I watched my first official T-Ball game on Memorial Day weekend. It was a Welles Park T-Ball Minor League game pitting the Tattler Post #973 Phillies, a team I intended to follow through the season, against the Wendy's Flower Boutique Cubs. The Cubs eked out a 27-22 victory. Though the Phillies' coaches assured me that this game would not be typical of the season to come--their regular first and third basemen were missing--it was immediately clear to me that this was a much different game from the Little League baseball of my youth.
The most obvious difference is that in T-Ball the batter swings not at a pitched ball but at a stationary target--a ball sitting plump and pretty on a tee in front of him. Another difference is that these days girls are allowed (though there were none on the Phillies). But the real difference (and the reason for the tee) is that T-Ball players are younger even than Little Leaguers--six and seven, in this case. From this essential fact flow all the game's charms and eccentricities.
For example, if a batter assumes an uncomfortable-looking stance at the plate, a coach or parent might come up and, while the opposing players cool their heels in the field, give last-minute instruction--rearranging the batter's feet, raising an elbow, or even attempting an encouraging kiss, which the embarrassed batter is likely to brush off by raising a shoulder.
And once a ball is batted fair almost anything can happen. On one play an infielder might swoop down upon the ball, pick it up cleanly, and heave a perfect strike to the stretching first baseman. On the next play, however, the ball might hop between his legs, roll under the mitt of the backup fielder, and go on to elude the more deeply stationed outfielder. And then the race is on. From all corners of the diamond hustling players light out after the ball. Three or four arrive simultaneously and wrestle for it as the batter circles the bases. Early in the season you might see this on every third play; by the playoffs maybe twice per six-inning game.
The parents can be a problem. In the field the defense receives real-time instruction from coaches standing behind the shortstop and the second baseman. "Tag him!" or "Give it to the pitcher!" they shout. Sometimes their calls are drowned out by an anxious parent yelling, "Home, home!" On offense another zealous parent might countermand a coach's "Go, go!" with a "Get back!"--leaving the confused runner to skitter back and forth until tagged out.
But the parents are handy for consoling a tearful" player who has struck out or caught a wayward ball in the stomach. And somehow their competitive ardor fails to rub off on the children anyway: winning seems an alien concept to the players. After a third out they run off the field no more eager to take their turn at bat than they are to squeeze in next to each other on the bench and buddy up, jockeying for position with their favorite teammates. While the parents scream, exult, and despair behind them, the players are content to watch the game calmly, neither cheering nor brooding at the action on the field. Despite the parents' constant attention to the score, I never heard a Philly ask what it was. Only once over the entire season can I remember one player asking dispassionately, "Are we ahead?"
After a game, when the teams line up and walk past each other high-fiving it, the kids all smile so broadly that it is impossible to tell winners from losers. Soon the line dissolves into a playful mass of kids, swarming among each other, congratulating each other in mock solemnity, slurring the words "Goodgamegoodgamegoodgame" until the coaches pull them apart.
One of the Phillies' biggest games came near the end of the season, when they had the thrill of playing on Thillens Stadium's well-groomed infield and hearing their names announced over the PA system as they stepped to the plate. It was a close game. Their opponents, the Murrell Graphics A's, trailed by only five runs going into the top of the last inning. During the first five innings a team can send up no more than ten batters, but during the last the opposition must record three outs. The Phillies put the game on ice by scoring 23 insurance runs in the sixth.
Despite some preseason trepidation on the part of coach Mike Hackett--"We really didn't think we had much," he confesses--the Phillies finished the regular season with a 13-2 record and in the playoffs won the right to compete for the league title. Before the championship game, against the WMAQ TV Mariners, the coach told them, "You've beat these guys before, but they're a good team, they've improved a lot. Just go out there, guys, and have a good time like you have all year." The Phillies won 23-20.
Throughout the season, despite their occasional excesses, the parents and coaches maintained a positive, upbeat attitude. They never scolded the players. If a boy grounded out weakly he was encouraged with "Good hustle" for his diligence going to first base. If he dropped a ground ball his effort was approved as a "Nice stop!" Sometimes the kids, wise to this game, would smirk through the compliments they received, but whenever one made a play that he hadn't been able to make previously, and the coach showered him with praise, the little athlete would leap jubilantly into the air or just stand beaming at both coach and adoring parents, exposing the gap between his front teeth, until someone would shout to him "Get ready, he's gonna swing!" What a delightful contrast to the major leaguer who makes a startling play on the field and then, despite the applause of 30,000 spectators, gets up with no show of emotion and dusts off his uniform, tugs at his crotch, and spits impassively in the dirt. Too bad he can no longer enjoy the game like the Welles Park T-Ball Minor League champions of 1992.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard Younker.