By MERLE PEIFER
For The Outpost
In the sixth inning and in the rain, the loud “ting” that echoed from beneath the stadium was an indication that while the final outcome was almost certain, the players did not have to like it.
It was Cole McKenzie’s final 250-foot defiant statement, a fitting reminder and conclusion to Big Sky Little League’s 2011 All-Star season. A couple of batters later, it was over.
During the post-game, on-field celebration by California, the Montana players reentered the field and had their pictures taken with the California team. They slowly made their way beneath the stadium, into the waiting van, and took their final ride into the sanctuary of the “Grove.” It had ended.
Youth sports teams consistently take on the personality and integrity of their coaches. There is no doubt that the Big Sky All-Star team was a product of their coaching staff.
Manager Gene Carlson, during a post-game interview, was baited about the tournament format and the delays between games. He responded that the format was just fine, that the Big Sky team had no complaints about anything, and that Big Sky would play any team at any time with whatever delay was indicated or required.
Subsequently, when Cole and other Big Sky pitchers were asked about the pitching mound conditions (they were very hard), they indicated the mounds were never a problem and that they adjusted to the conditions. Dynamics between coaches, and especially for an all-star team, are critical to success.
Watched both from a distance and up close, the trio of Gene, Tom Zimmer and Mark Kieckbusch is the type of staff that every youth should have an opportunity to be coached by, regardless of sport.
Parents probably have the most difficult job during these tournaments. Obligations are discarded at home; work and only the unknown greets them in San Bernardino and Williamsport. Access to your child is limited and also being asked to sit on the sidelines while your child is participating on a world stage at the age of 12 or 13 is painful.
Just one week ago, your child was playing in front of maybe 100 fans. Now the number approaches 20,000, plus millions more on television. Some parents complain privately to the coaches about their child not getting enough playing time, for other parents, the fear of their child’s potential failure on television is excruciating.
For the latter, this was an unfounded fear. In San Bernardino and Williamsport, the players performed well, each with his own strengths, somehow aligning magically at just the right time, as though it was divinely scripted for a movie.
Of the many phrases which have been used to describe this team, “dedication to a goal” comes to the forefront. Initially, each player’s private goal was to first make the major level all-star team for Big Sky Little League. For some, this would be their second and last year on the team, for others, it was their second try but would be their only time.
These 12 players were selected because of their ability, talent and dedication to the game of baseball by their peers, coaches and managers throughout the regular season. The dedication to achieve a goal was paramount in their minds.
The players will tell you that the initial goal was to win each game, then the district tournament, then the state. The goal thankfully changed upon attainment of each goal. The team again, adjusted.
Earlier this year, a couple of letters to the editor appeared in The Billings Gazette deriding Little League teams for playing in the cold weather of early spring and completing their season to the benefit of all-star teams by the end of June. The feeling was it was very unlikely that any team from Montana would make it to the World Series, let alone defeat the likes of California.
How very fortunate we all are that the dedication shown by the players and coaches that made up the regular season for Big Sky Little League, and all of Montana District 1, were, and are, not swayed by these arguments.
During my elongated and belated return to Montana, I proudly wore the ugly mustard-colored hat with “NW” on it everywhere. On multiple occasions, I was approached about whether or not I was really at the games. I never tired of telling stories about the team or being told that the Montana team was their favorite and, by one fan, that the Montana team would certainly always have at least one fan in that town (Cleveland) forever.
Hopefully, we will continue to hear more from these players for many years to come, regardless of their chosen sport or profession. Good luck to you all, gentlemen, and thank you for the journey.