Duckler: Once upon a time, Little League kept the kids in mind

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/14/2019 6:39:03 PM

I loved Little League.

Loved the thrill of waking up on Saturday mornings with my bedroom window open, the curtains gently pushed forward from a summer breeze, my Reggie Jackson-like stirrups, baseball pants and jersey, No. 8, laid out on a nearby chair. My rubber cleats sat neatly positioned on the floor, lined up perfectly side-by-side, waiting.

Those memories came flooding back recently, for all the wrong reasons. A scandal erupted following Goffstown’s 6-4 loss last Saturday in the New England Regional Final, sending Barrington, R.I., to the prestigious Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn.

The Goffstown manager, Pat Dutton, accused Barrington base runners of stealing signs flashed from the New Hampshire catcher to the pitcher and relaying them to the hitter, thus giving the batter a major advantage.

The concept here is simple: If you know what pitch is coming, then you know the break and speed of the ball, and you can adjust accordingly. That, Dutton said, is what happened on Saturday, and that, he added correctly, is against the rules that are clearly stated in the Little League handbook.

No stealing signs.

“You can see (runners) leaning in, looking in and they’re doing hand gestures to their kid (at bat) indicating what kind of pitch it is and where it’s located,” Dutton told the Union Leader this week. “You can do that in big-league ball, but in Little League, it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s dishonorable and it’s disgusting.”

Meanwhile, the Barrington manager, Chris Promades, called the accusation a bunch of baloney. He made his thoughts clear to the media as well, reflecting on his feelings after Dutton had complained to the umpires in the third inning that the opposition was cheating.

“I was completely dumbfounded,” Promades said. “I said to myself, ‘What are you talking about?’ (The umpire) said the other coach said the guy on second base is stealing signs. I was completely baffled.”

And therein lies the sad truth, no matter which manager you believe. In a game played by kids not yet old enough to drive or vote, an adult responsible for a lot more than base hits veered off course, losing the spirit of what was originally intended when Little League baseball was born in 1939.

Forget the lessons inherent to Little League, that stuff about sportsmanship and learning and teamwork. Something else surfaced here. Was this merely sour grapes, a convenient excuse by Dutton to explain his team’s loss?

Even if he really believed some shenanigans were in play, the game had ended, his team had lost and Dutton should have left it there, keeping his suspicions out of the press.

And then there’s the flip side, the part involving Promades. Is it possible that he was lying when he denied that his players were stealing the catcher’s signs while standing on second base?

Take your pick. Either way, the whole episode was messy. These were kids. Save the sniping and griping and finger-pointing for the older leagues.

Not the little leagues.

Make no mistake, the game certainly was a big deal. The win means Barrington will compete in the Little League World Series starting this week in Williamsport and receive additional national and local media coverage, giving the players the ride of their lives.

But this other stuff is alarming. ​​​​​Goffstown refused to go quietly after losing, and the incident made me wonder if there’s something in the town’s water supply that creates sore losers, or maybe a loss of perspective.

Remember two years ago, nearly to the day, when Goffstown’s Little League manager at the time, Jeff O’Connell, ignored the rules? Each player must get at least one at bat each game, and that includes postseason play, yet O’Connell left one of his players on the bench the whole game, during the regional semifinals.

Goffstown lost to Maine, 7-6, ending its season.

Afterward, O’Connell said the player didn’t want to hit in the fourth inning, suggesting that he might have felt sick. The player’s mother, however, posted on Facebook that her son “never refused to play.”

O’Connell was boiled like a Fenway Frank for his decision, and not only by the national governing body of the sport, which, in a statement, said, “Little League International is extremely disappointed in the intentional mandatory play violation by New Hampshire manager Jeff O’Connell.”

Local Little League officials weighed in as well, having experienced the O’Connell method and attitude during the season.

When asked at the time what he thought of O’Connell’s choice to leave the player on the bench, Brendon McGahan, the president of the Concord Little League, told me, “This was blatant. The coach was saying, ‘I’m not playing this kid.’ He put winning above all else.”

Winning remains an important piece to the Little League picture, and that’s fine. My team, Bargain Center, beat Conti Auto Body, coached by the legendary Mr. Chester, during the regular season to end a years-long winning streak. We qualified for the playoffs. (Bargain Center was eliminated in our rematch with Conti Auto Body, with a third baseman, who shall remain nameless, committing three errors).

Then our all-stars lost in district play, spoiling our chance to play in the Little League World Series.

But there was more at play here. There was that Saturday routine, when I’d put on my uniform, eat a piece of toast, slide my glove over my handlebars, then ride my bike to the local little league field, at my junior high school.

Simple. And when the season was over, it was over. No leftover chatter about cheating. Nothing about stealing signs, or denying that signs were stolen.

This was baseball.

Youth baseball, at a time when a curtain in front of an open window, pushed by a gentle, warm summer breeze, meant so much.

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