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SportsMonday: Traveling All-Stars

A few years ago, I wrote a series of columns for the Beachwood called T-Ball Journal. They chronicled a youth baseball season in which I coached my eight-year-old son's junior-division baseball team. We played games that were part t-ball and part coach-pitch (a team's own coach pitches to it and tries to groove it in there). I also wrote that summer about my six-year-old daughter's debut season in the rookie division, which is all t-ball.

Since then I have resisted writing about the youth baseball scene. It is tricky to write about teams of kids with parents who may or may not want their and their kids' exploits chronicled, and it isn't as though there is a shortage of slightly higher level sports stuff to write about around here.

But my son's team played in a memorable All-Star tournament this weekend and I thought I would go ahead and write up some of the details in this space. Then, a brief note on the Cubs.

In our league, which is run by the Welles Park Parent Association, and in many other youth baseball organizations, there is "house" competition and then there are travel and All-Star teams. The youngest four divisions of the house league feature all the players who sign up, divided into teams named after major league squads.

This year, the 10-and-under WPPA All-Star team that my son had played for two summers ago but then didn't make last year decided to go all travel. That meant they would bow out of house competition and play exclusively against other travel teams from other leagues. That left an opening and it was decided that we would start a new WPPA 10U All-Star team. The difference between "travel" and "All-Star," at least for our level of the WPPA, is that the All-Star team still plays house and then competes in some additional tournaments. The rosters for both teams are determined by off-season tryouts.

My son has a potential, random advantage in All-Star/travel competition because of his birthday. As Malcolm Gladwell chronicled in Outliers, an unusually high percentage of NHL players were born early in the year. At least it seems unusual unless you know that eligibility for youth hockey competition in Canada is determined by how old a kid is on January 1. If a kid is still 10 on Jan. 1, he can play for a 10U team that season, even if he turns 11 on Jan. 2. And, as Gladwell pointed out, the older kids have a significant advantage. They are more likely to take prominent roles on teams and more likely to assume leadership.

In Illinois, the date that divides age-group baseball teams is May 1. Noah turned 11 this year on May 2. So he is always the oldest kid on the field at these 10U events (except for kids who call May Day their birthday). The way our team worked out, we have a half-dozen kids with late birthdays who will be relatively young sixth-graders in the fall. The rest are real good rising fifth-graders. Noah has a friend who is a nice ballplayer but his birthday is April 21. So if he wanted to play All-Star baseball, it would have to be with an 11U team. He just plays house.

* * *

So you put the All-Star team together and one of the big challenges is finding tournaments where you can be competitive. Our first event of the summer was an "All-Star" invitational in Schaumburg over the July 4 weekend. The event was advertised as a competition for classic All-Star teams, but sure enough the first team we faced was all about travel. They had already played dozens of games together over the summer and won a couple tournaments. We played well against them, and lost 15-3.

We lucked into the tournament in Lombard over this past weekend. It turned out we were one of eight teams that compete at just about the same level.

On Friday night we played the host team (the Lombard Lightning), and besides the frighteningly loud hum of the lights, it was a beautiful setting for baseball, with the sun going down off to the west (the park where we played is called Sunset Knoll) and the heat of the day fading quickly.

But we had several factors working against us. Perhaps our best defensive player was missing (he was playing the house league's major division World Series, which his team won). A huge factor with kid pitchers who aren't overpowering is the defense behind them. If someone can make a play for an out early in their time on the mound, most kids proceed with confidence and have successful outings. We didn't do that.

And evening baseball is tricky. The shifting light makes hitting a little more difficult. And hitting is difficult enough already. We scored some late runs after the lights kicked in fully but lost 13-6.

The next day we started to roll. We defeated an overmatched River Forest team early in the afternoon to even our tournament record. The event was divided into two four-team pools with the top two finishers in each advancing to semifinals and finals Sunday. Our third game was against the other team in our pool with a 1-1 record. So going in we knew the winner would advance and the loser would go home. And we notched a 10-4 victory. In the fifth inning, the opposing coach made a snide comment to an overheated umpire and got kicked out of the game. After the game did the kids want to talk about what a great win it was? No, they wanted to know what it was the opposing coach said.

* * *

On Sunday morning we faced a confident, well-drilled team from Elmhurst. They wore bright great shirts with "Elmhurst" in script across the front. Very nice. And they were definitely more organized than us. When I arrived about 50 minutes before game time, they were already out on the diamond taking ground balls. No one else on our team was even there.

But in the heat of the summer, I think teams have to be careful about overdoing it in warm-ups. We found a relatively shady spot to do some batting practice, played some catch and then got ready for the game. We ended up shocking our foes with an 8-5 victory. In my one little bit of bragging for the day, my son played the best game of his life, making tough defensive plays in center, shortstop and when he took the mound in the fifth and sixth. And he finished off our second straight victory with his pitching.

So on we went to the final against Batavia West. We repeated our routine at least a bit from the day before, heading back down Roosevelt Road to a tiny Dairy Queen. Where I'd had a Blizzard the day before, I switched to a strawberry shake on Sunday. It was the right call.

In the game, we fell behind 4-1 but then rallied in the bottom of the fourth to take a 5-4 lead. We were down to our last pitcher, a guy who had just joined the team for the weekend. And he did great, getting three outs in the fifth inning and two more in the sixth (tournament games are six innings long). We had visions of a championship dancing in our heads until . . . they scored three to take the 7-5 lead. In the bottom of the inning our best hitter launched a double and with two outs, our best slugger stepped up. And sure enough he launched a deep fly to center that looked like it might actually clear the fence (that almost never happens at this level). But the center fielder had positioned himself perhaps a few feet in front of the warning track. He took a few steps and hauled it in. Batavia West 7, Welles Park 5.

* * *

Roy Halladay was in touch with his inner Little Leaguer Sunday evening against the Cubs - and it messed him up. When kids are pitching and they hit opposing batters, especially ones they know at least a little bit, they often get upset. Watch a typical Little League game and if a kid pitcher hits an opponent, he will often follow it up with a walk or two before he pulls himself back together. Or he is just done pitching for the day.

Twice on Sunday, Halladay hit Marlon Byrd (who now has been hit by a pitch 16 times this season, the most for a Cub since Frank Chance was plunked 17 times in 1905 - you have to love baseball for stuff like that). And twice, Cubs hitters capitalized on fat pitches that followed a hitter or two later to launch the two-run homers that sparked an eventual 11-6 victory.

Now, I'm not saying the great "Doc" Halladay was Mr. Empathy out there after the two plunkings, but gopher balls are gopher balls.

* * *

One of them was hit by Geo Soto was especially impressive. Soto had the last out of what would have been a thrilling 1-0 victory in his glove on Saturday. But then he dropped the throw and the tying run scored on the way to a 4-1 defeat. It is looking more and more like Soto's troubles last year were the classic sophomore slump and he is back to being one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: a talented and ever-more accomplished young catcher.


Jim "Coach" Coffman brings you SportsMonday (nearly) every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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