Opening day might have been yesterday, but for Chicago’s public schools, the first official game is still approaching. My friend (and writer, teacher, and painter) Craig Griffin, is starting his first season as head coach for a varsity team. Amid all the MLB projections, I thought it’d be nice to hear about the real Glory Days, so I rapid-fired Craig some questions.
What’s the name of your school/team?
We’re the Phoenix Firebirds.
How many teams in the league?
8 in our division.
How many leagues in Chicago, and what’s the character of yours?
Man, there are a ton of divisions in Chicago, and we’re lower middle class as far as skill level (“poor as fuck” in terms of economic level). There are four different Jackie Robinson divisions, North, Central, South and West, and those divisions are made up of the best teams in the city. The rest of our divisions are named for famous Chicago ball players. We’re in the Andre Dawson division. Incidentally, Dawson did most of his damage in the bigs as a member of the Montreal Expos.
What’s your take on the Chicago little league scandal at Jackie Robinson West, and on McCutchen’s socioeconomic take on it?
Those kids were robbed. I celebrated the day the bastard snitch that outed them was arrested for being the drunken buffoon I’ll bet he is in his everyday useless existence. And McCutcheon is the kind of pro athlete you wish there were more of: smart and willing to use his platform for good.
How many people are there on your team?
Started the season with 22 young men. Had to give one kid the boot cuz he was a jackass and also sucked. I can handle jackasses but need them to be able to catch the ball and occasionally make contact.
Well what about bad players if they’re nice?
I’ve got all the nice guys I can handle. They more than make up for the jackasses.
Do all the players play the same positions?
Meaning, do they play the same positions every game? Nope. The young guys all stick to the outfield to start, but most of the vets and gifted players can play multiple places. They’re the kind of players that are solid gold in fantasy ball, if you’re into that sort of thing. In general, we have at least two players to play every infield position.
How many pitchers?
Freddy and JayRoc are my top two, but we’re relatively deep at pitcher this year, meaning there are options for relief. I’m pretty optimistic about our pitching, actually. Here’s a great story: Big Ivan is a senior. It’s his first year playing baseball because prior to now he’d been forced to work and help watch his siblings to support his parents. Finally a brother or sister came of age and his folks gave him leave to play ball. He attended one – ONE – pitching clinic before our first game, where we learned of his naturally tailing fastball. Our starter in that game got rocked and by the third I needed someone to fill in so I turned to Ivan, who, remember, had never thrown to live batters, and we were playing one of the better teams in the city. Big Ivan sat down all three batters he faced, striking out the first and third and inducing the second into a weak fielder’s choice. It was beautiful to witness.
Do you have any players where you thought, “Oh no, not that kid?” How has it turned out?
See answer to the first question. Every time I see that kid in the halls at school he still gives me shit. Like I said: asshole.
How many games do you play a week?
We’ve played four pre-season games, and once conference starts, we’ll play three a week into the middle of May.
Are games 9 innings long?
Seven. Unless you’re down or up by 10 after five. Then, five.
How many umps are out there on the field?
Two umps per game. The consistency and quality of umpiring varies widely. I’ve seen really great umps that use the opportunity to teach kids not just about baseball strategy and best practices but also How To Succeed In Life, and I’ve seen umps half in the bag. Last year, an ump walked away from the game in the middle of the fourth inning and went to his car for like twenty minutes. At one point, we think he might have been taking a piss. Came back and called the rest of the game without mentioning his absence.
What has surprised you the most about being a coach?
Two things: 1. It’s exhausting. I won’t lie, I always wanted to coach baseball, and was super stoked to give some speeches. I started off on fire, but as the season wears on, and more and more aspects to the game and the team have fought for my attention, I get to where, come the end of practice I’m like, “Alrightguysgreatjobtodayseeyoutomorrowcleareyesstrongheartcan’tlose.” (Just kidding about that last part.) A close friend is helping me out, and I have no idea what I’d do without him. 2. I really wanted to try and do the job without cursing. No fuckin’ way.
Is your friend the only other coach?
No, but before I say anything else, let me just send a shout out to Coach Weber, my friend who’s doing this for basically nothing but the love of the game and the kids. I swear, if we have any success this year, his fingerprints will be all over it. Other than him, though, there’s an ex-college pitcher who comes out every month or so and runs a clinic for our pitchers; and the previous head coach, who caught in college, ran a clinic for our catchers that has already paid dividends. Both of those guys donated their time.
What was your proudest moment as the manager?
We have a little freshman who’s on the autism spectrum. Miguel. He’s a great dude with not much ability or talent, but who shows up faithfully every day and, you know, tries his best. I gave him an at bat in our second game, and because he’s so short, he walked. Ran to first like it was his first time. Next pitch wild pitch and the entire team yells “RUN!” then “STOP!” Miguel’s on second! Next pitch wild pitch, team yells “RUN!” then “STOP!” Third base, unbelievable. Next pitch wild pitch. When that kid touched home, all the guys went apeshit and I don’t know how many decibals Miguel’s smile registered at but it was deafening. I think I was most proud of the rest of the guys for how supportive they were. We’re a family. It’s beautiful.
Have you made any other interesting strategic moves?
Right now it’s a little too early in the season for me to have a good answer to this question. I’ll get back to you after we’ve played some games that mean something.
How much do you jimmy the lineup each game?
