When Little Leagues are big

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It’s deserted these days, the Little League ball field at Foster Park. Late summer and the kids sit idly home, watching videos, or they’ve been packed off to camp.

Nearly every day, I jog past the field and the nearby diamonds where the older kids play. After the season, seeing the empty fields makes me feel a bit sad. All the makings of a ball game are there, the backstops, the dugouts and outfield fences. In theory, a baseball game never ends. The rule book doesn’t limit the extra innings you’re allowed.

But by mid-August, the coaches have given out the trophies. The diamonds sit empty in the background. I look beyond the parents, friends and the kids who’ve gathered for the ceremonies. Not much to see on the diamond. I note only an occasional breeze stirring dust at the pitcher’s mound. No runs. No hits. No errors.

Since I was a kid myself, the baseball season has measured the tempo of my life. In Defiance, Ohio, where I grew up, I played in the Little League at the old Kingsbury Park. I was the pitcher on the team for Schatz Motors, our sponsor. I guess that company bought our uniforms.

I was Number 7, which happened to have been Mickey Mantle’s number. We were Detroit Tiger, not Yankee fans, but Dad proudly made that association. When the season opened one year, The Defiance Crescent-News sent a photographer and shot me standing, bat on my shoulder, at the plate for the next day’s edition.

Many years later, I was signing books at the public library in Defiance. A guy showed up to swap one of my memoirs for a book. His book was a collection of the box scores of seasons of Little League play at Kingsbury. There, for posterity, was the sad story of my Little League pitching career.

My team, behind my pitching, lost more games than we won. I must have set the league record for giving up the most walks. I rarely got a hit. Such a dismal accounting made me wonder why this guy thought I’d like to have the book I was trading mine for. Still, I was glad to have the book. I did learn how he came to have collected all this. His dad, I think a high school coach, had been the president of the Little League for years.

The truth is, baseball isn’t just about records. It’s the rhythm of a special time of the year. It’s a main feature of every sports page in the country. I think of Mom Hayes, my grandmother, who spent summer afternoons listening to “her Tigers” when they weren’t rained out. A lifetime away, I still can picture her at my grandparents’ home in Latty, Ohio, where I spent many summer days. She’d be propped up on a couple of pillows in bed. On her nose you’d see perched her black-framed reading glasses. Usually, she’d use the time to sew together quilt patches or hook a rug. Often, she’d nod or shake her head in disbelief as our favorite announcer for the Tigers, Harry Heilman, called the game.

No Tiger games on WJR? Not a crisis for Mom Hayes. She just turned the dial on her brown Crosley table radio to WLW, where Waite Hoyte was announcing the play-by-play for the Cincinnati Reds. Our family liked the Reds, too.

When my parents and I lived for a year or so in Latty, I played ball for Blue Creek, the consolidated high school in rural Paulding County. Again, I was the pitcher. But my finesse hadn’t improved much since Little League. Called in to relieve the starter by coach Ned Jay, also my geometry teacher, I threw the first pitch over the backstop.

“A little wild, Larry?” Mr. Jay yelled sarcastically. I recall little from the rest of the season. I wouldn’t say high school was the favorite time of my life.

Many years passed, and I revived my baseball career. This time it was in the incarnation of a Little League dad and coach myself. We lived now in Fort Wayne. I was writing for the newspaper. His first season, my son John played for the Pizza King Little League team. It wasn’t a winning season for us that year. The head coach let his desire to win get the better of him. He’d yell at the kids for making mistakes. I wanted to yell back at him, “Hey, they’re just kids!” Instead, I figured he had given a lot of time to the team. He cared. I kept my mouth shut.

When we weren’t playing a game, John and I would play catch in our side yard. Whether there or on the field, I was always astonished at how quick he was. I always said he had the reflexes of a gnat. That became even more evident the next season when he played and I again was a coach. Our sponsor this year was Barber Shop. Son John was one of the stars on the team. The head coach was a Magnavox engineer named John Brown.

Now here was a guy who knew how to talk to kids. He was direct, expected the best and cheered each child on, boy or girl, no matter his or her talent or success. Surely, it was at least partly Brown’s coaching that help this team go undefeated for the season. What a celebration with ice cream we had after the final game. It must be one of John’s fondest memories of childhood.

Today, both of us continue to follow the Reds. A natural thing to do. I attended graduate school in Cincinnati. His mother grew up in the area. For a number of years, John and I drove to Cincinnati to see the Opening Day game. The Reds usually won for us.

I’m delighted so many kids get to play ball in the summer, even if they don’t stay with it or become diehard fans as they grow older. They get a introduction to the joys and heartbreak of sports. And it’s such a healthy thing for growing bodies. Beyond that, in sports, kids can learn important values, from teamwork, respect for opponents, the importance of practice to old-fashioned sportsmanship. All these things make for a good citizen.

So here are my three cheers for the parents and other volunteers who gather the kids each season at the community ball fields of America, whether that’s for baseball or soccer. They teach them the fundamentals. They help them develop their own natural talents. With every game, they give them a big boost to getting along in the world.

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