Went to Williamsport, Pa., last week and saw the Phenix City
(Ala.) team win the U.S. Little League championship.
They never played the Nuts. Actually, the team of 11- and
12-year-olds that I coach in the Denver Catholic Youth
Recreation Association is the Good Shepherd Grizzlies, but we
call ourselves the Nuts because our first and foremost goal each
season is to learn how to eat sunflower seeds without using our
hands, indoors or out. (Very big with the mothers.) We even have
a cheer we holler before each game:
Elbows, knees, ankles, butts!
No one beats us!
We're the Nuts!
Near as I could see, there was nothing about Phenix City or any
other team in the series this year that would crack the Nuts.
True, the worst player on any of the eight Little League
regional champions would possibly be the best on my team. And
the smallest kid on Phenix City would be one of my biggest. (I
had two kids this year who could sit on first and dangle their
feet.) And, true, one kid on the Latin American champions was
six feet, 170 pounds and had a second mortgage. I didn't even
have parents who were six feet, 170.
But can the players in Williamsport do what my kids can do? For
instance, could any third baseman there name the make, model and
year of any car that drives by? "That's a 1991 Honda Civic CRX
in the metallic burgundy with the optional roof package," our
third baseman, Grant, would tell me during a game.
"Amazing, Grant!" I'd say. "Now, will you be getting the
grounder that just rolled by your feet, or should I ask the
leftfielder to come in?"
The Phenix City coach, Tony Rasmus, said his third pitcher had a
"good fastball and a good changeup." But what would he give to
have my third pitcher, whose fastball is his changeup? Yeah, his
outfielders go down on one knee for every grounder, but so what?
My outfielders go down on one knee, too (but only for worms). I
bet his kids don't steal bases like we do. Of course, we have to
steal. We only have two helmets. Can Phenix City players hit
while backing out of the batter's box? Can they field line
drives matador style? Can they apply a tag with both feet in the
air, eyes closed?
Nope, I wouldn't trade teams with Rasmus, and, to be honest, I
wouldn't want my son to play for him. For 10 weeks Rasmus had
the Phenix City team practicing four hours a day, every day but
one, sometimes past dark. The families of his players had to
promise to take no summer vacations during that time. He even
quit his job--he was supposed to teach 11th-grade chemistry
starting Aug. 16--so he could devote more time to coaching this
team. Quit to focus on Little League. God forbid the guy ever
coaches Pony League.
I won't let my pitchers throw curves yet, but every pitcher I
saw in Williamsport did. In our league all 16 kids on my team
are in the batting order and each plays at least two innings in
the field every game. Not in Williamsport. A kid only has to get
one at bat or be on the field for three outs in each game. The
Japanese team, which ended up beating Phenix City 5-0 for the
world championship, had one boy who batted only once all week.
After the loss Rasmus said that nearly every kid on his team was
crying. The Nuts get over losses immediately, and sometimes they
are not even aware they've lost. "What's the score, Coach?" my
second baseman, Eric, would ask.
"Seventeen to four," I'd say.
But mostly, I wouldn't switch places with Rasmus because every
year I get a kid or two who has never played baseball. This year
it was a stone-quiet kid named William, who wore wire rims and
was no higher than a mailbox. He showed up with a brand-new,
board-stiff, ottoman-sized glove, and every practice we worked
on making the glove a little softer and William a little better.
Eventually, he not only learned to hit but also to run to first
afterward, instead of third. And in the last game of the year,
he stuck that frying pan out in front of him as if he were
trying to stop a train and caught his first fly ball.
In nine years of coaching, that was my favorite moment. You
would have thought we had just won the Little League World
Series. First we hoisted William up like Lindbergh and then let
him drop and made a giant dog pile on top of him.
We lost that game to end our season, probably my last, but near
as I can remember, there was only one set of moist eyes.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
I wouldn't trade my team for any in Williamsport, because every
year I get a kid who has never played baseball.