The New League Brought 'Joy To Mudville', All Kids Got To Play Summer Baseball, Not Just All-Stars...

In 2001, I was asked to coach the first 8-year-old all-star baseball team. My wife was concerned it would take up every weekend of the short summer we have in Massachusetts and she was dead against it. I declined but told the league if my son made the team I'd gladly help out...

The coach who accepted the position chose his team without having a tryout. I didn't care that my son didn't make it, but other coaches and parents demanded a formal tryout. I was asked to help out at the tryout so I put on the catcher's gear and got behind the plate during batting. I also hit outfield later in the day.

"Hey now, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play"

The kids and their parents were told they'd receive calls in a couple of days... We got a call and my son didn't make the All-Star team. In fact, other than two additional players, it was the same team the coach had already chosen prior to the tryouts. The tryout was simply a formality...

My son took it hard as did a lot of his friends, they wanted to play summer baseball. My son asked me why we played in the spring when it always rained and not in the summer when the weather was nicer and the Red Sox were playing. I told him that next year I'd start a summer baseball league so all kids could play summer baseball, not just the All-Stars...

My son wanted to go to the first game to watch his friends play and as much as I didn't, I said okay. We watched as both teams made a dozen errors each and every kid either struck out or walked, there might've been two hits the entire game. At 8-years old there was very little difference between the kids who made the All-Star team and those who tried out and didn't...

The next spring I spoke with the Director of Parks & Rec about my idea to start a summer league and she wanted me to pitch it to the Recreation Commission at their next meeting. At the meeting, I told the members about the need to start a summer baseball league so non-all-stars could play baseball through the summer and improve their skills. I told them how much I had enjoyed putting my glove over the handlebars of my bicycle when I was a kid, heading to the local playground, and playing baseball all day with my friends. I went on that these experiences weren't available to our kids and that the league would be dedicated to recreating that sandlot experience where they would have fun without all the pressure put on them in other leagues... They liked the idea and were willing to support my league and make it a Park & Rec summer program, naming me as the director of summer baseball. They asked me to become a member of the Rec Commission, but my plate was full and I'm not big on board meetings, and so I declined their offer.

We advertised the new league in the local newspaper and I went to the equipment manager of the regular league and asked him if I could borrow four equipment bags for the summer. There were more than 50 not being used just sitting in the equipment room at the little league complex. He said he'd have to ask the league president. I called him back a few days later and he said it was going to be discussed at a "special meeting"...

I called a week later expecting the answer to be yes and why not, these were the same kids who paid to play in their league during the spring. They declined and said they unanimously decided not to lend me any equipment for my summer league...

The first-year caps were simple but not bad-looking…

By then I had 51 kids, ages 9 and 10, signed up, each having paid $39 to play baseball two nights a week, Monday and Wednesday (no weekends), and I wasn't about to let them down. The $39 covered the cost of t-shirts and caps but I needed more funding for the equipment. Then I had this crazy idea, get as many sponsors at $100 each as I could fit on the back of a tee shirt. I went around town and told local business owners about my dilemma and 18 of them stepped up, two gave $200. I thanked each one and told them I'd be returning with an adult-sized Summer League t-shirt for them. I ordered the same t-shirts and caps for all four teams, just in different colors. When the t-shirts came in I drove around town and dropped in on each sponsor and gave them a black Summer League tee in their size. They loved the tees and I ended with a handshake and a sincere "thank you". (They all sponsored the league again the following year)  

The second year (2003), we were up to 28 sponsors and with the additional funding I was able to buy an equipment shed

I contacted a baseball equipment supplier in Pennsylvania, A.D. Starr, and ordered everything I needed from them. The owner, Dave Kalla, told me he experienced a similar situation in his hometown and started a league that had grown to over 600 kids in a very short time. There was "Joy in Mudville"!

When the regular league heard about my fundraising expedition they had another "special meeting" and reconsidered their original decision, and were now willing to let me use four equipment bags for my summer league, but it was too late, they had their chance. The league's "powers that be" wanted me to put the money I raised into a revolving account for the town to use but I made promises to my sponsors that their money was going towards equipment for the Summer League and that's where it was going. I wasn't changing anything so they could save face…

I got permission from the Parks and Rec to use two town fields, neither one under the control of the local Cal Ripken League. They weren't great fields, but they worked. I mowed them myself once a week, lined them, and kept them looking pretty good. Prior to the start of the season I assembled all four teams at one of the fields to hand out uniforms and equipment and it was like Christmas morning, the kids and their parents were ecstatic, the Summer League was actually happening.

