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Lynn Hummel: Making the cut: Boys and baseball

This couldn’t happen, but if it did, how would you work out a solution?

Here’s the situation: the summer recreation department just hired you in a low-level position to help place kids in the appropriate recreation program for the summer. But there has been a major foul up and they’ve sent 40 ten year old boys to the ballpark where you’re in charge and you have one hour to select 15 of them for a baseball team and send the remaining 25 off to other recreation programs.

To achieve this almost impossible goal, they’ve sent 40 straight-bill baseball caps, one baseball, one bat and two gloves. That’s it — nothing else is available. Period.

There — get to work, because time is short. If you can work this out you should get a good promotion. What do you know about boys and baseball?

The first thing you do is hand out those 40 new caps and have the kids put them on. The ones who are likely to be ballplayers will immediately curve those straight-bills to look like genuine baseball caps and not part of a rapper uniform. The boys who simply plunk on the caps as they are can be shuttled off to the summer music and skateboard programs. Already you’ve cut the roster and you haven’t even used the bat, ball or the gloves.

The second test may seem unfair, but time is short and there’s no time for niceties. You just happen to have a huge bag of sunflower seeds for personal use — not issued by the recreation department. You wouldn’t share them except in emergencies, but this is a real emergency. You give each kid about 20 seeds and tell them all to enjoy themselves — no other instructions given. The best baseball prospects will put all the seeds in their mouth at once and begin the process of cracking, separating the pods and spitting out the shells, all without touching the seeds again. Any boy who uses his fingers to place the seeds in his mouth one at a time will never be a ballplayer. He will be happier in the gardening program.

Next you have each kid run full speed from home plate, round first base and stop safely at second. Tell them they’ve just hit the ball into right field and there will be a close play at second. The boys who really have the spirit for baseball will run hard and slide into second base. The others won’t even think of it — they’ll just stop running at second, maybe run over it a few steps, where they would be tagged out. At the end of that exercise, any kid whose pants aren’t dirty should be sent to the swimming program, where cleanliness is so important.

Then we take each boy to home plate, hand him the bat and ask him to stand in the batter’s box and assume a hitting position. Disregard the way the boys plant their feet — that can be taught. What we’re looking for is baseball instinct. Any boy who will ever be a ballplayer will spit on his hands or rub dirt on the bat handle, or both, to improve his grip. The boys who don’t do that should be sent to archery.

Finally, we get to use the ball and the glove. We place half of the remaining prospects on second base and half on first. Give gloves to the first boys in line on first and second. Then from about five feet away, lob the ball, underhanded and soft, to the boy on second and tell him to throw it to the boy on first. Every boy should be able to catch that lob. If not, send them to chess, where they can’t get hurt. But can they throw the ball to first? If it bounces, that boy should be in tennis, where balls bounce. You can teach a kid a lot about baseball, but if he can’t throw the ball from second to first, we’re dealing with limited potential. And of course, we’ll have boys on first throw the ball to second. Same distance, same test. We won’t worry about catching that long throw, because even some of the Twins players don’t always catch it.

You may have noticed that only one of the five tests (throwing) was a measure of actual baseball skill. That’s right — it was attitude mainly that was being tested. As Yogi Berra himself once said, “Half of baseball is 90 percent mental.”

Yes, this is how we narrow the field from 40 to 15 in a single hour. Is it cruel? Yes, there will be tears, there will be mothers, dads and grandparents (“You didn’t give him a chance…he never got to bat…he never got to pitch…sunflower seeds are disgusting…there was no equipment…it wasn’t fair…yada, yada, yada”).

It was mission impossible to start with. But… they got to keep those caps, didn’t they?