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It's Better To Go Down Swinging Than To Be Caught Looking: Summer League Part 3

Read Part 1 Here

Read Part 2 Here

After everybody left the 2003 season-ending celebration I made sure everything was picked up, put away, and locked up, then I took one long, last look at the new field. It was beautiful and knowing we wrapped up another great season of summer baseball was very satisfying. As I pulled out of Everett Leonard Park there were a lot of things running through my mind, but the one thing I couldn't stop thinking about was the President of  Norton Youth Baseball (NYB) asking me to hand the keys to the Summer League over to him and let NYB run it because they had "more money and people and they could do a better job running it"... 

2003 had been a great year for the Summer League and for me personally. The Norton Recreation Commission issued me a "letter of commendation" recognizing me as "founder and backbone of Norton Summer League Baseball" and "an advocate and catalyst for improvement at Everett Leonard Park". One line in the letter said, "The many fine enhancements you have made to the baseball field, using much of your time and energy, have made our entire park inviting and full of life." 

We had some really great kids playing Summer League in 2004…

On August 27th, just 10 days after the season-ender, an editorial appearing in The Sun Chronicle titled, "Playing at the top, and playing for life" began with, "Let's extend the cheers for a splendid baseball season when the boys of summer were not millionaire athletes, but simply boys." First mentioned was the Saugus Little League team that made it all the way to the United States finals in the Little League World Series. The next mention went to the Mansfield 14-year-old All-Stars who represented the East in the Junior League Baseball World Series. The third mention went to the Norton Summer League which provided 9-11-year-old non-All-Stars with a place to play summer baseball where "the accent is more on fun and less on competition than most summer travel teams". The Summer League was being mentioned in the same conversation as two very successful All-Star teams. Doesn't get any better than that.

I had every reason to be proud and take a break, but it didn't take me long to start thinking about 2004. I knew I would need two leagues, a Junior League for ages 9-10, and a Senior League for ages 11-12. It would take four days a week to get the games in and that's if it didn't rain. 

Chuck Moitoza is the guy in the middle. He was a former Recreation Commissioner & in 2004 he was a Selectman. He became my confidant & a willing partner-in-crime. Actually, he was the "voice of reason" and I did very little without consulting him first. Him & I both have a lot of great memories of the Summer League…

I decided to open the league up to out-of-town friends and family. I remembered talking with my cousins about little league when I was a kid, but never having a chance to play in a real game with them. I wanted to give Summer League kids a chance to play with their out-of-town friends and family if they lived close by and wanted to play. Then, I opened it up to girls. We played in a friendly tournament in Killington, VT, and Ray Foley, the Killington Recreation Director, had a daughter who could flat out play baseball. She was a really good pitcher, played a pretty good shortstop, and she could hit. So, I figured, "Why not?" We had one girl sign up and she was really good and her mother helped coach her team in the Jr. League.

I had been a sponsor and a coach in the spring league since my kids started playing baseball in 1996, and suddenly without explanation, after coaching for eight years, I wasn't given a team in 2004. I was allowed to sponsor a team but not coach it like I had always done in the past… I suspected it may have had something to do with the NYB President asking me at the Summer League season-ender in '03, to let NYB take over the Summer League. Apparently, it was more of a demand than an ask, and when I refused his offer I was made to pay the ultimate price. He took something from me that he knew would hurt, my coaching position. 

It was during the summer of '03 that the NYB President's son didn't want to play All-Stars and instead played Summer League and at the kid's request, I put him on my team. I believe it was a great experience and the break from the pressure of playing All-Stars helped him enjoy playing baseball again. But as the old adage goes, "No good deed goes unpunished…"

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Two of my sons, Nick and Dylan, were on the Indians, the team I sponsored, and I offered my help to the guy who got the coaching position. The coach was a very wealthy guy, drove a Jaguar, had a bat bag full of high-priced aluminum bats only his son could use, and his son was a perennial All-Star (and a good kid). When the coach didn't schedule any practices and other teams did, the parents complained. The coach's wife was quick to let everyone know her husband was "closing million-dollar deals" and didn't have time to practice… So why was he even coaching?