The lineup is my favorite part of coaching, and I’ve been tinkering with it quite a bit, though I’m trying to get it to a pretty consistent point, especially with the top 3-4 batters. Today’s game I think I found my leadoff hitter.
Do you build your lineup straight, like most likely to get on base down to least likely, with power hitters in the 3 and 4 slot?
Sort of, though I factor in things like speed and size of strike zone, too.
Do you know who’s most likely to take a walk?
I’m getting an idea of this, though we want everyone to develop an eye for strikes and balls and not swing at pitches out of the zone. Two games ago, that leadoff hitter I just mentioned took three walks and stole three bases. And there’s Miguel, whose strike zone is so small he’ll give opposing pitchers fits.
Are there tons of walks in high school ball?
You’d be surprised. Most starters get the ball over pretty consistently. In today’s game, against a really great team, Freddy and JayRoc walked just 6 of the 53 batters they faced.
Do pitchers bat?
Everybody bats and we can use a DH if we want to.
Is base stealing a big factor in high school ball? I figure the catcher isn’t likely to make that throw even 30% of the time.
Base stealing is huge. But, most catchers can make that throw (2 of our 3 do it most of the time).
What’s the record for the Firebirds?
Our single season steals record sits at 37 in around 23 games. Three of my speedsters have pledged to break it this year. We’re gonna be fast.
Have you argued a call yet? What’s your style in that regard?
Not yet, mainly because conference play hasn’t started so, again, the games really haven’t meant anything. Think: spring training. Once the season begins, I’m going to play it by ear. These guys are paid so little to call games; it can really backfire. The strategy I’m working on is a little like how I’ve heard Joe Maddon argue. Basically he runs out and tells the guy he’s only out there cuz he has to be and it was a lousy call and he hopes it doesn’t affect the outcome. If the dude gets testy, I may have to kick some dirt. That’ll be funny. Also, probably embarrassing.
Do most of the fields have home run fences?
No, but ours does. (By ours, I mean the field we’ve reserved for all our conference home games—we don’t have our own field so have to reserve one when we need to use one and otherwise practice on the lawn. But our game field is brand new, has lights, and turf. I brought cupcakes to the woman who’s in charge of the park when I went to reserve it. Pissed a lot of the other coaches in the city off who’d planned to use it for their home games. Quite the coup for a first-year coach. Another proud moment.)
Did you have to do anything to earn your team’s trust?
JayRoc, who’s basically my ace, has a problem with skipping practice, and we’ve been fighting it all year. Finally, after he’d skipped an important practice for which I’d reserved a field, enough was enough. I texted him that he owed the team an apology and he could look forward to running for an hour if he wanted to continue to participate. The next practice, after my intro talk with the guys, I invited J up for his apology, and I was surprised by his sincerity. When he was done, I asked him to tell the team what else I told him, and he mumbled that he was to run for an hour. A quick analogy: running for an hour for baseball players is like stringing together four consecutive meaningful sentences for NASCAR drivers. It’s not something that happens. So I said to the team, “Either J runs his hour by himself, or we run 20 minutes as a team. You guys decide.” We ran. Truthfully, I didn’t know I could run for 20 minutes before that day.
Are you teaching at the school at all?
I run an art program in which I’ve got 15 kids who apprentice under me as painters. It’s a cool opportunity, cuz the students are paid to participate, so there’s high enthusiasm and commitment. Doesn’t hurt that the principal has given us permission to paint murals on any wall in the building. We just finished one that turned a hallway into a fish bowl in which all the fish are painted like flags of different countries. It looks fantastic.
Do you get involved in school/academic stuff for your players?
I’m proud to say that the baseball team has the strictest eligibility policy of any athletic program at the school. The guys have to maintain a GPA higher than 2.0 and have less than 2 F’s. I know, not that much, but you’d be surprised how much of a struggle it is for some players. I do weekly grade checks, and if you fail a grade check, you sit out all games in the following week. Fail three grade checks in a row and we have a conversation in which I tell you maybe baseball is taking up too much of your time and you should focus on your grades and consider trying out again next year. I carried over this policy from the previous coach. So far, I’m happy with the results, though I’m a little worried about our shortstop. He’s smart as hell but hates doing useless homework. We’re working on it.
Aside from running practice and building the lineup is your job basically just knowing when to pull the pitcher and put in a pinch runner?
When you’re talking about the job, I could bitch about all the extra shit I have to do, like order buses and reserve fields and arrange umps, but really, that’s basically it. I holler a lot.
A few years ago you and I talked about whether or not big league pitchers know the book on who they’re facing. What about high schoolers?
We play each team in our division twice, and the guys know a lot of the other players on the other teams, especially the veterans. Obviously, as a new coach, I have a lot to learn, but I’m hoping to use the info from our first meeting against each team to plan for the next. This will not work on days that we play double headers.
Do they remember the batters from previous at bats?
That’s another part of Coach Weber’s and my job description, though my shortstop and catcher are also really good at this. Keeping good book helps this exponentially.
What’re some of your favorite “jawin'” things to yell or to hear the players yell?
I throw out a lot of “Attaboy’s.” I’m trying to teach my starting catcher the nuances of talking smack to opposing hitters when they come to the plate without pissing off the umpire. It’s a work in progress.
Do you plan to get a box of sparkling new uniforms to give the kids right before the first game?
Funny you asked this. Yes. The new unis are scheduled for delivery this Friday, and I’ll pass them out at our last practice before conference play begins. Designing them was a lot of fun. We’re gonna look good this year.