Marolt: It all comes back to the fundamentals of the game
It’s been a rough season for the Aspen High School nine.
There are the usual problems of the boys of summer trying to play in Rocky Mountain springtime. Forget about the altitude. It’s beyond anything a Coors Field humidor can fix.
There are a lot of practices inside the gym, and the rest are 20 miles away in El Jebel. They actually played a game in Basalt last week that was five miles closer to home than Aspen’s home field is. The home field advantage is pretty much banked by gas stations along Highway 82.
It’s hard to catch a fly ball with snowflakes falling in your face, hit a fastball gripping a bat with frozen fingers, or stretch a single into a double wearing a ski parka underneath your jersey.
Despite all of this, the boys began the season with optimism. They’re familiar with Mother Nature’s ground rules, which they’ve dealt with since Little League. They had a busload of seniors to fill the lineup card with. They had a half-dozen “building years” behind them and believed it was the time to get a certificate of occupancy for the penthouse on the league standings.
It wasn’t to be. When the season had barely begun, injuries from other sports claimed two starting infielders, success in ski racing expanded the opportunities for an ace left-handed pitcher off the diamond, and grades limited the range of a quick-footed, sure-handed, steady-hitting center-fielder to the study hall.
As for me, a 40-year player/coach/fan of Aspen baseball, I learned the Parker Johnson rule.
When the team wins, my son and I exchange a lot of high-fives and pounded fists. This season we’ve had a lot of long discussions with our fingers pinching lint in our pockets, instead. To me this is part of the game. You learn more from losing than winning. Analyzing the games and trying to figure out ways to turn things around are part of the enjoyment of sports, even if not rip-roaringly exciting.
I suggested that one week of practice should be devoted entirely to reminding the boys about the fundamentals of fielding and hitting. One entire practice could be devoted to about a thousand ground balls. The next, a thousand pop ups. Finally, a day of hitting until the kids’ blisters got blistered. That should do it.
My son said, “I think it would have made all the difference if Parker Johnson was playing.”
I should explain that Parker Johnson is one of the seniors I told you about. He blew his ACL at the beginning of basketball season and now he is missing baseball season because of it, too. It is a rough turn of events for a kid in his last year of high school sports and two teams that needed his talents.
“He’s a great player,” I said. “But, I’m not sure he would be enough to turn things around by himself.”
After ensuing losses, I suggested everything from Lasorda-inspired fire-up speeches to team dinners to two-a-day practices beginning with sunrise batting practice.
“I just think having Parker around would have changed everything,” my son repeated.
I kept searching for answers, breaking down game situations, soft-tossing suggestions and dismissing the probable effect of one kid, Parker Johnson, on the overall outcome of the season.
“Dad,” my son finally said gently one day. “Yes, it would be great to put up a few more wins but, even if we didn’t win any more games because of him, it would have been a lot more fun to have Parker on the field. He’s my best friend. I just miss driving back and forth to practices with him. We are never going to get those opportunities back.”
Strike three! I never saw it coming. It buckled my knees as I stood there with a dropped jaw and watched that curve bend right past me over the middle of the plate.
We fall in love with sports. We play them when we are young, coach them when our kids are younger and then watch as we grow older together. We keep the stats and follow the scores, always with an eye on the standings. It becomes way too much about the measurable outcomes and we forget about the processes.
Numbers are forever. Three-hour bus trips and post-game stops at backwater 7-Elevens for Slurpees are moments gone before the brain-freeze subsides. You can’t replicate them. You can’t compare or categorize them. Maybe that’s why we forget them. I got a second chance to discover the true joy of sports because of the Parker Johnson rule. Thanks for reminding me about the fundamentals, son.
Roger Marolt wishes that baseball summers were endless. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org