Five strikes, four infielders, four outfielders, coaches all over the field and 11 players to a team – if that does not sound like minor baseball to you, you are not on Terry Chickness’s team.
For the last 20 years or so Chickness has co-ordinated a rookie-level minor baseball program that currently takes in Stellarton, Westville and Pictou teams. Designed for seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds, it was a nine-team league this year and, as always, Chickness coaches the Stellarton DeMont’s team.
Chickness, 62, retired from Michelin and, now a school bus driver, does not remember exactly how he came to be co-ordinator but he clearly remembers what inspired him.
“My son was playing peewee in the next field and I was the assistant coach. Our game finished first so we started watching the younger kids. One team had a pitcher who could throw pretty hard and the kids on the other team were scared to death. I saw one kid close his eyes and swing, he was that scared of getting hit,” he said.
The game was a never-ending walk around the bases with nobody hitting.
“I know kids want to hit the ball and they want to catch a ball but it wasn’t going to happen the way that game was going. If nobody is hitting, nobody gets a chance to catch.”
Over the winter Chickness, knowing his son would not be playing ball the next year, kept thinking back to that rookie game and how the kids should have been having more fun.
“I knew the first thing that had to change was the pitching. The goal was to strike the batter out but that is not what you want for rookie level so the answer was for adults to pitch. They try to float the ball in to their own players. That way the chances of getting a hit go way up,” he said, adding nothing improves a player’s confidence and enjoyment like cracking the ball.
Putting an adult in as catcher or back-up catcher helps moves the game along, he added.
“You see kids get bored in the field and that’s when somebody can get hurt so we put parents in the field with them, maybe one parent watching the outfield and others in the infield. A parent will encourage and keep them focused and direct them if there is a play to be made,” he said.
In the Stellarton-Westville-Pictou league it is not unusual for a coach to stop the game to help a player correct his swing or to explain a play. Every once in a while through the years there is a parent or two who thinks the modified rules are not competitive enough.
“They may try to organize something different or go somewhere else to play but we’ve had a lot of people who think our system is good for development, a lot of parents who help out with it and there is no question the kids enjoy it,” he said.
The fact that he drives from his cottage in Lochaber for every game is a measure of Chickness’s commitment.
“We won the league this year so that was pretty special. We don’t win too often, three times in the last 20 years,” he said.
Chickness grew up in Stellarton playing baseball but insists he wasn’t very good.
“Any hits I got were because somebody in the field missed the ball. I learned a lot from my son’s coaches but I think the rookie rules we use have more to do with looking at the game from a kid’s point of view.”
Looking back, he remembers one year when he thought he had a chance of making the Stellarton High School hockey team but he was injured in a motorcycle accident.
“I didn’t get a Stellarton High School jacket until this summer when I was on the winning team at the Homecoming golf tournament. I had one of the worst games of my life but the others did pretty well so we got the jackets and I’m happy to finally have one,” he said.
Chickness became a hockey referee by chance but for years he has been training and organizing referees for the Stellarton and New Glasgow systems.
“I was about 23 and Burton Dean asked me if I’d ref for $10 a game in a gentlemen’s league. For a while I did it as a kind of outlaw ref and then I got certified. I refereed for a long time and I’ve been working with the kids for quite a few years, getting out on the ice with them just like I do with the ball players,” he said.
He credits his wife, Susan, with helping greatly with the scheduling over the years.
Whether in baseball or hockey, Chickness insists on good sportsmanship.
“I always tell the players if the other guys had not shown up we would not have had a game,” he said.
He also makes sure his players know somebody had to pay for their jerseys and hats.
“Doug DeMont has sponsored our team for years so when we had a get-together after winning this year we invited him and introduced him to all the team.”
Chickness’s own enjoyment of sports is second only to his enjoyment of the young boys and girls he has coached. He told the players on this year’s winning team to give him a call when they turn 16 so he can meet them all again and see what they are like.
“One little fellow looked at me for a minute and then said, ‘Or we could have a beer together,’” he laughed.