ARLINGTON -- Erin Woodward’s Last Dance has been scuttled by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The “baby” Rangers of East Valley Baseball in Arizona are hardly the only kids who aren’t able to play organized baseball this summer. But the wife of Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward and mother of Grady, 10, was hoping for a much happier ending to her time as Little League manager before the family moved to Texas this summer.
This was not how an energetic and devoted mother of three was planning to celebrate Mother’s Day 2020.
“Everybody was so sad,” Erin said. “I was like, this is terrible. The kids were really upset, and the parents were, too. I wanted to have a proper goodbye and have one final season with the kids that I really love.”
There is always the possibility of managing a team in Texas.
What Little League team wouldn’t want to be led by the wife of a Major League manager, especially since she has seven fall and spring seasons of experience and loved every minute of it?
So what if it can be twice as stressful managing your own Little League team with parents critiquing your every moment, while thousands of fans are doing the same to your husband?
Hard to say which manager has more at stake.
“I am growing out all my gray hair,” Erin said. “I have a ton of gray hair, and I’m transitioning it out while we are in quarantine. It’s super stressful. To be honest with you, there were many games where I had my phone in the dugout with the Rangers game on while I am coaching and watching my kids play.”
So how did Erin end up being a veteran Little League manager? For one, she is hardly a baseball novice. She grew up playing baseball with her dad in Toronto until she was in fifth grade.
A trauma nurse by profession, she was a quick learner when it came to professional baseball after becoming engaged to a Toronto Blue Jays infielder trying to establish himself in the Major Leagues.
“When we first met, she knew baseball, but she didn’t know the ins and outs of professional baseball,” Chris said. “I could get away with a lot of things early in my career. But within six months, she was like, 'Why did you swing at that slider down and away?'”
After one bad game, Chris came home to discover Erin had their bags packed. He immediately demanded an explanation.
“'Well, obviously after that game you are going to Triple-A,'” Erin said.
Erin knew and loved baseball but did not anticipate being a Little League manager. Oldest daughter Sophie -- a high school senior -- was an elite-level gymnast until injuries caught up with her. Their son, Mason, who turned 13 last week, has a blossoming creative side, encouraged by his parents, with a love for piano, writing and gourmet cooking.
Grady loves baseball, and his mom signed him up for Little League in the fall of 2016, when the Woodwards moved from the Tampa Bay area to the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. The move was necessitated by Chris taking a job as a coach with the Dodgers.
“We were heavily invested in the [Safety Harbor, Fla.] community there,” Erin said. “I made a commitment to the kids that I would really dig into the community [in Arizona] and do everything I could to make them feel comfortable.”
After signing Grady up for Little League, the Woodwards waited patiently for a call from the coach about when they would start practicing. It never came. Instead, Erin received an email from the league.
“There was no manager,” Erin said. “Nobody had stepped up to manage that team, and if somebody didn’t step up in the next 36 hours, the team was going to be dissolved.”
That was not good. Breaking up and dispersing the squad meant bigger teams and less playing time for everybody.
Erin approached her husband.
“'Chris, I think I’m going to take this team over,'” Erin said.
“'Are you kidding me?'” Chris responded.
“'It sounds completely ridiculous, but I think I'm going to do it,'” Erin told him. “'I know nothing about Little League, but I know about baseball and I know about kids. I think I can figure this thing out.'”
She brought some interesting ideas to the first practice and got some interesting looks.
“I had dads frowning at me, like, ‘What’s going on here?’” Erin said. “I looked around at the group and said, ‘I’m here because none of you decided to be here. So that’s why I am here. This is what you get. So, let’s all work together and figure it out and have a good season.’ They all shook my hand and said, ‘OK.’”
There was still some uncertainty which Woodward was the brains behind the operation. One was a nurse. The other had spent his adult life in professional baseball.
“It’s funny because anytime a new dad would come on, they’d say. ‘I know you are really running things behind the scenes,’” Chris said. “I’d say no. They would kind of look at me and say, ‘What? What do you mean no?’
“As they got to know Erin, it was like, ‘She really is the boss. She is definitely running the show.’”
Erin did so with one overriding philosophy: every child would get a chance to play and develop their full potential. Nobody was going to ride the bench or be hidden in right field.
“Our big thing was, let’s develop as many of these kids as possible,” Erin said. “Whatever kid you bring me, we are going to get the very best we can for that kid. I don’t care if you never played, I don’t care if you stink. If you have a work ethic and want to play and love baseball, we are going to give you everything we have in our arsenal.”
She is not afraid to ask for help. The Woodwards have shared more than a few late-night glasses of wine discussing the proper way to teach cutoffs and relays. And if the Texas Rangers manager is occupied, Erin is just as comfortable talking with pitching coach Julio Rangel or assistant hitting coach Callix Crabbe.
“I’d say to Crabby, ‘Give me everything you have on hitting,'” Erin said. “I found it fascinating, and I was really committed to these kids. I loved working with them.”
Chris described his wife as being a quick learner when it came to coaching baseball.
“What I’m most proud of with her, is she never derailed herself from her values,” he said. “We try to win every game, but she is not going to sacrifice anybody’s development to do that.”
Those late-night phone calls and/or chats at the dining room table can also involve going over a particular game, whether it was played in Chandler or Arlington. There have been times when two games need to be dissected.
“For me to be able to come home and talk about the game in a way I would talk about it with a staff member, it is pretty important,” Chris said. “It does help, she can definitely see the perspective I am looking at.”
Chris was hired by the Rangers on Nov. 3, 2018, but the family decided to wait until Sophie graduated from high school before moving to Texas.
When they do finally settle in Texas, Erin could face another tough decision. It’s not just a matter of coaching Grady. She invested much physical, mental and emotional energy into the 40-50 players who played for her in Arizona. Two families have even talked about moving to Texas so their sons can keep playing for Erin.
“I might coach when I am in Texas, we’ll have to see,” Erin said. “Grady always gives me a hard time when I coach him. But every time I say I’m not going to coach next year … he’s like hysterically crying. ‘No, you are the best coach I’ve ever had, you have to coach.’
“I’m thinking, 'I’m the only coach you ever had, but OK, sure.'”
Not every child gets the chance to play Little League with their mother as the manager.
“It started out wanting to do the best for my son, and I wanted to be invested in the community,” Erin said. “The benefits beyond that, I didn’t anticipate -- the incredible families we’ve met and the relationships we have. We just created this incredible community. I am going to miss them desperately. It is honestly the best thing I have ever done.”