Joy in Mudville: A Little League Memoirby Greg Mitchell
Joy in Mudville chronicles the author's time as manager of his son's Little League team, and explores the many issues surrounding this seemingly simple situation: the relationship between father and sons, coaches and players, kids of different races and backgrounds all playing the same game. Mitchell also reflects on his own childhood baseball and Little League experiences. In the end, Mitchell and his son Andy's team go from losers to champs, and everyone takes away life lessons that far outweigh the ecstatic pleasure of a winning season. Published in time for Father's Day, the book will surely strike a chord as it touches on some of the most American of subjects: Dads and baseball.
- Washington Square Press
- Publication date:
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- 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
It's opening night at Memorial Park in Nyack, New York, hard by the Hudson River, and already the Little League season is looking bleak. My Red Sox are trailing, my ace pitcher is getting bombed, and my son has already booted one ball and struck out in his only at bat. Even worse, our uniforms haven't arrived yet, so we are not Red Sox, but Braves, wearing faded, mismatched shirts from a distant decade. We do not look good out there, in any sense. In fact, we don't even look like we belong on this level. We seem young and small and inept, and appearances, in this case, do not lie. Our outfielders can't field. Our catcher can't catch and cannot peg the ball to second base, or even get it back to the pitcher half the time. Our only offensive weapon is the base on balls. Our only hit was a hit batter. We are, in short, the Better Dead Than Red Sox.
And the parents, all potential Steinbrenners, are already getting restless.
It didn't get much better the rest of the year for the team or its manager. We ended up winning two games and losing twelve, and got knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round. My son, Andy, age nine, barely lifted the bat off his shoulder the entire year and finished with a .155 batting average, which is bad, even for a pitcher. Comically, the only one who got injured was me completing the 1997 season with a serious arm ailment from stabbing for wild throws.
A year later, however, it was baseball like it ought to be. Renamed the Athletics, we were surely the only Little League team in the nation with an extraterrestrial for a mascot hence our nickname, the Aliens. We staged one impossible comeback after another; our battle cry was "Alien Resurrection!" This time Andy would play a pivotal role in the team's thrilling drive to the playoffs, and his manager/father, at a key moment, would deliver a stroke of genius that came to be called the Walk on the Wild Side.
This, then, is a tale of two seasons, the ridiculous and the sublime. It stars my "cardiac kids" Matt the Bat, RBI Keiser, Little Stevie Wonder, Cool Taddy Bell, and all the rest. It explores the intersection of two baseball lives, manager and son, and how this produces both profound conflict and ineffable joy. More than that, it is a saga of all fathers and all sons, and baseball in our time, as America's Game enters its third century.
Andy is tall for his age, lanky, brown-eyed, brown-haired, good-looking. He adores his mom. Born in Manhattan, he now prefers Nyack. He's a typical pre-teen American kid, into Game Boy and X-Files, Old Navy and MTV, The Simpsons and Austin Powers, and hiking around our local megalo-mall. We don't let him watch South Park, but he knows every character, gag, and plot line through schoolyard osmosis. Yet his favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird, his favorite film Saving Private Ryan. He's a talented cartoonist, and a movie maven. He plays electric guitar in a rock band called We Don't Suck.
I tell him, "Andy, if you say you don't suck, all the kids will shout out, 'Yes, you do!' Even if you don't."
"So we'll change our name to We Suck, then they'll yell, 'No, you don't!'"
"Don't bet on it." Little League and rock 'n' roll this is how Bruce Springsteen started?
He's our only child, the male baseball heir of his father. That's a lot of pressure, real or imagined. Not long ago the New York Mets' top minor league prospect, Ryan Jaroncyk, quit baseball entirely because he was sick and tired of getting advice from his father ever since Little League and had come to hate the game. He claimed, in fact, that he had never liked playing ball and had only kept at it to please his dad, a former University of Southern California defensive back. His mother, who had complained about this for years, packed up and left, too, so Dad lost wife and son within the same week.
