Teaching: Baseball's lost art

Two things evident thus far during our latest summer of youth baseball:

Youth sports continue to encourage generally reasonable people to behave like sniveling, snarling nincompoops and nobody can hit.

The former is fodder for clinical psychologists, Dr. Phil and maybe a good bartender. The latter, meanwhile, has festered for some time. Not just in youth baseball. High school and other levels of amateur baseball, too.

It has become a lament for coaches: We played pretty well, but we just couldn't hit. Question: How come?

The answer is conjecture. Happily, sabermetrics hasn't crept into lower levels of baseball yet, explaining your basic ground ball to second base via the Venn diagram. But after seeking opinions from people who know something about baseball beyond the instructional video they just watched, the consensus is that hitting isn't being taught properly.

"There are a lot of people who call themselves hitting gurus, but they're really cash registers," said John Schiffner, who has coached the best college players in the country on Cape Cod for more than 20 years and won more than 400 games at Plainfield High. "They're better at taking your money than they are teaching hitting. I mean to really teach hitting. Talking about how (strike) zones differ count to count. They don't talk hitting. They don't talk about approach, about having a plan."

Many coaches just read that quote and applauded. They understand that the unspoken agony of repetition is part of the process, sure. But it's robotic, unless there's some context.

"They go to the cage and hit, hit, hit, sure," Schiffner said. "Getting tosses from 40 feet. Kids kill the ball and the 'guru' looks good. Everybody's happy. Except in the game, pitchers make the ball move. Then it's the coach's fault.

"Kids need to see live pitching. They need to see a breaking ball. Learn to identify it," Schiffner said. "They need to understand that you spit on a 2-0 curveball. That the fewer strikes you have on you, the smaller your zone should be."

Baseball, unlike other mainstream sports, engenders alarming levels of instruction without proper background. Football, with its techno-babble, is intimidating enough. Basketball moves too fast. But baseball? Everybody's an expert. Except that they're not.

"Look around the majors," said UConn-Avery Point coach Roger Bidwell, who has coached several future major leaguers and whose teams frequent the junior college World Series. "Who are the best hitters? Cubans, Dominicans. How many $50-an-hour hitting lessons do you think there are in the Dominican (Republic?) You hit your way off the island. They're hungry. They don't have showcases and hitting gurus and all the crap."

It's not hard to detect hostility. Glorious hostility. Because Schiffner, Bidwell and others are tired of teaching remedial hitting. They believe the core principles should be taught at lower levels. Except that they're being hijacked by coaches who place winning over instruction or who don't have the bandwidth necessary to teach proper mechanics. But worse, they think they do.

And they're killing baseball. Not overtly. Just slowly and steadily, sort of like tooth decay.

Bidwell believes repetition is necessary now more than ever because of "the forgiveness of aluminum bats." Wooden bats, he said, force hitters to become shorter to the ball and strengthen hands, two tenets of good hitting.

Bidwell even referred to the book "Outliers, The Story of Success," in which author Malcolm Gladwell mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule," claiming that practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours is the key to success.

"Nobody's willing to do that anymore," Bidwell said. "The only times kids hit are for $50 for a half-hour lesson. Nobody just goes and plays anymore. It's got to be structured with umpires or there's no game."

This probably won't solve much. The "gurus" who think they know more about hitting than George Brett are like the parents who are convinced it's somebody else acting like miscreants. They're oblivious. But there you have it from two coaches who know. And several others who agree.

Start teaching the kids.

It's more important than winning.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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