From T-Ball to Tigers: Running the bases backwards

Waiting for a grounder or Mother Nature calling ... or both? That's T-Ball. (Photo by Danny Cruff)

A hot, humid Saturday afternoon game. You know the kind. You can barely breathe. Your shirt sticks to your back. Your hair looks like you’ve been swimming. And you’re not even playing. You’re just sitting. Watching. Waiting.

Runners on first and second. A base hit up the middle. The runners advance and then the throw comes in from leftfield … to first base? The guy on first is headed home. But not by way of second and third. No. He takes a shortcut and passes the hitter as he runs straight for the plate.

Okay, so this isn’t the Tigers game … this is T-Ball. Where every ball is a base hit and every throw goes to first base. But, maybe most important for parents everywhere to remember, it’s also where a lot of today’s stars got their start.

You don’t hear those stories though … about the time Austin Jackson sat down in centerfield in the middle of a game. Or how Miguel Cabrera once followed the runner to second as the ball flew by him to the fence. Or the day when Brandon Inge took his shirt off at third base. And then his shorts. No, these aren’t the things they want you to know. But they happened – probably.

And it’s hard to believe when you watch some of the youngest Tigers – Rick Porcello (22), Alex Avila and Austin Jackson (both 24) – that they’re not so far away from striking out at the tee. Not having children of my own, and being many years removed from actually playing T-ball, I forgot. I forgot that boys and girls are born without a built-in baseball blueprint. That it’s not automatic. Not an instinct. That you could run from first to home the short way. And why not?

I forgot so much about what and how we learn. And how fast. Think about it. In just a few short years, a kid goes from running the wrong way around the bases to being drafted out of high school. Somehow, this gives me a new sense of hope about some of the current Tigers who are struggling at the plate. I mean, if Inge, for example, can learn the entire game of baseball in a couple of years, surely he can regain some of his previous swagger and hit his way out of the .190s in a single season, right? (Well, maybe after he kicks that whole mono thing he’s got going on.)

And Jackson. My vote for Rookie of the Year in 2010 has found himself having to work a little harder for what seemed to come so easily for him last year. But again, when you think about where he – and all the baseball greats – started, well, it shouldn’t take long for him to turn this thing around. Compared to running into some kid’s dad in the outfield as a seven-year-old Jackson chases down a fly ball, this should be a cakewalk, right?

Is there a future major leaguer on the T-Ball team in your home town? (Photo by Stacey Simpson Duke)

Aside from the skills, one other thing that the players develop in that same short period of time is (hopefully) “emotional control.” The ninth batter steps up to the tee this hot, humid afternoon and I glance around the field at the red-faced kids. Remarkably, they don’t look all that different from men 20 years older than them in an inning with nine batters – bored, annoyed, tired – but the level of restraint that we’ve come to expect in the major leagues is clearly lacking. One kid has his mitt on his head. Another has a complete meltdown and throws a tantrum. And still another picks his nose. Okay, so that still happens in the majors, but you get the point.

I think about these kids as tomorrow’s greats.

And I imagine them now as a few of today’s Tigers. Deep in the outfield is Brennan Boesch, taking off his hat and dropping it in the grass. Then his mitt.

Ryan Raburn at second, crying.

And Justin Verlander on the pitcher’s mound wearing a helmet. Wait. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.

At this point, it occurs to me that we use the word “instinct” all the time when talking about prospects, but it’s not exactly the right word. To get to the point where we don’t notice the player pausing to think about what to do next takes a lot of “learning” and “practice.” A lot.

I would love to see those tapes. And not because I’m a mean person. But because all of those moms and dads standing out in the field with their sons and daughters on Saturday need to know that, yeah, your kid might still make it some day. Even if, instead of running down the ground ball hit right at him, he just ran over to you to whisper that he has to pee. Really bad.

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