WHEN The Sporting News magazine identified some of the top baseball teachers in the United States last year, Tony Abrams, a United Parcel Service truck driver in Palm Harbor, Fla., made the short list.
A former high school and junior college player, Abrams got into coaching about nine or 10 years ago when his two sons started playing Little League. He has coached youngsters from eight to 18 and last summer added a coaching stint with college-age players at the US Olympic Festival to his resume.
Contacted by phone, Abrams shared these ideas on coaching youth baseball:
On working with less-talented players:
With klutzy youngsters, I like to find something they're good at or that I can make them good at. Teaching them to bunt can be the biggest thing in the world because they're not going to make a whole lot of contact swinging the bat. But if they can bunt a run over [to the next base], it gives them self-esteem and you can build on that.
On making practices interesting:
I think we insult their intelligence by letting them stand in the outfield and do nothing while some kid hits for 10 minutes. I break the team into smaller groups, get help from parents or coaches, and have them switch practice stations every 20 minutes.''
On detecting and correcting a common hitting mistake:
When a lot of kids get in the batters box, their weight is improperly distributed. They're back on their heels instead of on the balls of their feet.... I take two fingers and push them on the shoulder and they fall out of the box. Once they move their weight forward, they realize they can see the ball better all the way to the plate. Their head stays down, the ball starts jumping off the bat.
On handling fear of a pitched ball:
A lot of coaches in youth leagues yell, ''Get in there! Don't be scared of it, it won't hurt you!'' That's a bunch of baloney. I say ''You're probably going to get hit sometime, but if you get over the fear of it, you're going to hit much better.'' Kids respond well to honesty. If you tell them the truth, you've established a bond with them.
A suggestion for simple backyard fielding practice:
Stand maybe 10 or 15 feet away from several players. Tap them the ball or roll it, if you don't have a bat. Have the players field the ground balls without a glove. This way they get the feel of using both hands -- catching with one hand but keeping the other right there. This really pays off.