Obviously there's a lesson there. I think of that story almost every day during the baseball season, and my wife, Barbara Bedway, also a writer, often points out similar ones. Barbara supports Andy playing Little League but sometimes feels his father should not be so involved. She once cited the case of the Little League coach in Illinois who got beat up by another coach after a game, sustaining several broken bones, a lacerated kidney, and a scratched retina. "Hey," I reminded her, "didn't he get $750,000 in a settlement?"
Fortunately our little family remains intact and Andy is still playing ball, happily (for the most part). Sometimes, however, Little League drives us apart when it isn't bringing us together.
The American Psychiatric Association recently sponsored a symposium entitled "Youth Sports: Character Building or Child Abuse?" During the rollicking 1998 season I would be accused of both in the same game. Youth baseball takes place in a cultural milieu where fistfights between adults can break out on a ball field filled with children. It's the kind of world where an umpire kicks a twelve-year-old catcher out of a playoff game for not wearing a "cup." The catcher was a girl. Coaches, parents, and league officials argued about it for a week. Then the lawyers got involved. Only in America.
Our disastrous 1997 season actually ended on something of a high note. In his first year of pitching, Andy had progressed nicely after recovering from a mid-season wrist sprain, an injury he'd earned sliding off a porch chasing a girl in a game of tag. My wife felt that, as injuries go, this one was almost worth it; until then, he had displayed an almost pathological aversion to the opposite sex. I pointed out that Andy had years to get involved with girls but would never have another rookie season in Little League.
Luckily, his interest in girls faded before his fastball, and he pitched well in the two games we did manage to win that year. At age nine he was holding his own against kids two or three years older. After he hurled his first win in Little League we retrieved the dirt-smudged ball, signed and dated it, stuck it in a plastic globe, and put it on a shelf, joking that one day we'd donate it to Cooperstown (or sell it at auction).
By the end of the year, as we headed into the playoffs, Andy was clearly our best pitcher. How did a 2 and 10 team qualify for the playoffs? Everyone makes the playoffs in our league. But Andy was no prodigy. He was still a below-average hitter and it was uncertain how far he would advance as a pitcher, since he's not especially fond of practicing. For better or worse, he's not one of those kids who live to play ball. When he grows up he wants to be Fox Mulder, not Nellie Fox.
Most games at this level are played down by the Hudson at Nyack's Memorial Park. Nyack is a community of about twelve thousand, counting Upper Nyack and South Nyack the three adjacent villages known collectively as "the Nyacks." We're located twenty miles up the river from Manhattan on the west bank of the river across from Tarrytown, the historic Westchester town. From Memorial Park, you can gaze across three miles of spectacular river and admire Washington Irving's Sunnyside estate. He set his most famous story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," nearby.
Nyack dates back three centuries to Indian camps and then Dutch settlements. Today it's a funky river town with a Main Street lined by fine restaurants, antique shops, and a new Starbucks. Some people refer to racially diverse Nyack as the Upper Upper West Side of Manhattan or, getting carried away, "Greenwich Village-on-Hudson." The boyhood home of artist Edward Hopper, it is still favored by slightly offbeat freelance types with moderate incomes writers, jazz musicians, and movie and theater people who trek to New York City at odd hours or not at all. It stages one of the wackiest Halloween parades this side of, yes, Greenwich Village.
Decades ago, the town was perhaps best known from the song lyric about taking "a kayak to Nyack." It hit the headlines in 1981 when radical fugitives, including ex-Weatherman Kathy Boudin, robbed a Brinks truck at the nearby Nanuet Mall, then killed a guard and two Nyack cops. One of the getaway cars sped east down Sixth Avenue in Nyack and crashed into a high brick wall surrounding a fine Victorian home on the Hudson.
The house belonged to actress Helen Hayes. Now Rosie O'Donnell lives there.
Among others who call Nyack home are controversial performance artist Karen Finley; movie directors Nancy Savoca and Jonathan Demme; actors Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Boutsikaris, and Deborah Hedwall; AIDs activist Mary Fisher; authors James McBride, Lynn Lauber, and E. Jean Carroll and Hall of Fame baseball announcer Bob Wolff. Susanna Styron, daughter of William Styron and director of the film Shadrach, recently arrived in town. It's the kind of place where a kid can go from headlining the middle school play to starring in an NBC television series six months later.