As Director of Summer Baseball for the Norton Recreation Department and caretaker of Everett Leonard Field (ELF), I was fine with sharing the field with NYB, but coaches had to call the Rec and reserve the one-hour time slots in advance. That was the rule. I didn't want coaches to just show up and then fight over the field…

I always enjoyed coaching games but I really enjoyed practices where I could teach skills and help kids improve their game. I decided to reserve ELF two days a week and I told my sons that anyone who wanted to come and play baseball with us, could, we would be there. I had a great group of kids showing up, some were on the Indians but others were on different teams but enjoyed playing baseball with us. I enjoyed it too. I threw BP, hit infield and outfield, and just had a great time playing baseball with the kids.

Some of the kids on the Indians started to improve their skills and the Indians suddenly became the team to beat. Then, one of the kids told the coach's son I was holding practices at ELF. The coach went to the NYB President and told him I was holding "private practices" behind his back and demanded that I be removed as his assistant, and I was. I argued my case with the NYB President, but he was the same guy who wouldn't let me coach my own team and he had absolutely no problem removing me from the dugout altogether. The season was three quarters through and I couldn't imagine that the Indians' coach would treat my kids fairly, so I pulled them off the team but continued playing baseball twice a week at ELF. All the same kids continued to show, that didn't change…

I felt horrible for my two kids but Summer League was starting in a few weeks and we were still playing a lot of baseball at ELF and with their friends…

One afternoon we were at ELF and while I was throwing BP a coach from NYB showed up with his Instructional Team and he ordered me off the field. I told him I was a Recreation Commissioner, the Director of Summer Baseball for the Town of Norton, that I built the field from scratch, mowed it, and maintained it. I told him he could use the field after we were done at 5:00, but not before. I explained that the field was town-owned and had to be reserved at the Recreation Department. We got into it, but I eventually told him to get off the field and move his pickup truck. He backed his pickup truck against the chain-link fence in front of the pool in left field, 200' from home plate, windshield facing the field. I explained to him that we were having BP and a lot of the 12-year-old right-handed hitters pulled the ball and would be trying to hit one into the pool. He refused to move his truck even after I told him I wouldn't be responsible for any damage…

One of the kids playing with us regularly hit balls into the pool and sometimes over the pool and onto the street about 250' away. When Brandon stood at the plate he was salivating and I specifically told him not to hit towards the truck. Brandon's father Rob came to watch us after he got out of work and was standing by the guy's truck but wasn't wearing a glove…

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At 12 years old, Brandon was bigger, faster, stronger and in addition to his hitting, we clocked him throwing 68 mph from 46'… 

It was the 3rd pitch that Brandon cranked on a line and it was heading right for the truck… Rob leaped across the hood but it was an absolute laser and he couldn't get to it in time… Bang! It shattered the guy's windshield. He ran over and I sprinted from the mound and met him at his truck. He started to raise his voice and cuss so I went chin-to-chin with him, looked him right in the eyes, and told him it was nobody's fault but his own, he had been warned. Then I said, "Move. Your. Truck." He got in his truck and moved it, but it was too late. Lady Karma had already worked her magic…

The spring season wound down and the Indians made it into the championship game and won it all. The game ball went to Jake, a kid who played baseball with us twice a week at ELF. He was one of Dylan's best friends (still is) and was a slick-fielding third baseman who could hit for average and power. When the coach awarded him the game ball, he and his Dad talked briefly and then he said, "The real MVP is Vinnie LeVine, for all the time and hard work he put in playing baseball with us at Everett Leonard Field. We wouldn't have been in a position to win without him…" To this day, Jake says it's one of his fondest childhood memories. It was a bold move.

In 2003 the only difficult part of the Summer League was getting the umpires paid by the town who had all the sponsor funds and registration fees. Not wanting to go through that again in 2004, the Recreation Director told me to open a Summer League bank account, put all the money in it, and pay the umpires myself. I immediately objected, I didn't want to add "treasurer" to my job description, but after some persuading, I reluctantly agreed to do it…

I started preparing for the '04 Summer League season earlier than normal. With ten teams, two leagues, and over 140 kids, I needed to secure my umpires. I had a meeting with the umpires at my house and each kid was given a game schedule with empty boxes next to each date. We went around the room and started writing in the names of the umpires working each game. By the end of the meeting we had two umpires scheduled for each game and everyone had a copy of the schedule.

Brian didn't throw as hard as Brandon, but he threw strikes & stayed ahead in the count. I could always count on him to pitch a good game… 

Next, I held drafts at my house, but this year I did it a little differently. Little League drafts were normally cut-throat events that produced an imbalance of talent and unfair advantages. There were always strong teams, weak teams, and some in the middle. On draft day there was an abundance of overly competitive coaches and their cherry-picked assistants (sons were All-Stars), casting evil looks across folding lunch tables in the high school cafeteria and then getting into heated exchanges. The tension in the room was thick and it was more like a high-stakes winner-take-all poker game than a friendly little league draft. I was determined to change all that in the Summer League by changing the way the draft was done. Here's how I did it…

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I started with the Senior League, kids ages 11-12. The four coaches in the Senior League sat at my kitchen table and rated each kid in the league. 1's were the better players, 2's were average, and 3's were the least talented. Once all the players were rated, the four coaches put their heads together and put four 1's on each team, and then five 2's and five 3's. At that point, no one had their own team. After that, it was time to critically evaluate the teams and rearrange players to even them out, the motivation being one of those teams could be theirs and no one knew which one. It took a while, but when we were all happy with the balance, we assigned each team a number 1-4.

I put the numbers 1-4 in a cap and each one of us chose a number that dictated the order in which we would pick our teams. Then we picked our teams out of the cap and the four coaches added their sons to their rosters and that became their team. No evil looks. No heated exchanges. No fists thrown. Just a civilized draft that ended with handshakes. Coaches picked their assistants from the parents of their players, usually at the first practice. We did the same with the Junior League.

I continued reminding the coaches that in the Summer League, "Winning isn't everything, and coaching 9-12-year-olds isn't a business. It's an activity that, in addition to improving game skills, can provide many opportunities for personal growth and the development of life skills." I wasn't just selling it, I believed it…

The teams began the season with a couple of scheduled practices and after they played two games I started getting calls from some of the parents wanting refunds because their kids had made the NYB "B", "C", and "D" All-Star teams… I immediately looked into it and the President of NYB, because he couldn't get me to hand over control of the Summer League and ELF, at the last minute, organized B, C, and D  All-Star teams. He literally dropped off boxes full of uniforms at one guy's house and told him he was coaching a team. When the guy refused and told him he was coaching a Summer League team, the President left the uniforms and the roster on his front stairs and said, "You're coaching-". 

The caps had stars on both sides of the "N" and the kids couldn't resist being recognized as an All-Star, albeit a B, C, and D All-Star. I told the parents who called that their kids already got their Summer League caps and tees, practiced and played two games, and the teams and schedule couldn't be changed. Some of the kids stopped playing Summer League and some played both. It was a huge disruption that created a lot of panic. I ended up having to eliminate one Junior League team and then make some roster, umpire, and schedule changes…

Jayson wasn't going down looking, that's for sure! He was my leadoff hitter and a great table-setter for the kids coming up after him…

While all this was happening, I got a call from my head umpire. He said the NYB head umpire, an adult, had started making calls to the kids umpiring in the Summer League and threatening them with, "If we call you to umpire a game for NYB and even if you're already umpiring a "Vinnie LeVine League" game, if you don't leave immediately to umpire for us, you'll never umpire for NYB again". When I heard how this guy was threatening the kids I immediately called him at his home. I told him about the umpire's meeting we held over a month ago and the schedule that was etched in stone, but he didn't care he continued with his arrogance. He said they were his umpires and that he had trained them to which I clarified, "No, most of them started umpiring for me in 2002 and learned how to umpire from working in the Summer League, which, by the way, is not the 'Vinnie LeVine League'. It's The Norton Summer League and it's part of the Norton Parks and Rec." I told him if he didn't call the kids back and let them know it was alright to umpire in the Summer League, I'd make it very public… His attitude immediately changed and he complied.

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It was becoming more and more obvious that the powers-that-be at NYB were making a concerted effort to derail the Summer League and take control of Everett Leonard Field, and I wasn't about to get caught looking…

"They smile in your face all the time they want to take your place, the back stabbers"


To be continued…