Column: Forget the rules: The girls of summer are a hit

By JASON RECKER

At their roots, baseball and softball are not complicated.

Cavemen hit things with clubs way back in the day. And among the first things children learn is that throwing things is both entertaining and therapeutic. The line in “Bull Durham” goes like this: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”

Makes sense. Unless you are 6 years old.

It never occurred to me until this spring. That is when I began coaching the Carnations. We are a collection of three coaches and a dozen 6- and 7-year-old girls whose interest in the game varies from mild to whatever you call it when players are more interested in using their glove as a mask than employing it to scoop the ground ball headed their way.

I ask them, “Do we play in the dirt?”

They shout back, loudly and in unison, “Noooooo!”

Then two of them drop their gloves and begin excavating.

We do play in the dirt. Because that’s what 6-year-olds do amid an infield of finely manicured soil. Telling them to ignore the ground and conform to the proper defensive position is like handing a man the swimsuit edition and telling him not to look.

The Carnations like dirt. They also like socks that appear to have been attacked by rainbows. A baseball purist — I was born and raised on basketball but good curveballs and stand-up triples are my thing — might scoff at the Carnations’ indifference to a game once labeled our national pastime. But I have three daughters, so I’m waist-deep in pregame ponytails and you can’t wear earrings during games and singing “Happy Birthday” to whichever player turns 7 on game night.

That stuff is easy.

It’s the rules that get in the way.

Comprehension of force-outs isn’t the Carnations’ forte. Nuance isn’t necessary. Kids, just don’t run away from the ball and let’s not skip, hop or otherwise frolic from base to base.

The other day, our leadoff hitter slugged a ball some 30 feet into the air, a rarity for the Carnations or any other team on this level. The pitcher leaned forward for a basket catch, a substantial accomplishment for any incoming first-grader. I wondered, as our hitter pivoted to return to the dugout after being informed she was out, if she had even the slightest idea why she was being robbed of her chance to run the bases.

We haven’t discussed that rule.

I tell myself: Keep it simple, stupid.

I urge the catcher to cover home plate, and I wonder if she will ask for a blanket. You must speak on their terms. Race to first base like the winner gets ice cream. Keep your back foot on the ground, like you’re trying to smash a bug. Swing hard like you’re trying to dent your brother’s face.

The light bulbs flicker.

Home plate is shaped like a house. They’re innings, not endings. The home team hits last, and we can still be the visitors even if we live very close to the field.

The scoreboard really holds their attention. We started keeping score last week, a strategy that is both blessing and curse. Losing gets people’s attention. It doesn’t hurt to supply kids with some calloused emotions; let ’em learn they can’t always win. But do we really need kids who sleep with stuffed animals leaving the field disappointed?

The Carnations won the other night, but that’s not what we remember.

They will remember the Dilly Bars after the game and, maybe, hopefully, a hit that reached the outfield grass or the time they stopped a bouncing grounder and stomped on second base.

I will remember their silliness and joy and adorable naiveté.

One kid uncorked a throw intended to land near first base. It sailed 15 feet in mostly the wrong direction. I suggested she look at her target next time. “Oh, yeah,” she said, giggling. “I forgot.”

Later, a player on third base studied the scoreboard, turned to me and frowned. “We’re losing, aren’t we?” she asked.

“That doesn’t matter. Stop looking up there,” I responded. “Here’s what matters: Are you learning anything?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Are you having fun?” I continued.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

“Then run home like a smelly monster is chasing you,” I said. “Slide if you want. I dare you.”

“I love to slide,” she said.

“It’s fun, isn’t it? And if your mom gets mad because your clothes get dirty, blame me; tell her your coach told you to slide.”

Duh, Coach.

“I know,” she finished. “I tell them that every game.”

The batter hit the ball. The kid on third base took off. Safe at home in a cloud of dust and a frenzy of excitement. She just kept going, ran and ran and ran almost all the way to the wrong dugout. Everybody cheered.

There’s nothing complicated about that.

Jason Recker is the enterprise editor at The Herald. His daughter wears Stan Musial’s number. His email is jrecker@dcherald.com.




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