Dave Kalla (A.D. Starr), in addition to giving me deep discounts for leftover equipment, gave me some great ideas and I implemented them in the new league. My goal was to put the fun back in little league baseball. I used his "ball-back strike count". Whenever there was a ball count, a strike, swinging or foul, would not only add a strike to the count but would also remove a ball. 3-0 would turn into 2-1, and 2-1 would turn into 1-2. A foul with two strikes wouldn't change anything. It gave pitchers a chance to battle back and it got hitters swinging. There weren't nearly as many walks and kids who never hit the ball during the spring were putting the ball in play where other kids were learning how to play defense. It was a big win-win.

"Put me in Coach, I'm ready to play, today…"

I allowed kids to arrive late and still play. In fact, if a kid arrived and his team had already batted through the order, he was the next one up. I didn't want a kid to miss out on playing baseball and be upset with his parents because they had to work late to put bread on the table. In the spring league if a kid wasn't there by the start of the second inning he couldn't play… One night we were in the sixth inning of a close game, down by two runs with the bases loaded. All of a sudden, my best player Daryl, comes running across the field still wearing his football pants from practice, and all I could say was, "Hurry Daryl, you're up!". My good friend Dave was the coach of the other team and he charged across the diamond and said, "You can't do that!", but I reminded him of the rule… Daryl hit a bases-clearing triple on the second pitch and we won the game 10-9. Dave and I had a good laugh in the parking lot afterward. Summer League wasn't about winning as much as it was about playing baseball, although the games did get pretty competitive from the 5th inning on, but that came from the kids and not the coaches…

Pitchers were only allowed to pitch two innings. I didn't want a dominant pitcher to control the outcome but I did want several kids to get to pitch during the 6 inning games. Coaches had to have a minimum of a  3-man rotation and that was another big win for everyone. More kids got a chance to pitch.

Those kids are all fast approaching 30 years old. The guy out front? He'll be 65 in June…

The first season was a huge success and I finished it with a party at Everett Leonard Park, which was owned by the town. I approached some of the Dads about working on the field at the park, which really wasn't used for anything other than tee-ball because there wasn't a diamond, just one rusted section of 4' high chain-link behind where the kids hit off the tee. My plan was to put in some bases and a mound just for the party. Doug Instasi, Daryl's dad, met me there with his son and nephew, and together with my kids, we dug out some grass and put some sand around the bases, and built a make-shift mound with a pitching rubber. I went back during the week and built a backstop using some old chain link fence and some pressure-treated lumber I had laying around my house. I also made two benches out of threaded steel pipe, floor flanges, and walking planks, cementing them in the ground and then painting them "Monsta green." I put up foul poles, painted them yellow, and hung an American flag on the backstop behind home plate. There's no denying summer baseball is as  "American as apple pie" and this event screamed Americana!

I asked the parents to bring food, drink, and grills. The town pool was open and we had a pitching contest, home run derby, and games all day. I even had two musicians there who opened with an acoustical version of "Take me out to the ballgame." When the parents arrived with coolers and grills it looked a lot like a little league version of Woodstock. "Build it and they will come…"

Patches mean a lot to those who earned them. The 51 kids who played that first year were really special to me…

At the end I spoke to the kids and their parents and thanked them for making the season one to remember and then I gave each kid a custom 3.5" patch I had made to honor the Summer League's inaugural season. If there ever was a "Blue Collar League" this was it. I didn't care how much money the parents had, what kind of car they drove, or how much they spent on bats, in this league, there was no favoritism and every kid got his chance to play…

The previous winter my son Dylan and I attended a hitting presentation given by former major leaguer Mike Epstein. It was a  great night and Mike was a great presenter and a very knowledgeable hitting instructor. We learned a lot about "Rotational Hitting" and he was the motivation behind a short poem I wrote. I made copies and gave one to the kids and their parents before they left.

Say Hey

Hey, Mr. Baseball
can you teach my kid to hit?
and Mr. Baseball
can you teach my kid to spit?
and while you're at it
show him how to wear his cap
and with his bat, how to clean his cleats off with a tap

Hey, Mr. Baseball
when all is said and done
can you teach my kid, how to chew his gum?
and Mr. Baseball, maybe not today
but before the season's over
can you teach him how to turn a double play?

But most of all
please remind him time and time again
that even a .300 hitter
fails on seven out of ten--

Hey, Thanks Mr. Baseball.

 

As Doug was leaving I mentioned to him how great it would be if next year we dug and finished a full infield at Everett Leonard Park and made it a real little league baseball diamond. At the time, Doug was a heavy equipment operator for R.J. Messina out of Brockton and he smiled when he said he was all in…

After the Recreation Commission urged me to become a member a second time, I finally accepted, and not only was I the Director of Summer Baseball for the Town of Norton, but I was now a Recreation Commissioner too…

To be continued…