How a Little League Baseball Game Provided Hope For The Sport's Future

Ed SheahinCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2009

It was the late 1970’s and as young boy growing up in rural Washington, D.C., sports, in particular baseball, dominated and influenced every aspect of my life.

I loved everything about baseball, from studying box scores in the morning paper to collecting baseball cards.  Outside of the sun rising each morning, it was as constant as my life would get.

Baseball and the professional players I so admired could do no wrong in my youthful eyes.

As an avid Pirate fan, I modeled my style of play on the baseball field watching the likes of Willie Stargell, Tim Foli, Phil Garner, Bill Robinson, Bert Blyleven, John Candalaria and my hero at the time Dave Parker.

One glorious summer, my parents planned a trip to Pittsburgh so we could see my beloved Pirates play the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in a weekend series.  It was as if I had died and gone to heaven.

The two NL powerhouses played a doubleheader that Saturday at the old Three Rivers Stadium.  Upon entering the stadium I was awe-struck looking down upon the field where my heroes performed. 

As a highly influential pre-teen, these athletes were gods in my eyes.  Relatively speaking, imagine how the average Greek citizen would have felt having received an invite to watch Apollo, Poseidon, Hades, and Zeus strut their stuff on Mount Olympus.

I was looking down upon the field where not only my beloved Pirates played, but where the World Champion Steelers performed.  To me it was the Mecca of all sports and home to the City of Champions.

But what happened that weekend would become forever lodged in my memory as the beginning of the end of my one constant and first love, baseball.

Having arrived early enough to watch batting practice, we had time to move freely about the stadium.  There I was with my portable camera itching to get close enough to capture Dave Parker in action.

What I saw upon reaching the seating area around the Pirates dugout remains etched in my head to this very day.  While a majority of the Pirates blanketed the field stretching and running, my hero (Parker) hung out in the dugout, only to surface to take a few puffs from the cigarette that dangled from the side of his mouth.

Needless to say, I was shocked and somewhat disappointed.  After all, even in the 1970’s we were taught at a very young age that smoking was something we should never attempt.  It was at that very moment I experienced my first negative aspect of a sport that was the center of my universe. 

Oddly enough, during the first game of the doubleheader a rowdy hometown fan, who had his fill of Parker, tossed a battery toward my hulking hero stationed in his customary right field position.  After nearly being hit in the head with the object, Parker pulled himself out of the game and was nowhere to be found for the remainder of the day.

Now, some thirty years later, I have nearly washed my hands of the sport that had provided so many wonderful childhood memories. 

I have seen the likes of Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and hundreds of others corrupt and deface the sport out of greed and selfishness. 

Even recently, the image of Manny Ramirez flopping around left field like a turtle on his back, searching for a ball he misplayed.  Or when he jogged to first base after hitting a ground ball late in the game as the opposing pitcher was closing in on a no-hitter against his Red Sox club.

Fortunately, I had the honor of watching Cal Ripken play an illustrious career from start to finish.  He provided the one flicker of light that kept hope alive.  But with each passing year Ripken has been away from the game, my love for the sport has dwindled.

That is until recently, when I was asked to take photos of a Little League game in my hometown of Frederick, MD.  Honestly, I had seen what Little League baseball had become over the years and I wasn’t all that thrilled about attending the game.  I had seen my share of loud-mouth parents, overbearing coaches, and three-hour games as result of walked batter after walked batter.

But something changed my entire perspective as it pertained to baseball that night.  Watching two East Frederick pitching-machine teams battle it out for the league championship, I saw something that evening I was totally unprepared for.

Perhaps it was the enthusiastic way players on one squad arrived at the field sporting blue Mohawks to match their uniforms in an effort to promote team unity?  Maybe it was when players from both teams prior to the game individually walked over and shook each umpires hand?  It could have been the overwhelming abundance of positive shouts from both parents and coaches alike throughout the contest?

No, I believe it was the moment toward the later stages of the contest when it was apparent what the outcome of the game would be.  Following a superb fielding play—at any age—by the losing team’s third baseman on a third out, his coach sprinted on to the field and greeted his proud player.

The celebration that followed was extraordinary!  The coach grabbed his smiling third baseman and held him high above his head as if he were the Penguin’s Sidney Crosby displaying Hockey’s Stanley Cup trophy.

Every player and coach ran over and participated in the celebration.  Again, this was the team that knew defeat was inevitable.  The coach was well aware that his kids would be disappointed when the final out was made ending the game.  He wanted them to have something to hang on to in defeat so he emphatically over emphasized the outstanding play his impressionable young fielder made.

It was during that celebration, that one magnificent moment, when my Grinch-like baseball heart grew three sizes and once again I believe in the goodness of baseball!