get the batters to swing the bats!
Let coaches pitch youth games
Now addressing the youth level: Way too much standing around waiting for pitchers to get the ball over the plate. Let the coaches pitch, or maybe a brother or sister. Really, let anyone pitch if they can just get the ball over the plate. The kids can play and enjoy themselves, plus the game moves along more quickly. Win-win!
Emphasize the house leagues
Youth baseball suggestion No. 2: Stop with all the onslaught of travel teams! Not only do we have each community providing travel baseball for those that want to play at a higher level, but numerous independent travel teams attract kids (actually more accurately parents) to play with them. That's great. But job No. 1 -- and the emphasis of every community -- should be the house league program. Where kids playing with and against their friends from the community and doing so without traveling all over the northern suburbs on late summer afternoons in the middle of rush hour traffic. The kids, if left to their own wishes, love playing local house league baseball!
GLENBROOK SOUTH BASEBALL NOTES: The Titans returned a strong group off last years successful team. 7-4, so far, as of this writing. Battling early season weather conditions and cancellations like everyone else. Senior James Hackett is back to lead the offense, after monster break out season last year, and getting some friendly assistance from the bats of juniors Alex Yoon, Owen Wiesenthal, and Luke Marino, as well as veterans Jack DiSano and Wichita State bound center fielder Scott Newman
The pitching rotation is still formulating but Jason Bam, Josh Mooney and Charlie Mihelic are the main three.
Keep an eye on junior catcher John Henry Russell. Now starting and becoming a factor.
10-year Coach Steve Stanicek on improving the game at the youth level: "I would love to see more kids just playing. Not even necessarily organized games, but just going out with friends and playing baseball."
DEERFIELD BASEBALL NOTES: 5-10 so far, but the team just starting to come into their own. The bats are heating up led by senior Matt Dworsky, and returning all conference player Justin Orloff who pitches, plays 3rd base and 1st base.
Longtime assistant Mark Januszewski, a Deerfield grad, is in his first year taking over for retired coach Kevin Marsh. The team is coming off a CSL North conference championship and also a state tournament regional championship from last year, so trying to keep that momentum going.
The pitching staff is improving and lead by a junior, Owen Lacey.
Coach Januszewski on improving the game at the high school level: " I think putting the rule in to have pitchers on limited pitch counts has been very beneficial. Not only does it prevent injuries, but now more kids are getting a chance to pitch, and some are really developing as a result."
GLENBROOK NORTH BASEBALL NOTES: Started strong and haven't let up -- 11-3 as of this writing. Seven juniors, who all played significant roles last year as sophomores, all returning.
The pleasant surprise has been senior Josh Mathew, who bided his time last year behind all conference 3rd baseman Zack Kim, but now, getting his time to shine, has been on a tear at the plate. Dillon Batts, lead off man/catcher Kevin Geake, and MJ Dotts provide offensive punch as well.
But the offense and the defense and really the team as a whole, revolves around center fielder Ryan Henschel who is headed to Rhode Island for college baseball next year. Henschel is the pulse of the ballclub giving it great vocal leadership, speed on the bases, timely hitting and has ridiculous range in the outfield. Using football terms, the senior can go sideline to sideline to track down fly balls, and takes it almost as a personal insult if a ball drops anywhere in the vast outfield area.
The pitching staff has been more than solid, led by Colin Roche, Spencer Geake, and lefthander Nolan Girard.
Keep an eye on: Freshman Scott Peterson has cracked the starting line up, playing the outfield, and adds another offensive weapon.
Coach Dom Savino on how to improve the high school game and youth baseball: "One thing we have worked at the high school level is really improving the cooperation and communication of the high school programs with the various summer travel teams. At the youth level, I think it is most important to equally emphasize fun, player development and competition. And I really encourage the kids to play multiple positions at the young ages."
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.