Not every Little League coach is an amateur hoping to fake it ‘til they make it. Sometimes, the guy managing youth baseball is actually a former pro. Two examples: Sergio Ferrer and Jack Perconte. Ferrer played four seasons in the MLB with the Minnesota Twins (1974-75) and the New York Mets (1978-79). Perconte played seven years with the Dodgers (1980-81), Cleveland (1982-83), Seattle (1984-85), and the White Sox (1986). Both men now coach Little League. Both men find many of the adults they encounter in that context comically intense.
After their respective playing careers finished, both Ferrer and Perconte opted to start coaching kids — a more engaging alternative to advertising car dealerships or endorsing steak joints. Perconte has been managing for more than two decades and has authored three books about coaching youth baseball, including The Making of a Hitter: A Proven and Practical Step-by-Step Baseball Guide. Ferrer is a longstanding coach for Roosevelt Little League in Puerto Rico. In both cases, experience as players has given them unique insight and, perhaps more importantly, perspective. And as former pros, both men worry about how competitive youth sports have become. Perconte, in particular, claims to have witnessed a noticeable change over the last decade.
“The pressure for kids has become tremendous,” he says. “So any negative words can really affect a kid because they are already having to think about this game as a career path, which is not how it should be.”
Ferrer agrees and that’s something coming from a self-described “intense ballplayer” who spent a decent chunk of his professional career arguing with umpires. Ferrer says that seeing really intense parents and coaches have convinced him to mellow out. He’s a hardass about baseball but thinks its more important to be a softie around kids.
“Any time I see a coach yelling at their players, I feel for those kids,” Ferrer explains. “I try to teach the kids to be aggressive but I never want to yell at a kid because I feel like they aren’t giving the level of effort I want. When a kid drops a ball or misses a grounder, it can be frustrating. But it doesn’t help to be overaggressive or put too much pressure on the players because they’re just kids.”
As youth sports have become more competitive, coaches have obsessed over statistics as a measure of success. That seems smart, but Perconte and Ferrer, who can quote their career statistics by memory, know that numbers have limits — especially when applied to children. While managers may think they are doing their due diligence by tracking batting average or fielding percentage, kids stats don’t always make much sense. Short seasons mean that numbers only regress so far toward the mean; it is not uncommon for a high school baseball player to bat .800. Also, errors and other outside factors can strongly affect results.
Perconte says that the thing to track is improvement and the thing to remember is that these are kids.
“So many kids are afraid to give out that extra effort because they fear failure,” Perconte explains. “They’re afraid of letting themselves or their parents or their teammates down. And the way managers behave doesn’t help. So many managers are trying to control every aspect of the game for kids and yelling at players as they are walking up to the plane. It’s not doing the kid any good and it certainly isn’t helping the team.”
It might seem surprising that former players would not bring their naturally competitive nature to their managing style but getting to play even a single game in the MLB requires just as much patience as passion. Baseball seasons are long and success doesn’t happen in a single game or practice. While other little league coaches might succumb quickly to what appears to be a lack of success or effort, Perconte and Ferrer have the experience as former players to understand that with baseball, results take time.
For Perconte, seeing the ways the managers motivated himself and other players during his career helped him understand that immediately jumping to anger is not an effective way to get real results out of players. During his time with the Mariners, Perconte was coached by Chuck Cottier, who he described as “mild-mannered” who rarely lost his temper, as he focused on strategy and the big picture instead of berating his players for natural mistakes.
Perconte also learned from Yankees manager Billy Martin despite having never played for him. He says that even from the opposite clubhouse, he admired the fact that Martin “always seemed like he was a step ahead of everyone else.” Perconte’s admiration of Martin makes sense given his own approach as a manager, where he focuses on motivation and strategy instead of getting players to submit blindly to his will.
“If you give the players the resources and opportunity while maintaining focus on the fun,” says Perconte. “They’ll fall in love with the game and happily put in the work.”
Ferrer says that while maintaining a competitive edge is essential for managers to get the most out of their players, it will often cause managers to lose sight of what their job is really all about. Managers will suddenly focus more on winning than helping kids get better at a sport they love.
“It’s easy to forget that at the end of the day, a manager is a teacher,” Ferrer says. “I am teaching them how to play the game and how to improve their skills. Obviously, I want to win but that’s not what this is about.”
Ferrer is comfortable saying this because he’s played in situations where it wasn’t about fun. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Ferrer says that nearly every kid who played baseball had their sights set on making it to the pros and that desire often overshadowed everything else, including loving the game. He felt the pressure from a young age and while he was fortunate to live out his dream and play professional baseball, most of the kids he played with didn’t.
Perconte seconds Ferrer’s sentiments and thinks he’s found the source of the problem, an assumption that makes an ass out of a lot of coaches.
“They think the game should automatically fun or they assume that if a kid is talented the game is automatically fun,” Perconte explains. “That’s not true.”
Of course, Perconte and Ferrer can never fully understand the plight of the average joe little league manager, as their time in Major League Baseball gives them their own unique opportunities and burdens. But at the end of the day, the relative fame and insight they have from their days in the pros don’t take away from the fact that just like most youth baseball managers, they’re just trying their best to get their players to reach their full potential without taking away the fun.
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