Little League and lessons for life

When the game was over, this was not the same group of girls who reported to a soggy practice field on a cold and raw Sunday 11 weeks ago.  Then, they were a ragtag collection (insofar as any group in Darien can be called “ragtag”) of 10-12 year-olds: some with talent and experience, others kindly labeled “projects” in whom only the most sanguine and visionary coaches could see potential.  But by the time they took the season’s last trot in from the diamond, they were a team.  And they were champions.
    Saturday, the Darien Girls’ Little League Majors held the final showdown in this year’s pint-sized pennant chase.  Second-place Darien Construction squared off against first-place McDonald’s – a team which had dominated the regular season, losing only one game.  The night before,  McDonald’s had staged a dramatic two-out comeback against upstart Kiwanis in the bottom of the last inning.
    The day was a scorcher. The midday sun powered its way past the all-too intermittent clouds.  Heat waves broiled up from the infield as the girls somewhat lethargically (Friday was a big birthday party night in town) lined up along the baselines to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Then they took their field positions on the green, white and earth-brown geometry that is such a familiar American icon.
    No celebrity was on hand to toss out the first pitch.  No vendors roamed the stands hawking popcorn and Cracker Jacks®.  There was no organist playing “Take me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh inning stretch – heck,  Little League doesn’t even have a seventh inning.  But it was still baseball.
    The parents in the gallery  watched their daughters play and, by means of the filtered lens through which parents look at their offspring, envisioned Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.
    Of course, the girls in the field never heard of Mantle or Mays and anyway were likely far too busy thinking about Hanson, Leonardo DiCaprio or last night’s birthday party.  But it was still baseball.  It was still America’s Pastime.
    As the game wore on, with Darien Construction clinging to a three-run lead (no margin is considered safe in this league), the tension was palpable.  Not among the players – who had only a vague notion of the score -- but in the stands and beach chairs occupied by the parents.  They could only hope that these weeks of chauffeuring to and from the field (including the mad-dash thunderstorm-incited pick-ups) and lugging coolers stocked with soft drinks would reap the ultimate reward.
    The manager was remarkably placid.  He had given up many evenings,   weekends and not an insignificant amount of hours from his dental practice to teach a game to a bunch of kids who, he knew, would never love it as much as he did.  He looked out at his now-tiring rifle-armed pitching ace and said, “I’ve done all I can do.  It’s in her hands now.”  She didn’t let him down.
    Darien Construction prevailed 12-10.  Their assistant coach wished for a way he could teach his players to savor this moment, like they might relish an ice cream on a summer day.  But he knew they’re kids – and kids don’t tarry in time.  He took some satisfaction in knowing they would remember this championship long after they forgot his name. They had learned lessons about teamwork to carry with them the rest of their lives.  And that was reward enough.

June 22, 1999