As it happens, one of my neighbors starred as Grizabella in the Broadway production of Cats. My neighbor on the other side is a graphic artist and first cousin of a famous pop singer. She bought the house from a fellow who made Broadway props. When he was working on Titanic he asked Andy (a Titanic buff, pre-Leonardo) to lend him some of his books and models. Walking up the hill in back of our house my wife often runs into an elegant, gray-haired woman who was Carson McCullers's psychiatrist in Nyack.
Karen Finley probably speaks for most when she says she moved to Nyack because she felt it was "integrated and progressive and had a sense of history and identity. It's not a bedroom community." The writer Toni Morrison has a house nearby and co-owns a soul food restaurant in Nyack. When a New Orleans eatery opened on Main Street it felt only right that the owner once played in the Neville Brothers band. Most of these people have raised one or more children in this area, and some of them have played baseball down there at Memorial Park.
Our local Little League, however, reaches beyond Nyack. If anything, it is dominated by players and parents from Valley Cottage, a distinctly different hamlet just up the road, populated by many fine people who are more conventionally suburban, and like it that way.
As the 1997 playoffs began, on a lovely June evening along the river, we sent Andy out to the mound for game one, and all he did was pitch a no-hitter for three innings. We were down one player because we had suspended our part-time catcher Victor for nearly coming to blows with an opposing batter in the previous game. Apparently Victor was still high from sniffing helium at a balloon booth at the school carnival that afternoon. He was the kind of kid who'd ask you for the score of the game, and when you told him 14-1, he'd inquire, "Who's winning?"
So, with his favorite catcher, Enrique, behind the plate, Andy was getting nearly everyone out, albeit with a few walks and errors mixed in. His mechanics still left a lot to be desired, but when he threw hard they couldn't hit him and when he didn't they stared at strikes on the outside corner. Just as miraculously, our team had managed to scratch out some runs and we led 3-0 going to the bottom of the fourth, which began like most of the previous frames: out, error, walk, out. Two outs, two on, and only two innings to go after this one. And then the next batter hit a little pop-up back to the mound. Maybe we were destined to win the playoffs, a Cinderella story in the making, the Red Sox riding the strong right arm of Andy "Kid" Mitchell! But while there was nothing wrong with his arm, his glove apparently still needed some work, for that infield fly fell from the evening sky and landed gently in his mitt and just as lazily dropped out. Bases loaded, and still one out to go.
Fighting to keep his composure, Andy walked in a run, then gave up a hard grounder booted by our second baseman. Now it was 3-2 and it seemed prudent to get him out of there with a lead and no-hitter intact. Andy never shed a tear, perhaps the most remarkable thing of all. In came a new pitcher, who promptly walked a couple and gave up a hit, and we never recovered.
One more loss and we'd be out of the playoffs, and we started game two with Andy back at shortstop. It was a 95-degree day in late June, so hot we banished our kids from our uncovered bench and sent them off to sit in the shade under some trees. One kid took a nap between innings. Our pitcher hit two batters in the first inning, started hyperventilating in the second, and we lost badly. Well, it could have been worse. Andy might have hurled that last game and allowed ten runs, and then we'd have to think about that all summer, fall, and winter. Instead, he still had a no-hit string going sure to last, now, for another nine months, at least.
Although our season had ended early, the playoffs rolled on, climaxing in a typical Little League altercation.
The Giants and Rockies would meet in a three-game series to decide the champion. The Giants, coached by a burly Valley Cottage fellow, were heavily favored over the Rockies, managed by a Nyack photographer. It was another hot day at Memorial Park. Starting in the first inning, from near the Giants' bench, the father of one of their players started heckling the veteran umpire on every close call. The ump called time and warned the father to cut it out, but the tall, muscular man said, essentially, "You and what army?" The Giants' manager claimed he couldn't control this guy.
