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My Summer With The Blue Burritos

From L-R: Andrew, Arik, Nikhil, Sean, James, Dylan, Ryder, Carter, Sawyer. Not pictured: Devin, Nathan. PHOTO: St. Cloud Rox via Facebook

This summer I was lucky to coach a team of ten-year-old baseball players in the St. Cloud Blue Sox organization. Although we did not win many games, it was a fun summer and one I hope they will never forget. I know I won’t.

I have always been of the belief that baseball should be fun and not work. It is, after all, a game.

I saw many looks of concern on the parents’ faces at our first meeting when I told them that wins and losses would not be a priority of mine when the season began. I explained that making friends and learning to love the game of baseball were my top priorities.

After that first meeting I called my dad, who had coached my teams throughout childhood, and told him about my philosophy. He nervously laughed and told me to be prepared to deal with overbearing parents who all thought their kid was the next Major League Baseball superstar and who would constantly be passive-aggressively lobbying for their kid to play shortstop or pitcher all game, every game.

My experience could not have been any different. After a few practices and a couple games the parents came off as warm, appreciative and thankful for my time.

During our first batting practice, one kid exclaimed “You suck!” as a player struggled to make contact with the soft lobs coming his way.The batter’s head slumped and he looked like he was already considering how to tell his parents that he didn’t want to play baseball anymore.

When I was ten, I moved to a new city after my parents were divorced. I had zero friends and was constantly bullied and harassed by the “natives” of Cedar Park Elementary.

The only saving grace I had for a few years were the baseball teams I played on, where we all wore the same jersey and all got along with each other during those beautiful two hours that we were on the diamond.

I quickly called the boys to the middle of the field and addressed the team.

“Listen up,” I began. “We are all on the same team right now. I don’t care who you are friends with in school or on the bus. I don’t care if you really do believe another player is not very good. We are all on the same team when we are here and we support each other. We do NOT tell our own teammates that they suck.

How would you like it if every time you struck out and you came back to the dugout you had to listen to your own team tell you how bad you are? You wouldn’t like it very much, would you?”

A look of understanding washed over the team’s faces and an agreement was reached: We would support each other through thick and thin.

A few things were clear after the first couple days of practice. One, we had almost zero pitching. Two, we had a hard time keeping focus for an extended period of time. The third was that this was a very goofy group of kids, in a good way, which suited me well.

Robyn Ash

The first game of the season was in early May, a 29-3 thrashing at the hands of Westonka. The game seemed to last six hours and just spiraled further and further out of control as the day turned into night.

With a practice in between, we played our next game ten days later at our home park. Even though we were absolutely dominated in our first game, we scrapped and grinded our way to an 8-6 win over Buffalo.

We had our first tournament a short time after that win, but went 0-3 with losses against Buffalo, Andover and St. Michael at Whitney Park in St. Cloud.

Despite our lack of success off the field we became a tight-knit group on the bench and in the field. Game by game friendships were built and all the kids seemed to be getting along with each other- free of the cliques that dominate many sports teams.

The kids called themselves the Blue Burritos and never let up with their chants and encouragement, no matter how dire the scoreboard looked.

Many times with our team down by lopsided scores late in the game, the entire team would be banging on the fence like caged gorillas, chanting “whoop whoop whoop whoop,” hoping to will whoever was at bat at that point.

One of my proudest moments as a coach occurred during a late-season tournament in Sartell.

Playing a Forest Lake team that featured parents from hell berating the umpire, stand-offish coaches who were constantly barking at their players and players who said things to our team such as “You are the worst team we have ever played against,” we blew a late lead and lost 16-11.

Game two did not go any better as we got absolutely destroyed by Waite Park 20-0. It was about 85 degrees outside with a blazing sun and stifling humidity, and the kids seemed exhausted with one game left to play about an hour later.

However, much to my delight, the guys did not beg their parents to take them home. They did not lay in the shade and pout. Rather, they gathered their things and hiked to a far-off soccer field on the premises, determined to practice and win the next game.

And win they did, beating Sartell 13-12 in a nail-biter of a “friendship game” that wrapped up the day’s action.

There were tough times during the season as well.

One of the boys had been pestering me all season long to try pitching, and I had vowed to get him in to a game before the season was done. In our second-to-last game, in Rogers, he got his chance. It did not go well.

He threw eight straight balls well out of the strike zone, nowhere near the plate before I went out to talk to him. As I approached the mound I could see that he was visibly shaking and on the verge of tears.

I looked him in the eye and told him he needed to forget that there was a batter standing there, to ignore the parents on our bleachers and to ignore the other team snickering with every pitch farther and farther from the strike zone.

He seemed to relax as I walked back to the dugout. The catcher hung around for a couple more minutes to catch his breath after chasing eight balls back to the backstop, and also to offer some encouragement.

After walking two more batters over the course of eight pitches, it was time for me to come take him out of the game. He was shaking pretty bad at this point and when I told him he was coming out of the game he began to cry profusely. I sent him to third base for the rest of the game and told him he would have to save his tears for after the game.

When he came back to the bench I wasn’t sure what to expect from his fellow Burritos. I almost cried when I watched each and every kid come over, give him a high-five, and share with him anecdotes about how bad they were the first time they ever tried pitching. Slowly, a smile came over his face and before I knew it he was having a sunflower seed fight with one of his teammates, giggling all the while.

By the next inning he was fine, and if he had any lingering emotional issues after the game they didn’t show after I gave the team DQ Dilly Bars for staying positive all night.

I had arranged a night for the kids to take the field with the St. Cloud Rox of the summer collegiate Northwoods League and to spend a night at the ballpark. I also bought tickets for the parents to enjoy the game.

I happened to be in the press box for the game and was able to observe the gang all sitting together, dancing and cheering with one another in  between games of catch. They constantly ran to the bottom of the grandstand to yell “HI COACH DAVE!” while smiling and waving. I felt very proud.

The game ended up going late, but the boys (and to their credit the parents) all stuck around to the very end. With the Rox down by three runs with two runners on base and down to their last out, the Burritos belted out their trademark “TWO OUT RALLY (clap clap clap-clap-clap) TWO OUT RALLY!” chant, and St. Cloud’s Chris Paul came through with a three run home run to tie the game, which the Rox would eventually win. It was an amazing end to a long summer.

As my grandpa told me “They will remember all their life the fun they had, not the wins & losses. They don’t realize it, but they also learned some baseball, teamwork & social skills.”

That’s all I could ask for.

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