Although the majority of the players he’s coaching are the same, the game has significant differences. Namely, the players taking that step between 12 and 13 years old had to move up from playing on 60-foot base paths to playing on a full-sized diamond with 90 feet between each base.
This change affects many aspects of the game. When fielding, infielders have to get used to throwing longer distances. Batters quickly learned that they had to hit the ball harder to get it through the infield. Pitchers not only have to throw farther to get the ball to the plate, they also have to learn pick-off moves and get used to going back and forth between pitching from a wind-up and working from the stretch.
Phillips, however, sees one area of the game as being more demanding than all the rest when teaching players to make the transition: base running. Not only do players have to run farther between bases, but they are also allowed to lead off for the first time.
The former four-year starting shortstop at Penn State in the early 1980s made sure to put in extra time teaching his Back Mountain team the nuances of base running.
The players had a brief introduction in the past when they traveled to New York State to play in a tournament on a 50/70 field where leading off was legal in the game’s rules.
“That made it a little bit easier,” said Phillips, who has been working primarily with the same group of players in the Dallas, Pa. area for the past four years. “We had to reiterate it and re-practice and make sure kids got comfortable in taking a lead. … It took some practice.”
Phillips had prior coaching experience on a full-sized field.
“There’s a transition period where not all of the kids are good at it,” Phillips said. “It is a matter of getting some practice time, some repetition and getting them to do it over and over.
“They have gotten pretty good at it.”
The coach took a hands-on approach in early-season practices, taking the mound and working from the stretch while players led off and ran from first base in live situations with a batter.
At that point, players need to do some experimenting to see what works best for them, Phillips said.
“It’s being able to show them live situations even though you’re in a practice situation and expressing to the kids it’s OK to make a mistake,” he said. “You have to kind of find out what your maximum lead is and what you can take.
“That kind of happens by trial and error.”
There is more to base running than just stealing bases, however. Phillips makes sure to go over secondary leads, too.
“If you’re a runner on first base and you have a normal lead, when the pitcher kicks and goes to the plate, you should as a runner basically take about two slide steps,” Phillips said. “When you’re an extra two slide steps out, you need to react quickly to whether the batter hits the ball or not.
“If he hits a ground ball, you have a little bit of a head start in order to get a jump toward the next base. But then at the same time, if the batter doesn’t contact the ball and the ball gets to the catcher, you need to react quickly, because you’re hung out to dry a little bit. You need to react to make sure you don’t get picked off by the catcher throwing behind you.”