<
>

No diamond in the rough

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Do my eyes deceive me? Can this really be the cradle of Little League civilization?

It's far too picture postcard. In my experience, which is 17 years of coaching Little League baseball and softball, fields are supposed to be muddy, clotted, pebbled and subservient to nature. Here, at the site of the Little League World Series, the diamonds are so nice that they actually enhance the already beautiful landscape.

I can't believe it took me this long to get here -- it would never have been as a coach, though it could have been as a parent if our local team hadn't lost to the team that lost to Harlem Little League in 2002.

The coaches all seem to be devoted, upbeat professors of the game. Where is the guy I recall who shouted, "I got it!" when he was coaching third base to confuse the opposing third baseman and shortstop on a popup -- which fell between them?

The participants themselves are all gifted, focused team players. Where is the lad who once asked me, "What's the score?" and when I told him, "11-0", then asked, "Who's winning?"

The parents here are very supportive, full of pride and positive energy. No sign of the father who interrupted my pregame talk to ask why his son wasn't starting. ("Uh, maybe because he's missed more games than he's made?")

The hundreds of cheerful volunteers make me wonder why it was so hard to piece together a snack list. We had an outhouse that nobody ever dared to use; their bathrooms are so sanitary that they dispense toilet seat filters.

As if the home of the LLWS weren't impressive enough, there is the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum on Route 15, at the top of the hill above The Grove, where all the players stay in perfect harmony. (Flashback: "Alex, please stop pantsing Philip.") The museum is a tribute to an idea that started small, with a three-team league (Lycoming Dairy, Lundy Lumber and Jumbo Pretzel) in 1939, and grew into the largest youth sports organization in the world. Currently on display is a tribute to Charles Schulz, the cartoonist behind Charlie Brown, whose baseball exploits do have an air of verisimilitude. It's the displays honoring past champions and heroes that I can't relate to.

As it happens, the museum is closing down shortly after the World Series for a nine-month renovation. In light of that development, I'd like to offer some other artifacts to bring the Little League experience a little closer to reality:

• A sawed-off Clorox bottle to drain the rainwater from home plate, along with a rake, a shovel and a bag of Diamond Dry. These tools of the trade are still sitting in a corner of my garage, just in case a game breaks out.

• A Pikachu card. The Pokemon craze nearly ruined our 1998 season because many of the kids were comparing their cards during our games. I went out and bought a few packs of Topps -- if they were going to obsess on cards, I wanted them to be baseball cards.

• A large coil of extension cords with tire marks on them, in tribute to the coach who laid about 100 yards of electricity from the park pavilion clear across the road to the mound of the field on which he had set up a pitching machine.

• The program for a middle school production of "Annie." Most every coach has faced the problem I once had: My best catcher told me he couldn't make a playoff game because he had a part in the school play -- he was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in "Annie." (I actually loved that he was multi-talented.)

• A light yellow jersey sponsored by a waste disposal company. Sooner or later, you have to wear an ugly uniform sponsored by a less-than-glamorous business. The year the kids wore those, one of my players asked, "Is it true what my dad tells me, that we're sponsored by organized crime?" To which I replied, "If that were true, we would be better."

• The ball/strike counter of my favorite umpire, "Lowball Bob." Yes, he was liable to call a strike on a ball that brushed back an earthworm, but at least he was consistent.

• A scouting report, similar to the ones every coach takes to a draft. This particular report would be based on information gathered in a week of indoor tryouts -- "Wore Jack O Lantern sweatshirt " -- and augmented by intel from your own children -- "Likes to eat his boogers."

• A newspaper account of the time the local police were called to subdue a volatile coach during a playoff game. Phew -- he was about to coach one of my sons in summer ball.

• A Little League rule book, opened to Rule 7.09: "It is interference by a batter or runner when -- (i) in the judgment of the umpire, the base coach at third base, or first base, by touching or holding the runner, physically assists that runner in returning to or leaving third base or first base." Stay with me here. Blue Division baseball playoff game, one-run lead, bottom of the sixth. After a runner is thrown out at home, another runner tries to score as my pitcher/daughter is walking the ball back to the mound. She spots him, turns around and sprints to lay a sprawling tag on him. As she's lying on the ground, a third runner comes steaming around third, only to be pulled back to the bag by the third base coach. It should've been a triple play to end the game, but the umpire didn't know Rule 7.09. We end up losing -- not that it bothers me anymore.

Hey, it wasn't all bad. In fact, when I call up the memories, which are the real artifacts of Little League, there are way more good ones than bad. My smallest player pulling me aside to tell me he had picked up the opposing team's signs. The diving catch by the outfielder that preserved the biggest upset in the playoffs -- the year we wore the yellow jerseys. The parents who thanked me, the coaches who got it right, the umpires who kept it light. All the many things my own four kids did that made me proud.

No, we never got to Williamsport. But there are even better places. Like the dusty field on which we won the Green Division championship game, the only time I ever ended a season with a win. In our league, it was customary to hand out the trophies after the last game, and it was my custom to say a few nice words about each player as I distributed the figurines. I saved the two pitchers who had combined for the shutout for last: Max and Elizabeth. Only I couldn't say anything when I got to my daughter. We just looked at each other until she ran over to hug my leg.

That's Little League.