Friday, September 5, 2014

Baseball. Boys. Sunflower seeds. A field. And dreams.

The Sweet Season

Part III
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team recently captured the national Little League World Series title, each year boys—and girls—play the game on local diamonds in seasons filled with life's lessons, with hopes and dreams.

The Matteson Olympia Fields Cubs pose at season's end after the title game.
Baseball principles teach kids not to give up
This is the third in a series
By John W. Fountain
      In the bottom of the 6th and final inning, the tension was thick like molasses. Win or lose, the season for the M.O.F. Cubs was already a winning one—and baseball a game of life, the field just a classroom for lessons by their coaches to help these little boys someday grow into good men.
Dominique, a short, stout kid with a mean fastball and in a good groove on this warm evening in July, stood at the mound, time ticking on the last game of the season for these boys of summer. An inning earlier, they squandered a lead, looking on the verge of a complete meltdown. It’s not like it hadn’t happened before—this season.
But it was soon clear—after Aiden, Dominique’s little brother, had run off the field with tears streaming down his face in frustration over an error—that the Cubs had learned to fight. Clear that the boys had absorbed the principle of teamwork, of never giving up, of cleaving to the words and faith of their coaches. Clear was that this group of unlikely champions wanted not just to learn to play baseball but to win.

Not even tears can keep Aiden from helping to lead his
team to a win in the championship game.
With his face still wet with tears, Aiden, a carefree, wiry kid with big glasses, got a walk. He sprinted to first base. Except he never stopped running. He rounded first, his eyes filled with tears and determination, bound like a lightening bolt toward second. Eyeing an errant throw—and waved on by his coaches—Aiden dashed toward third. Then toward home he ran, as if being ushered by a mighty wind. Saaaafe!
Aiden scored in what amounted to a base on balls homerun. He trotted off the field to the dugout and cheers, his teary face turned into a contented smile.
And yet, even with the rally led by Aiden, and the Cubs holding onto a 5-run lead in the final inning—and even with two outs—the game was still on the line. Except this wasn’t just any game. It was the biggest game of the season—the league championship. And who would’ve thunk it?
This is the story of a team of boys called the Cubs, mostly from Ford Heights—a forlorn hamlet of 2,787, about 30 miles south of Chicago. A story about boys, who, this summer, would discover baseball in a season beyond their wildest dreams.
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team captured this year’s Little League World Series national title, each year boys—and girls—play the game on local diamonds in seasons filled with life's lessons, with hopes and dreams. Most teams and their coaches never make it to Williamsport. Most of the kids who play aren’t all stars. And a career in the Major Leagues isn’t their life’s dream.
Dominique gets words of encouragement from Coach Dudley
in the late innings of the Cubs championship game.
And yet, for so many, perhaps for most, baseball is the vehicle for teaching invaluable lessons like teamwork, discipline and sportsmanship. It is the stuff for building character and achieving goals, even dreams, even on local fields far from television cameras and the national spotlight. This is where Little League baseball lives—thrives—with kids whose sweat and tears fill a season and with coaches operating on a shoestring budget and who spend tireless hours of dedication and dip into their own pockets with no compensation, except the joy of making a difference in a kid’s life, if only for a season. And if the stars should align, maybe, just maybe, also a championship.
At the start of the season, the Cubs more resembled the Bad News Bears—an assemblage of boys, most of who had never even played baseball before this summer. For the Cubs, it was a season in which about half the boys quit. A season that was saved by the addition of a new player here, and two there, and the steadfastness of Coaches Kelvin Oliver aka “Coach K” and George “Kirby” Green, despite more losses than wins, to simply keep teaching, to keep coaching and to keep hoping—to prove to the boys what is possible with hard work and a dream.
Judging by their regular season record, the Cubs should have been one and done in the first round of the playoffs. The league’s worst team, in the first round of the playoffs, they’d faced the league’s first place, undefeated team. Turns out, the game wasn’t even close. The Cubs beat their opponents from Chicago Heights 9-2.
Next up was the league’s 4th place team. Cubs won 9-6, qualifying for the title game for the South Suburban Little League Baseball conference championship against the team from Country Club Hills.
        Now, in the championship game and one out away from the title, there was a sense of almost giddy disbelief mixed with tension. Coach Green could hardly contain himself.
Sharod poses with his father after the title game.
“We just need one out,” a woman yelled. “Just one!”
Everyone watched on edge as Dominique fired another pitch. …It’s a strike. He’s out. Game over. Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs are champions. Final score: 17-12. They erupted in celebration.
After congratulating their opponents, the boys--Aiden, Jaheim, David, Sharod, Dominique and all the others--sprinted to the dugout. They spontaneously formed a circle, cheering and chanting, hugging, jumping and laughing as sheer joy flooded their faces, like the glint of sun on a shiny helmet. Coach K, Coach Green and the other coaches looked on, some near tears, almost speechless as the boys reveled in their moment.

Minutes later, they hoisted their shiny red and gold championship trophies as the field’s lights beamed down brightly on their sweet season.