Eye on the Ball: The lessons of Little League

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO Coach Mark Foard, left, and Coach Ian Weslek with their Little League team.
Coach Mark Foard, left, and Coach Ian Weslek with their Little League team.

When I was a young boy I played Little League baseball.

In my last year of playing, I was 12 years old. My position was either pitcher or third basemen for the Long Branch Badgers in New Jersey. My coach was Patrick Hughes, a 19-year-old kid but to a 12-year-old he seemed like he was 50. I now reminisce how he adored us and became a real friend and supporter of all the boys on the team.

When I turned 13, I started caddying and discovered a new sport that not only ended my baseball life but more importantly, provided me with a lifetime job. However, it never ceases to amaze me how much I recollect about those Little League days.

I don’t recall winning or losing any game. Obviously, that wasn’t what was important to me. In my mind I do seem to dredge up the names of all the kids, my coaches, our trips to ballparks and all the fun I had playing baseball. It always reminds me of what is really important to a youngster.

Unfortunately, I thought I remembered that I was a terrific player. That was until 60 years later when our coach’s daughter decided to have the entire team back for the coach’s 80th birthday party. That gathering made me wonder why anyone kept every stat for 60 years of every game played by Little Leaguers? Not only that, my coach also kept the newspaper clippings and was kind enough to give each one of us a small booklet to take home.

This booklet was particularly embarrassing to me since I had spent so much time telling my children what a terrific baseball player I was in my youth. When my son observed the stat sheet showing I had a batting average of .158, his immediate reaction was, “Yeah, Dad, you were quite the athlete.” That birthday party only made me hate organized people even more than I usually do.

Last week one of our Island Little League teams played their last game of the season. It was a team of seven- and eight-year-old children and somehow, for this game, they couldn’t find an umpire. Fortunately, I got the call and landed one of my most enjoyable evenings.

Just watching these kids and allowing my mind to go back to some simpler times of life was a pleasure.

Since I really didn’t have much involvement in Little League in the last 35 years, I was inquisitive about what was happening nowadays. My first surprise was when I found out just how young the kids were starting out. Next, I was amazed to discover that the league included four teams.

They have two T- ball teams, one starting with four- and five-year-olds and another with five- and six-year-olds. Last year was the first year for the four-year-olds, before that, the youngest kid was five. The T-ball teams are supported by both the South Ferry and the Lions Club.

Next, they go into what they call the minors with two more teams. The first has seven- and eight-year-olds and finally the oldest group of nine- and 10-year-old children. The two minor league teams are supported by Weslek Woodworking and Our Lady of the Isle.

Coaching the home team that I was umpiring were Mark Foard and Ian Weslek, with assistant coaches Sebastian Bliss and Nat Collins. I found that Ian was very involved in what was happening.

Ian made it clear that it was not about winning and losing at this age, but much more about building a love for the game and the kids having a good time. He mentioned that the coaches on his team did not have permanent positions for the players, preferring to rotate the kids to all different spots.

Minor league changes quite a bit from the T-ball teams. They now have pitchers and they change from a soft ball to a hard one. Also, each inning has a 5-run maximum and a limit of three stolen bases per inning. They are never allowed to steal home.

This year’s group had 11 players — Jonathon Rivera, Jayden Clark, Phoenix Bliss, Tate Foard, Nathan Cronin, Harrison Weslek, Jaxson Rylott, Owen Wood, Miranda Marcello, Alfie Brigham and Charlie Murray. Ian enjoyed watching and was astounded to see how the kids copy the batting and fielding moves of the great players they see on television.

Coaches for the other three teams in Little League included Ray Sanwald, Kevin Springer, Nick Morehead, Dave Bartolucci, Mike Dunning and Tom Cronin.

Ian also added how much he enjoyed watching the progress of the kids from the beginning of the season to the end. He said that he saw the first signs of teamwork and the first signs of the kids realizing what it’s all about.

He’s also amazed, after just one season, how much harder they swing the bat, throw and catch the ball. He was pleased to say that three fourths of the team signed up for the Bucks’ week-long summer camp.

When you’re finished with Little League, it’s on to junior high baseball, JV, varsity, college and who knows. After all, that final game that I umpired included a last minute rally for Shelter Island to win their first game of the season with a 1-14 -1 overall record.

One win was enough for these guys to celebrate and why not, they had a great year.