Dugout Doings: Sliding into a new season
It's 8 a.m. on a rainy Saturday and Mike Nickeas, a backup catcher for the New York Mets, teaches NYO ballplayers the art of sliding. Traditional hook slides, pop-up slides, even the belly slide that NYO disallows, Nickeas teaches them all and greets each successful 10, 11 and 12-year-old with a big smile. Those who screech to a halt on their knees still get an encouraging word.
NYO tryouts are a week away and 165 youngsters have signed up for one of five two-and-a-half clinics at Ninth Inning Baseball, an instructional facility in a warehouse off Peachtree-Industrial Blvd. Nickeas, a Georgia Tech star from 2002-04, reports to Mets spring training February 20, but he's up early this Saturday because he loves baseball and he loves the kids who play it. Not too long ago he was one of those kids.
Originally scheduled for the NYO fields, the clinics moved indoors with the threat of heavy rain. Heath Honeycutt, Ninth Inning's owner and general manager and himself a former Georgia Tech all-American and professional baseball player, made sure everyone who signed up for the clinic got a phone call, letting them know of the change to indoors. Eighteen hours and 209 phone calls later, everyone had received the word, according to NYO's Colin Trahan, who organized the clinic and sang the praises of Honeycutt and his staff.
In groups of six to 10, the young ballplayers rotated among stations for fielding, hitting, pitching and sliding. There they got detailed instruction from player-coaches not too many years removed from youth baseball themselves. Although nearly all the instructors have played baseball at the highest levels, their words were easy to understand, rich in enthusiasm and void of criticism.
Nickeas, whose job is to throw out baserunners, spends this morning teaching how to evade tags. 'Base running is really important,' he says, 'you can't teach speed, but you can get better at making reads (on the base paths).' Using a long black cushioned mat, Nickeas knows his pupils won't suffer the way he and so many others have who learned on hard-baked infields. 'Too many thoughts,' he shouts to a player who begins, then aborts a slide, ending up on his knees. Honeycutt estimates that about one in ten young players knows how to slide properly. Yet, NYO rules require a player to slide, rather than collide with a defensive player. With so much to teach in a four-month season, the art of sliding is often neglected. Mike Nickeas gave sliding the time and attention it deserved.
But there is a bigger message Nickeas and Honeycutt want to share: Make learning baseball fun. Nickeas recalls growing up in southern California with a father and grandfather who loved the game and infused him with their passion. Posters of big-league catchers Mike Piazza and Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez hung on his bedroom wall as a boy. He met Piazza, also a former Met, last year and confesses to being tongue-tied. He said playing against Rodriguez as a big-leaguer was a thrill. Mostly, he remembers the joy of watching Dodgers games with his father and grandfather, in person or on television. 'Watching a game with them was huge,' he recalls. 'They would show me the right way to do things, and it built in me a love and respect for the game.' It's something he recommends more parents do with their children. When the Braves play the Mets this season, look for Nickeas. He'll be wearing #4.
Honeycutt offers this advice to parents of young players: 'Have fun. Don't worry about results. Work on fundamentals --- throwing, catching, rotating the lower half of the body when hitting. When they're, say, 6 once a week is enough instruction for 20-30 minutes at a time. Kids figure it out faster than older people do.' The Saturday morning at Ninth Inning was for young players, but it could have been just as valuable for parents and coaches.
Jay Smith, a baseball geezer, says it is much easier to write about sliding for Dugout Doings than it is to do it.