Monday, August 20, 2007

Little League not just for kids and that may not be a bad thing

First published at Big Dave on sports

15 years ago, when Little League was the center of my life, a magical land was never spoken of above a whisper, for it represented a season’s hopes and dreams. That magical land was Williamsport.

There was never a reason to mention the “Little League World Series” that took place in that sleepy town each August. It was always “Do you think we can get to Williamsport?”

We came close once, in 1992, when I was a too young President of our local Little League, where, at that time, your all-star team was expected to make it to the state tournament’s final weekend. Twice in the two decades before the league came within one out of winning the State Tournament only to see their opponents capture a walk off victory.

The league had an unofficial college of coaches. While the league champion’s coaches would have the official title, at all star time they would step aside for the veteran coaches with experience. If they balked, then the President would use the power of his office to insure the tradition was maintained.

But I was never one for tradition. I drew the wrath of several people because I used to let the players have pick up games on the field after league contests had ended. I tried to remind everyone that it was for the kids.

The league also had a different color that year. I was working in the housing projects then, and got the league to pay the entry fee for a handful of players, two of whom, both black, were elected to the all-star team, one looked 12 going on 16, and the other was a speedy centerfielder.

When the first all-star practice was called, the coaches insisted they would not take any outside help, and I was asked to use my royal powers to force them aside. I refused, saying they had won the league and had the right to choose who helped them.

The members of the league who objected to the coaches did have a point. They weren’t the best “baseball men.” In fact I convinced them once to spend the night in the batting cages while I had a couple of friends work on hitting the cut off man and base running.

Also they weren’t the most disciplined team. Those words that got a coach and player in hot water when they were aired over ESPN last season were regular visitors in our dugout. Most of all they enjoyed having fun, a band of idiots playing baseball in New England a dozen years before it was to go national.

But, when the double elimination district series started it seemed that the naysayers were correct. They won their first two games, and then lost badly, putting them in the dreaded losers bracket.

In the first inning of their next game they fell behind by eight runs, thanks to the long lost father of the starting pitcher, who not only surprised him by coming to the game, but also decided to give him not needed advice leaving him such a mess he couldn’t record an out.

The game took on a surreal feel from that point, as we slowly started to rally. The field was across the street from a church, and as a bride and her bridesmaids scurried past the backstop dressed in white, some magic seemed to rub off on the boys. They won the game when our relief pitcher, one of those roly-poly home run hitting types, managed the only inside the park homerun of his career, as the outfielder stood over the ball claiming it was under the fence and he could not get it. As our rotund little pitcher huffed around the bases the umpire made a leisurely jaunt to the outfield, and ruled the ball in play, just as the batter reached home, and cried out for oxygen.

This began a streak like what carried the Red Sox in ’04 and Chi-Sox in ’05. They went from the gang that couldn’t throw straight to the gang that couldn’t lose, even when their starting shortstop, at a pool party to celebrate winning the district, fell off the deck and broke his arm.

There was another game they should have lost, just before the state final four, when they were down by one with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth. The backup first baseman, who would go on to be drafted by the Rockies as a pitcher, signing with the University of Alabama, and be on the cover of Baseball America with Rick Ankiel before arm problems forced him from the game, hit a ball deep over the center field fence to push the game into extra innings, and another day.

They won the game the next day. The field where they had played this game was the same park where the state tournament would be held, hidden in the unspoken darkness at the edge of town, of which no local would admit knowledge. Our group got so lost going to the field that we almost had to forfeit. That night, fresh with the thrill of winning, I wrote a column for the local paper, criticizing the field and the state tournament organizers for having the tournament in a small town with a field tucked away in its woods.

After the story ran a friend of mine from the paper called and said that the people in that town weren’t happy, and in fact, were going to kill me if I went to the state finals.

When I arrived for the first game I noticed that they had blown up my picture from the column and had made it into a wanted poster. Luckily I had grown out my hair, a promise not to cut it until the team lost, and no one recognized me, even though I was asked several times if I had seen the rat bastard.

The black kid from the projects, the one who looked 15, started the semi-final game. At 5 feet 9 inches, with huge muscles, and a menacing stare, he was someone most 12 year olds had never faced. We had his teammates spread the word of how many players he had hit that season (a lot) so the batters were bailing out with each pitch. Somehow his control was perfect that day, and the win came easy, putting us in the state finals.

Our opponents at the state finals had beaten us in the championship game once before, with the same coaching staff, and during their practice before the game they ran crisp drills. Our players lay on the grass, threw water on one another, chased eachother around the field, and said words that didn’t belong in the bible. An opposing coach came over to watch and went back to his field saying they had nothing to worry about.

I on the other hand had plenty to worry about. Our coaches had decided in the state finals to start a couple of kids who hadn’t played much. In the state finals. “Told you,” one of the old time coaches snickered. “It’s their team,” I said then went behind the dugout to try and slit my wrist with a blunt rock.

I don’t remember much about the state final. Our roly-poly pitcher didn’t make it out of the first and we went back to the kid who gave up eight runs in his last start. His father had gone back to whatever hole he had crawled out of, the kid pitched lights out, we rallied, stuffed a late inning comeback, then the final out was recorded, we had won the state championship and did the dance of joy.

At the banquet that night I was outed. I did apologize, and when I accepted the trophy I talked about how no one believed this team could win, how our own league turned their backs on us, and how I wasn’t going to the Regionals to lose.

We went to the Regionals and we lost. Quickly.

Today in Bristol Ct players sleep in nice dorms. Then they slept in a school, on cots, all in the same room, with their coaches, in the sweltering July heat, with clogged toilets with no one to fix them, health violations everywhere, and every little league official within earshot claiming everything was fine.

After their first loss we planned to sneak the kids to a hotel so they could relax and use the pool. This was a major rule violation but we were willing to take the chance. Each team had an “Aunt” and “Uncle” assigned to them who, not quite the kindly people they were made out to be, were spies. We told “Uncle Al” we were going to practice, but my young 15 year old looking friend from the projects whispered to him “We’re really going to the hotel pool Uncle Al, don’t tell anybody.” Well, it was that day that he learned a valuable lesson, “don’t trust whitey,” as we were immediately narced out. But we still managed to get to the hotel with a plan no less risky than The Great Escape.

Our act of civil disobedience may have cost us some calls the next day, everyone involved in the tournament was happy to be rid of us. The kids didn’t play well either, just as happy to go home. They spent nine months of the year sleeping in a classroom they didn’t want to do it during their vacation.

Today I see the players occasionally. I saw the black pitcher one day leaving the courthouse. He had been arrested for assault and battery. A friend of his had attacked him for no reason and he had fought back. After the fight he found out it was because his attacker had just found out that our semi-final winning pitcher was his baby’s Daddy. “Hey Ted I’ve got a kid,” he said through his fat lip.

Another lives in my basement. It’s not like that. I’m married to his mother. He just left for the Stan Musial World Series in Houston, still chasing the dream.

I watch the games on ESPN, seeing children play with an enthusiasm never matched by their elders. For them it is the thrill of their lives; for now. But ahead of them are other triumphs. Even greater sports victories, college, marriage, their own children.

For the adults watching, their own triumphs are harder to see, slowly fading in the rear view mirror. Their child getting the game winning hit, or recording the last strikeout; seeing the expression on their faces, that is the closest they can come to the triumphs of their youth. I still believe it’s about the kids, but it means more to the adults.

So I have any advice to the parents and coaches in the magical land of Williamsport today: enjoy it. It will be over before you know it, and those boys on the field will be men in the blink of an eye.

But don’t fret, grandparents are welcome at Williamsport too.

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