Revisiting my Little League roots
I had always associated Little League as the baseball you play when the hat comes down over your eyes. I wore those mesh hats with the solid color in the front, and because of my brother's dedication to old school ball, I had a wood bat with a red stripe across the middle during my first couple of seasons.
As long ago as that was, I remember so many experiences in Little League as if they happened yesterday, and that may be an indication of the powerful way baseball captures your innocence and imagination.
I remember that first home run that I hit over the fence as if the bat was still in my hands. I was 9 years old and had given in to the aluminum culture by then, sporting a golden bat at the plate. I connected off the big kid on the block, Mike Wilkins, who was two-plus years older than me. To this day, I remember the way I floated around the bases, even how that feeling kept with me for innings after. My dad began his tradition of slipping me cash for every home run, which often led to a MickeyDs run on the weekends.
I was part of a championship team in an undefeated season as a member of the Jets with my teammate, now Detroit Pistons head coach, Lawrence Frank. I threw a couple of no-hitters, but I also hit a lot of batters to go with my crazy number of walks. And by the way, Frank lets me know to this day that he didn't strike out that entire season, even as a fixture in our lineup. He was Jim Kaat on the mound and Rod Carew at the plate.
The bad hot dogs, the biking it to the field, the baggy pants, the pride in seeing our team sponsor's name -- Carratura Construction -- in the cement, since they paved the entire sidewalk system in my hometown of Teaneck, N.J. It was all part of the ultimate youth experience.
So when I got the chance to cover another part of Little League this past week, I was honored. I did color for the Big League Baseball World Series on Wednesday, the 17-18 year olds of Little League, an arena I knew nothing about before calling this game.
The opportunity took me to Easley, South Carolina, and after talking to the president of Little League International, Stephen Keener, I found out that Easley has some spunk. Years before the tournament rested at their recreation complex, they "picketed" at the previous location in an effort to have the tournament moved to their town. After the tournament outgrew their last location, Easley became the home.
Of course, I had to check out the local breakfast joint, which took me to Greenville, home of Tommy's Country Ham House, which clearly was after my own heart as the first buffet-style breakfast joint I have seen with a drive-thru window. I rolled to the Pickens County Library and to my shock, a copy of my book was in the featured new release section. I was glad Greenville didn't remember when I charged the mound on one of their Double-A team's pitchers. Anytime you cover a specialty game as what could be a one-time effort, you have to get up to speed, and quickly. So I sat in on the semifinals between Puerto Rico and the Netherlands, then Greenville, S.C., vs. the other local South Carolina team from District 1.
After each game, we talked to key players on the teams heading to the finals and their coaching staff. The team from Puerto Rico had steamrolled the Netherlands to get in, and in talking to them, they took me back to my days in winter ball in Mayaguez. I brushed up on my Spanish and found a lot of common acquaintances only one degree of separation away. They were an infectious bunch, having a good time, full of talent (five draft picks and counting) and to that point, dominating the tournament -- 48 runs scored to three allowed and a no-hitter to boot. They had nicknames everywhere, from "Baby," "Yoshi," "La Pulga" (the flea), you name it, nickname or not, they could flat-out play.
On top of their clear talent, their manager, Edwin Rodriguez (not the former Marlins one, mind you) was a tactician; he talked about making contact at the plate, discipline, poise. He didn't have much room for free swingers and raw talent messes. He referred to "Moneyball"; he liked pitchers who threw strikes at any velocity and he also had their ace -- Jorge Lopez, second-round pick of the Brewers -- going for him in the finals. Lopez also happened to be the top volleyball player for his age group in all of Puerto Rico.
Then after Greenville, S.C., knocked off their local friends from District 1, we sat with their squad. These guys loved the game and clearly had played together for most of their baseball life. The coach, Jeff Young, had a Zen-like mojo about him and they had their poised middle-of-the-lineup leader, Kyle Martin (a.k.a. K-Mart) holding it down as he was lined up to go to the NCAA champion University of South Carolina Gamecocks this upcoming season.
I was impressed by their center fielder, Brady Hegwood, who was a highlight reel. He dove, he climbed walls and most importantly he knew how to position himself. For a young outfielder, it was beyond his years to know how to move his outfield, read the pitch and situation and position accordingly. He moved more than most major league center fielders.
After my breakfast run on the morning of the finals, I hit the library and read through the notes and the questionnaires they filled out. I decided it would be cool to listen to their favorite musicians as I read through their answers (many had the same answer, so that helped). Being that I didn't know who Waka Flocka was or the top country singers of the day, I had a lot of catching up to do. And forget about knowing the hits of Wisin y Yandel of the Reggaeton music revolution in Latin America.
While I jammed to some good tracks, I learned that over half the Puerto Rican team chose Megan Fox as their favorite actress or that Darius Rucker was popular with the South Carolina team. I noted that "Swamp People" was a big TV hit or that Kyle Martin was a deep kid in that his favorite player was Warren Spahn and that his favorite book was the "Mental Game of Baseball."
But what was most interesting was hearing how these two teams embraced the beauty of international good will to the fullest. They played ping-pong together at nights. They had Tweet-offs in the social media world. And they even gave each other new haircuts. With Facebook, after interacting with the Philippines team a couple years ago, they sent requests to their old friends and the team came with goods to share and exchange.
Before the big game started, these two teams from two worlds, exchanged hugs and handshakes that lasted minutes. As this unfolded, the president expressed to me, "You won't see the Red Sox and Yankees do that before a game."
The game was a three-hour affair, full of late-inning drama as the Puerto Rican team nearly came back from a 9-0 deficit in the last two innings. South Carolina held them off behind the heroics of their key player Kyle Martin who did not disappoint with his three hits and his opposite-field homer. And when the game was over, the two teams embraced like they were teammates for many years.
It was a journey back in time for me and it was a joy to see that I can look backwards and see the present with great optimism for our future. For these young players took the spirit of Little League with all of its magic and made it real again for a former big leaguer who just needed a reminder.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville