Tag Archives: Little League

FLASHBACK: “Little Big League”

2 April 2014

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

During a preseason scrimmage against the Reds, we came down to the last inning, with my son Alex catching. I was standing a few feet behind the catcher as I typically do when the Dunning Dragons are in the field. Alex was dirty, sweat-streaked, and still hustling on every play: yanking off the heavy helmet mask, getting into position in front of the plate, arms raised, calling for the ball. He’d done this throughout the game, but the team threw so wildly that he rarely had a chance to reach the ball and couldn’t handle it when he did.

On the last play of the game (the Reds had batted around for the inning, which in our league is the limit), they sent their runners home. Alex hollered for the ball, and it came on the fly. “I was sure I wasn’t going to catch that ball,” he said later, but he stepped into foul territory and reached up high to his left, and there it was, stuck in his mitt.

“Tag her! Tag her!” I yelled from behind him.

Alex stepped back to the plate, put on the tag, and as the runner tried to twist past him, they both fell down in a heap. He held the ball for a second and then it rolled free—but the runner still hadn’t touched home. He grabbed the ball and dove back for the tag just as she half-slid onto the corner.

Safe or out?

It was my call, but either way, somebody would be very disappointed. I just grabbed them both up, yelled “Great play!” in two directions, and the game was over.

Alex recounted the play several times, amazed that he’d actually made a tag and catch at the plate. So was I—and I couldn’t have had a better spot to share the moment.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

After our games and practices, my sons and I sometimes watch games at Dunning Fields. On a summer day in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, baseball’s appeal is passed on to kids running bases, chasing balls, and taking big batting-practice swings on dust-covered diamonds. At one end, a ballpark that features high school and amateur league games lets kids dream of heroics beyond their Little League years. Watching the adults, Alex, my nine year-old, puts on his catcher’s mask and mitt and squats against the backstop screen, imagining that those rocketing fastballs and sharp-bending curves are being called by him. Five year-old Evan, the Dragons’ batboy (and occasional right fielder), climbs the bleacher steps, or chases down foul balls.

As Dragons coach, I often plot out team lineups or rethink my handling of the just-concluded practice. At times, I relax, enjoying the sight of my sons reveling in the game.

We are together, hot and dusty and heavy with a delicious muscle weariness. The moment that joins father and sons is made possible partly by the St. Paul-Midway Little League, which transmits the skills, teamwork, and dedication needed for baseball to boys and girls.

For me, watching continues a lifelong commitment. I pitched and played the outfield in various leagues myself growing up, and never really quit. After high school ball, I went on the softball circuit and there I remain, slower, wiser, yet still dreaming of game-saving catches and hook slides into third.

Wanting to share those joys with my own kids, I find myself back on the pitcher’s mound after a thirty year absence (ours is a “coach-pitch” league), only this time I’m rooting for the batters to hit the ball. For some, it’s daunting. I’ve had kids who spent most of the season getting up the nerve to swing the bat hard. On the other hand, two years of Brian McIntosh’s line shots up the middle have taught me to stay nimble. Brian is built like Kirby Puckett, though his lethal hitch-swing calls to mind hometown boy Dave Winfield, who played at Dunning while growing up.

Players’ concentration varies as widely as their skills, and, at times, my attempts to balance discipline and fun feel as precarious as a high-wire act. For every Jimmy Shoemaker or Sam Palosaari who bounces in place in his eagerness to hit the field, there are kids who need to run to the bench for a drink every five minutes or who show up wearing slip-on shoes and skip along the base paths.

As a coach, I emphasize thinking and attitude, so after every game we give out awards not only for the traditional PLAY OF THE GAME, but also for HUSTLE and FOCUS. Even the most inept player can win these, and the sudden lift of shoulders or brightness in the eyes rewards me too.

My greatest joy in coaching, of course, is working with my sons. While Evan is still so young that he tends to wear down early (“Dad, can I go to the playground now? Please, Dad?”), Alex obsesses with catching and all other aspects of the game. Some nights he comes home from practice and sits at the kitchen table, laboriously devising lineups and defensive rotations for the following game. He’s learned that it’s the catcher’s job to keep the team alert, so he’ll lead “Let’s go!” chants on the bench and, from his position behind the plate, regularly yells out situations: “Two down! Get the easy one!”

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Last summer, after our final game, we had a team party under the trees beyond the left field fence. Alex instigated a sandlot game. One of the players was line-shot-up-the-middle Brian, so I suggested they make him bat left-handed; the pitching mound was barely 20-30 feet from home. My caution was laughed off.

A minute later came a shout and I turned to see Alex, the pitcher, bent over and holding his face. Brian had hit a line drive straight at him; Alex had gotten his glove on it, only to deflect it into his nose. There was blood everywhere—on his face, shirt, glove—but Alex never even cried.

The next day, as I was coming home from work, my son greeted me at the door wearing a big grin beneath his puffed-up nose and carrying an armload of gloves and bats. “Well, who’s up first?” he said. Our season hadn’t ended at all.

Originally published in MPLS ST.PAUL magazine, March 1997.