VIDEO: Coaching tee-ball requires patience, understandingIt’s the bottom of the third inning, and the Orioles take the field. Two infielders literally take it in their hands, scooping dirt and watching it drizzle from their little fists and drift in the warm breeze of a bright, baseball-perfect summer morning.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
It’s the bottom of the third inning, and the Orioles take the field.
Two infielders literally take it in their hands, scooping dirt and watching it drizzle from their little fists and drift in the warm breeze of a bright, baseball-perfect summer morning.
As the game begins, a teammate wanders into the outfield, picks a dozen sunny dandelions and runs off to where his parents sit in lawn chairs. He presents the posy to his mother, gets a hug and kid-saunters back onto the field, where the first baseman is flat on his back, his arms and legs waving, making a sand angel. The third baseman, oblivious to a runner heading his way, is trying to stand on his head.
“Dylan, stand up,” Austin Salyer says with gentle firmness to another boy sprawled on the base path, inspecting perhaps a wayward ant. “There you go,” the coach says as the boy stands, retrieves his glove and eyes home plate, where a 4-year-old slugger is about to take his cuts.
“The dirt is our enemy,” Salyer says with a benevolent smile. “The kids love to play in it.”
Patience, thy name is tee-ball coach.
Salyer, 23, is a veteran, four years a coach in the Grand Forks Park District’s system. This year, he supervises five other coaches who nudge and nurture close to 40 youngsters ages 4 to 6 who play Tuesdays and Thursdays at Kelly Field. A recent UND graduate, he also coaches the 14-year-old all-stars team.
“I grew up in Grand Forks and did the whole tee-ball thing,” he said. “I had great coaches, and their example is why I’m out here doing this now.
“I remember trying to catch my first fly ball, going backwards and tripping over the bag and watching it fall to the ground. I got up and dusted myself off, got the ball and threw it in as if nothing happened.
“My dad got it on video. It’s still on a VHS somewhere in my house.”
Who’s on first?
Salyer’s young charges include two girls whose parents wanted them to play tee-ball closer to home than at Apollo Field, the site for girls’ tee-ball teams. The two at Kelly gave each other a supportive hug before joining the boys for a recent workout.
The kids start out with stretching exercises, just like the big leaguers, though they tend to topple over more. Then comes a little catch, which can seem more like keep-away.
And then they play ball, dividing into teams with color-coded caps that match their coaches’ caps. On two fields at Kelly, the Orioles, Diamondbacks, Padres and Phillies take turns fielding and batting, which means striking a ball placed on a tee.
They may run from first base directly to third, or from second over the pitcher’s mound to home. A ball makes it through to the outfield and everyone goes after it, leaving the infield empty. A silvery jet passes overhead, or a fading moon lingers, and all eyes turn skyward. Three or four runs score on a grounder to short, and a boy is able to tell a grandpa that he hit a home run this day.
There is the occasional injury. Humor, Salyer said, is often the best treatment.
“Someone scrapes a knee or an elbow, and we ask if he needs surgery or should we just cut it off,” he said. “They smile, and that’s when they’re back, ready to play.”
Rule #1: Have fun
Salyer said he loves the simple honesty of the kids and the joy they take in each day, in each little accomplishment.
“They’ll catch a fly ball or hit a home run and they’ll tell you all about doing it, even though you were standing right there and saw it,” he said. “And the next time they see you, they’ll tell it all again.
“You have to learn how to approach each kid the right way, whether it’s a kid who’s doing well or one who’s struggling. You need a positive attitude. Most of these kids are out here to have a good time. If a kid is out here and doesn’t want to be, maybe he sees others having fun and that encourages him to join in. Maybe he’ll keep playing baseball.
“And that’s what we want. We don’t care how good you are. We want you to have fun and we want you to come back next year.”
The kids play to a sideline audience heavy on moms, dads, siblings and grandparents, who shout encouragement: “Put your glove back on, Matt!” or “Run to second base, Jeremy! No, second! Over there!”
Mike and Samantha Belgarde camped behind home plate at Kelly Field on a recent morning to watch son Marcus, 5. It happened to be daughter Gabriella’s second birthday, and she sat in her stroller and shared in Marcus’ pre-game snack: cherry Pop-Tarts.
“He enjoys playing,” Samantha said. “A lot of it is just being outside and running around and being with kids his age.”
‘Hey, good hit!’
Salyer works both fields, leaving once or twice a game to escort a young ballplayer to a nearby restroom, returning to resume his steady baseline banter.
“Matt, you ready? Attaboy. OK, get the ball. That’s it.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“You throw it, that’s what you do. Throw it to first base.”
“OK, I’ll try it.”
Salyer welcomes another boy to first base with a “Hey, good hit,” and a knuckle-bump, but the boy is still on the bag, smiling proudly, when the next batter hits one up the middle and approaches first base. Sayler puts a hand on the boy’s head and swivels it toward second. “Run! Run there! Run now!”
A boy playing near third has a softly hit ball bounce off his head.
“Matt, you all right?”
“You almost had it, didn’t you?”
Another boy attempts a head-first slide into first base but stalls a few feet short. Another expresses dismay when Coach tells him he needs to run to second. “Aw, man! I was there last time.”
All the while, Salyer peppers the playground with encouragement, calling every youngster by name. He has a roster somewhere, but he doesn’t need it.
“Good job, Jack. Good throw.”
“Peyton, get ready to hit. You can’t lie down now.... Good job, Peyton! Run all the way here. Oh, you lost your shoe. Need help?”
Jamie VanSickle, mother of Dawson, 6, was at the field with Dawson’s grandparents, who never miss a game.
“What a great guy, seriously,” she said, talking about her son’s coach. “He’s always so positive, so supportive, a really positive influence on these guys.
“Dawson loves him.”
Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to email@example.com.