Old-School Ethics Boost One 13U Team to Little League Intermediate World Series
By Mark S. McDonald
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Distraught Dads pace the ballpark, staring into space, stopping only to bark at the umpires. Manic Moms wearing the team colors can’t bear to watch, sneaking peaks only between parted fingers.
For many parents, this is their first brush with competition, and it shows.
Before them, a most unlikely event is unfolding: Their pubescent children, just a few years removed from diapers and a binkie, are about to beat the Louisiana state champ from Jonesboro, 12-8, in comeback fashion. They are just about to advance to the Little League Intermediate World Series.
When second baseman Cooper Jauz lunges to his left to snag a line drive in the webbing for the final out, gloves go sailing. Kids in red jerseys run willy-nilly, then collide in front of the third-base dugout and to start an impromptu dogpile. And why not?
This upstart team from an oil patch city of 125,000 has earned the right to compete with the best age-group neighborhood teams on the globe. They’re Southwest Regional champs, about to be fly from Denver to Livermore, Calif. — the Williamsport, Pa.
Waiting for them are ESPN cameras and more memories yet to be made.
This team of eighth-graders (plus one 7th, four going into 9th) was not much better than Oil City from just outside Corpus Christi, Texas, only a shade better than Fort Worth’s West Side and the regional finalist from Jonesboro, but they listen. It is a roster full of kids from stable, middle-income homes who absorb baseball through their eyes, ears and, seemingly, through their pores.
Coaches nod approvingly as young hitters battle with two strikes, how the pitchers have learned to throw the hook. Thing is, their dog-piling skills need work.
Their would-be ceremony begins and ends with a clumsy scrum with much shouting, pulling and neck-grabbing. Tearful mothers grab for cameras while fathers walk around grinning foolishly, shaking hands with total strangers.
Here are hints as to why:
- This was the first year for Midland to affiliate with Little League Baseball, Inc. at the 13-year-old level.
- No Midland LL team in history has advanced this far, at any level.
- Several players told me last weekend at lunch that their LL teams got beat in district, a far cry from where they are now.
- These kids were selected from an upstart league comprised of only +/- 65 kids, and had never played together.
- A couple of the most advanced 13-year-olds in the league snubbed their all-star selection, choosing to remain loyal to their commitment to a travel team, rather than play with the neighborhood team. Any thinking person can see both sides of that one, but imagine what those youngsters must be thinking now … I could have gone to Grand Junction, Colo., then flown from Denver to the World Series. I could have received a new 2015-model bat from Easton, before they are released to the public late this autumn. Instead, I chose to play in a tournament in Beaumont?
Maybe the Midland kids caught lightning in a bottle?
You might think so, but each one of these kids plays on a travel team. Ivan Dominguez, the leadoff hitter and shortstop glue for the defense, figures he’s gotten 200 at-bats so far this spring and summer. So these kids are not exactly chopped liver, not even “smashburger,” as has become the team watchword. Don’t ask why.
It’s enough to know these youngster are learning and growing with every at-bat, every inning pitched.
At so many levels, it helps a ballplayer (or a tuba player) to come from a stable home. Only about half of American kids are so blessed. This roster, however, is full of attentive, well-adjusted youngsters who come from mother-father family units still very much intact.
These youngsters absorb instruction, improving dramatically, both individually and collectively, in their 5-6 weeks together. Every kid with two strikes is a tough out, resulting in four comebacks among their 13 victories vs. one defeat, that to Louisiana. Getting into Louisiana’s bullpen, this team Friday night banged out 10 hits in a single inning. That inning, they scored six runs, after two outs, nobody on, and 0-2 count on the batter. Can you spell r-a-l-l-y?
The City of Midland, like most towns its size, has a way of sleeping through such events, especially during the summer when citizens head for the beach or the mountains to cool off. This time it seems to be taking notice.
Sunday’s local paper carried a full report, with a half-dozen large four-color photos. Travel money, always a challenge for families with young kids, began to surface. An assistant coach shook his friends for $26,000 in donations, the funds since distributed to help families defray some, not all, of the costs. When the live streaming conked last Friday night, my cell phone blew up with texts.
“What’s happened during that rally?”
“Streaming went down. What’s the score?”
“Feed down. Score? Killing me.”
Socially, these kids are 13 going on either age 25 or 7, depending on the moment. During practices and at hotels, the intramural by-play gets vicious.
“Joe, you look like a duck.” A snappy retort precedes a brief wrestling match.
The ragging is juvenile, of course, but it’s harmless fun among kids sharing a common goal, and serves to keep the ballclub loose and cohesive. Besides, working out twice a day, who has time on this mixed-race ballclub to take himself too seriously? Socio-economic or ethnic barriers might existent downtown, not in this dugout.
Let the record show this team prays together, on the field, in plain view, and makes no apologies for it. Somebody call the ACLU, quick. Got to get this stopped. Otherwise, the young ballplayers will get the idea that a moment of silence before a game acknowledges a higher authority than lighted dots on the scoreboard.
Respectful to umpires, coaches and opponents, these kids will “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” you to death. This has not been lost on fans and former opponents. Softball players from Grand Junction “adopted” this team, wearing the colors, sitting together in the bleachers and screaming as only teen-aged girls can. Midland kids regularly receive texts and emails of encouragement and congratulations from Tulsa and Fort Worth they beat to advance.
Memo to Child Protective Services: Must get that stopped, too. These kids are so submissive, surely they these have been abused.
Midland plays its first game beginning at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, PDT. For our good neighbors in Odessa, that means 2:30, your time.
Playoffs begin Tuesday morning, with live streaming on the web. Connect to: http://granadamatadors.org. There’s talk of ESPN carrying the final, unconfirmed.
This is double-elimination. Two losses and you’re out. It might be “two-and-a-BBQ” for Midland, but these kids are easy to root for. If you watch one of their games, maybe you will see why.
Having coached 22 summers of youth baseball, from church league coach-pitch to a Connie Mack travel team of fire-breathing dragons, the editor has found his rightful place in the stands. There, he is researching his next book: “They Gave Us Baseball: Now Look What We’ve Done,” to be released in 2015. His teams never made it this far.