When you have a child, you get a lot of stuff. There’s the baby stuff – the various transportation devices and accoutrements, the clothing, the books, and the toys (my favorite of these is a stuffed giraffe that plays a soothing African drum rhythm, peppered with the growls of, I guess, a lion. It’s comforting, despite the lion’s growl). Then there’s the stuff for you, the parent – my coworker got me a badly-needed bottle of bourbon; he knows me well. My father, on the other hand, brought me a book. Not a parenting book, mind you. My father was perfectly confident in my skills as a father; it was my ability to run a baseball team that he doubted. “You might have to coach Little League in a few years,” he told me, handing me a strange, plain book. My son was a week old. It would be at least two years before he would learn to throw a cut fastball (and probably another year or two before he had any real command of the pitch), but my father likes to plan ahead. He’d gotten this book from a colleague of his, one who used to scout for the Atlanta Braves and coached baseball at the college level, so the book came with an impressive recommendation.
Roughly the size of a chemistry textbook, Baseball Playbook (no article needed) is now one of the stranger books I own. It looks like a self-published book from the days when that meant cutting a deal with a printer and paying extra for a second color of ink on the cover, an expense the publishers of Baseball Playbook declined to indulge. The only text on the jacket of the book is the title of the book and “by Ron Polk.” No publisher information, no ISBN, no blurbs. Ron Polk is a fan of simplicity. He was also the longtime head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs baseball team, and the book is published by the Mississippi State University Press (I discovered this information on the internet; there’s nothing at all in the book that states this).
Baseball Playbook is a complete guide to coaching a baseball team. It contains, among other things, a template for scheduling batting practice, a guide to developing offensive signs (you know, the ones the third base coach flashes to hitters and baserunners), a series of fundamental drills designed to practice things like pick-off moves to first and second base, diving back to the base, and fielding bunts. There’s even a section dedicated to field maintenance. “For many years, calcinated clay has been the standard material used for drying infields,” Polk writes. “However, recently a new product made from ground corn cobs called Diamond Dry has been marketed and promises to be a superior product.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that you could build a baseball field with the instructions in this book.
If Baseball Playbook has a flaw, it’s that it sometimes dispenses some archaic advice. For instance, an early section of the book outlines a sample agreement between coaches and players regarding conduct. While drinking is to be strictly forbidden, “We will allow any player to chew tobacco on or off the playing field as long as it does not show grotesquely.” Don’t you hope your kid is on my Little League team?
By far the best part of the book, though, are the many different game play situations presented, complete with a diagram of what each player should do on the play. For instance, what is the second baseman supposed to do when a sure double to left-center field is hit with a runner at first base? The answer: “Once he reads the sure extra base hit to left center field, he will be the back man for the shortstop on the tandom [sic] relay. In the tandom relay, he will be responsible to communicate with the shortstop as to where the ball is to be thrown, if at all.” Now you know.
This section reminds me of Doyle Bronson’s Super System, a two-volume book that provides a hand-by-hand guide to nearly every conceivable poker scenario. In Baseball Playbook, there’s a chart that suggests defensive alignments based on the count – people tend to pull the ball more on hitter’s counts (more balls than strikes). It’s this completist streak, this idea that one might prepare for every play in a game, that draws me to the book. It reminds me of the obsession I’d developed in high school with chess, spending every spare moment thinking of the game, of openings. Later, I’d find a similar obsession with poker. Flipping through Baseball Playbook, it isn’t hard to propel myself into the future, to imagine myself as a Little League coach, running through the various possibilities of play in my head each night as I try, fruitlessly, to fall asleep. I’ll be the squinty, sun-leathered skipper of, I don’t know, the Nate’s Discount Tire Depot Padres. We’ll always hit the cutoff man and never, ever, let our chewing tobacco show.