So the ump threw the father out of the game (that is, out of the spectators' section). Easier said than done, without the aforementioned army. Finally, under threat of forfeit, the heckler promised to not say another word to the umpire and spent the remainder of the game taunting opposing players, reducing some of them to tears. After all that, the Giants ground out a 10-5 win. When the Rockies' manager said he'd play the next day only if the league sent a board member to ump the game, one of the Giants' parents called him a "wimp."
The issue of adult violence in youth sports becomes scarier every year. Parents assault coaches with far more than words, and "Kill the ump!" no longer is an idle threat. In Riverdale, Georgia, a coach shot a father in the arm after the dad complained that his son was not pitching enough. A T-ball coach in Wagoner, Oklahoma, was sentenced to twelve days in jail for choking a fifteen-year-old umpire during a game. T-ball, incidentally, is a game played by five- and six-year-olds.
The majority of managers control their emotions and a lifetime of sports frustrations fairly well, but some believe in winning at all costs, leading to what is known as Little League Rage. In a recent article on this subject, The New York Times reported, "Adult misbehavior is becoming a familiar blight on children's games in all sports....Fathers yell at coaches. Mothers belittle players. And umpires are attacked. Game officials have long taken verbal abuse, of course. But now they are shoved and spat on, even stabbed and shot."
The national umpires' association plans to offer members a new benefit: assault insurance. Still, it's getting harder to find umps to absorb threats and abuse for $15 to $25 a game. Youth leagues in Houston, Texas, now require background checks on all coaches. Some leagues have stopped keeping score to dampen competitive flame-outs. A league in Jupiter, Florida, recently became the first to require all parents to take a one-hour "ethics" course.
"Parents and coaches have lost perspective on what sports is about," an official with the umpires' association observes. Consider the following incident: A youth baseball manager in Boca Raton, Florida, was recently charged with disorderly conduct for "mooning" players and fans from the pitcher's mound after his team lost a tournament game. Witnesses said he stood on the mound, yelled at the opposing team, pulled down his pants, and exposed his back side. Then he turned around and did it again. He later told police he was simply bending down to pick up some caps and gloves. "I know my pants are constantly falling down," he explained. "My wife calls it plumber's butt." Good line, but it sounds like his upstairs pipes are leaking.
A couple of years ago, ABC News documented the climax of a typical Little League season in Hagerstown, Maryland, for a two-hour Peter Jennings special. Jennings wanted to find out "what makes Little League so exciting and occasionally terrifying." He certainly got his wish. The league's all-stars one of them a very talented girl advanced far along the road to a state title. Their manager admitted, however, that he was a "sexist" and didn't believe girls should be on the team or allowed to play Little League at all. "Girls should be cheerleaders," he affirmed. Another manager got thrown out of a game for arguing with umpires, then verbally attacked a league official, leading to a one-year suspension.
The ABC microphones overheard a parent tell his boy, after he struck out in a big game: "When you get home I'm going to get you tonight, because you let me down...I'll get you, buddy." Confronted with this evidence, the father told Jennings that sometimes his son gets lazy and he has to hit him. His wife, sitting next to him, looked forlorn, and told Jennings that she didn't agree with this philosophy. A viewer had to worry about what happened to her when she got home.
One player in the league, a talented catcher, gained a reputation as a troublemaker, harassing opposing players, umpires, and even his own coaches. "He's bad," his father told Jennings, "but not all bad." When the kid got passed over for the all-stars, Dad ambushed the manager, knocked him down and kicked him, then told ABC he was "glad" he did it.
And this all happened at the end of one season in one league.
Looking ahead to another season, I worried about violence, even in our relatively sane league, for I'd heard stories about local coaches and fathers going Duke City out in the parking lot after a game. Still, I could understand the attraction of winning. For me, the past Little League season could charitably be chalked up as a "learning experience." Mainly what I learned was that it is no fun to lose all the time. Now what was I going to do? Tryouts, and coaching assignments, for the following year would be arriving soon.
For five years, stretching back to T-ball, I had coached with a man named Bob Giacobbe. Like me, he grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan, but he has not outgrown it. Bob attended Ted Williams' s final game at Fenway in 1960. As everyone knows, Ted hit a home run in his last at bat, at age forty-two, dashed around the bases, and disappeared in the dugout without tipping his hat or otherwise acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. This seemed ungracious, but as John Updike points out, one can admire it as perfectly fitting, for Ted had long had a rotten relationship with the local fans and sportswriters. On a previous occasion, he had spit in their direction, so maybe on his final day they were getting off easy.
Anyway, Bob recalls that he and his father had cheered the final round-tripper with gusto, then turned gloomy when Ted failed to wave good-bye. "Why, that rotten son of a bitch," Mr. Giacobbe said. It was the first time Bob had ever heard his old man curse.
Perhaps that's why we always taught our Little League teams to have fun and not worry about hitting home runs. Most coaches say they don't care about winning, and all of us lie, but we rarely pushed the competitive buttons. This led to a mixed record over the years: finishing last in Rookies (when Andy was seven), nearly unbeaten our second year at that level, then last again with the Red Sox during our first year in Little League minors.
Winning is nice for one thing, it helps get parents off your back but I'd gladly settle for breaking even every year. I'd never had a chance to test that principle, however, for our teams had never been mediocre. So which would it be next season all or nothing?
Co-managing a team seemed to suit me. I liked sharing the responsibility and felt I didn't have time to take my own team. Also, I questioned my teaching skills. I'd played a lot of ball in my life, including a few years in Central Park softball leagues, but frankly hadn't learned much from playing against Meat Loaf, Jodie Foster, or even Bruce Springsteen. I'd never instructed anyone, except my son, and didn't know much beyond the basics, such as putting the glove on the hand you don't throw with that kind of stuff. My limits, as they say, were limitless.
Still, I enjoyed being back on a ball field and helping a few kids, while making sure that my son had fun and avoided playing for an evil manager. These are typical reasons dads coach Little League. (Even the lunatics don't want their kid playing for another lunatic.) Honestly, I did not fantasize about Andy going on to play college or professional ball or his father piloting a Little League team to a national title.
Others, obviously, are a bit more intense about youth sports. No one carries it further than Bill Ingraham, who gained national attention recently when he built a ball field with major league dimensions in his backyard in Tewksbury, New Jersey. Ingraham had complained that his kid wouldn't go to the sandlots to practice fundamentals, like he did in his day. So he built a three-acre ballpark in his backyard at a cost of $75,000. Frankly, most Little League fathers would do this if we could.
If he had just let his son and a few friends fool around on the field like in those good old days Ingraham might have gotten away with it, but he couldn't resist inviting noisy adults to play there, too. When neighbors complained, and then brought legal action, he claimed that baseball, like puberty, is part of every boy's childhood and, therefore, unpreventable. A lot of locals sympathized with that, but then Ingraham stopped sounding like Dr. Spock, and started calling his critics "white trash" and homosexuals. Finally, a local judge ruled that he could stage full-scale games no more than once a month.
Up here, on our quarter-acre spread on the outskirts of Nyack, we don't even have a backyard big enough to practice a throw from short to first. Our yard slopes downhill in the rear, then snakes around one side, almost pathlike. We do our ball playing, such as it is, in the front yard, which is only about fifty feet across: barely enough room to throw some pitches and hit a few Wiffle balls or tennis balls into our neighbor's garden. Strips of dirt usurp the lawn around the "batter's box" and pitching rubber, which my lovely wife is not too thrilled about.
When it rains, puddles quickly form out front, then small ponds, and the exposed dirt turns to brown mush. "Mudville," we call it. Every year I assure my wife that I'll hire someone to re-sod the lawn when the season ends, knowing that midsummer is a terrible time to plant grass, so it never gets done. The dirt patches are now perennial like our hopes and fears at the start of every Little League season.
Copyright © 2000 by Greg Mitchell
Meet the Author
Greg Mitchell is the bestselling author of such nonfiction books as Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas; The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California (winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize); and with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? His articles have appeared in The New York Times and other publications. He lives in Nyack New York.
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