A reporter's vignettes from South Williamsport

2011-08-31T00:00:00Z 2011-09-06T11:50:10Z A reporter's vignettes from South WilliamsportBy SUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 31, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Sitting in Lamade (rhymes with comedy) Stadium in South Williamsport is about as close as you can get to a major league field, except, of course, it's smaller. The grass is impeccably groomed, the green-plastic seats are relatively comfortable and you have a major TV network -- ESPN -- broadcasting the games.

You also get the sense of what it might be like to be part of a huge crowd in a big ball stadium. This year that was thanks to the fact that a hometown favorite played in the Little League World Series.

For the first time in 42 years, a local team, the Keystone Little League All-Stars from nearby Clinton County, was one of eight U.S. teams at the LLWS.

What that meant was record or near-record crowds, dressed in blue, all very enthusiastic, cheering for their team and occasionally booing if the opposing team challenged a call. Keystone lost its first game, but the gritty team came back and kept winning all the way up to the point when Keystone lost to the powerhouse team from Huntington Beach, Calif.

The first night that Keystone played, there was a record 41,848 people in the stadium and sitting on blankets and lawn chairs on the hill behind the outfield. The noise sent vibrations throughout the stadium, and their enthusiasm was contagious, except maybe to the families supporting the opposing team, the LaGrange, Ky., All-Stars.

Perhaps the only thing more stunning than the size of the crowd was the poise shown by the Kentucky players who managed to win the game 1-0 despite the cheers of the fans.

 


I promise I'm not being paid by Little League Baseball to write this. But if you ever get the chance to come to the Little League World Series, do it. It is everything that's right about baseball. Well-played games by teams that give their all and fans who appreciate the game and cheer on their teams with great enthusiasm.

Even when the international teams compete, enough fans fill up both sides of the stadium to make the players feel like they matter.

The philosophy of Little League baseball carries over here, too. You'll never pay for tickets into a game. For some of the bigger games, people may have to obtain tickets in advance, but never buy them.

A hot dog only costs $2 and you can get a soda for $1. You can watch players as they work out in the batting cages.

And there are places in the complex where people who collect pins can trade them, and where kids can play other kinds of games.

The other thing I really like is that you'll see the players walking on the grounds together, hanging out, just being kids. Or they might be signing a baseball for a young fan.

Even players who are out of the World Series are out having fun. They seem, at least on the surface, to shrug off the loss and enjoy their time at the LLWS.

It's a great way to spend a few days. If you ever get the chance in August, make your way to South Williamsport and take in a few games.


During my nearly two weeks at the Little League World Series, I had the opportunity to watch the Big Sky All-Stars practice a few times. They would generally follow the same pattern: two hours of stretching and catching practice, in pairs or on the field. Then they'd take some batting practice on the field and another hour of working in the batting cage.

I guess what impressed me was the discipline I saw there, the workmanlike way they went about doing it. They worked hard, they listened to their coaches and they took to heart the suggestions the coaches made.

The coaches also worked together very well. Manager Gene Carlson and coaches Tom Zimmer and Mark Kieckbusch, had styles that complemented each other and that seemed to be just what the boys needed.

I never saw any talking back or whining on the part of the players. They just did what needed to be done. They encouraged each other, they joked with each other. They were kids, but they recognized that wins come through hard work.

When I talked to the parents, I found out these are boys who not only like to play baseball together. Back in Billings, when they finished, practice, they hung out together in the evenings to have fun because they enjoy being together. They are a team in every sense of the word.

 


One of the interesting things about covering an international event like the Little League World Series is that you get to meet reporters and photographers from around the world. I didn't talk with all of them; everyone is pretty much busy producing stories or photos or videos. But colleagues speaking in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and English were all intent on getting the story to the folks back home. This may be a kids' sport, but it's serious business to people covering it.

The Little League World Series folks are great about taking care of reporters. Lunch and dinner are served daily, and water and pop are available all the time. A wireless network is available throughout the whole facility.

There's a room where post-game interviews are conducted. Generally, ESPN would get first dibs to interview players after a game, and then the rest of the reporters would get their turn in the interview room.

There was a separate room where folks could eat and talk. A third room is where photographers and reporters worked feverishly to turn it all into something that made sense for readers.

The other thing I noticed was the crowd of journalists thinned as the games went on. Because of Big Sky's great playing, the Billings media got to hang around until the end.


One of the amazing statistics you hear about Little League baseball is the number of volunteers who give their time around the world that keeps Little League going. At the World Series along, there are 400 to 500 volunteers who do everything from ushering to running concessions to acting as hosts.

Two volunteers who I got to know over the 13 days I was at the LLWS complex were Dick Reich and Willy Weber, who are what is known as "uncles." Two uncles are assigned to every team, and they spend each day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. keeping the teams on schedule, making sure they're where they are supposed to be and meeting their needs in any way possible.

The two uncles who assisted the Northwest champs from Montana were Dick Reitz, a retired state trooper, and Willy, Lycoming County's chief detective. Dick has been an uncle since 1984.

Both clearly enjoyed their role as uncles and both had great affection for the boys and coaches they were assigned to help.

Willy and Dick couldn't have been any prouder of the Big Sky players if they were their own grandsons. As Dick said, "I've got nephews around the world."

 


Who can come to the Little League World Series and not buy some souvenirs? But most of the time, there's a long line of people outside the small store near Lamade Stadium waiting to get in to find hats, or T-shirts or other merchandise.

I learned the secret of how to get in without waiting. Whenever the hometown favorites, the Keystone Little League All-Stars from nearby Clinton County, would play, the stadium would fill up with thousands of fans. And there would be no waiting line at the store. Seriously. Three different times when they were playing, I got right in. I have the hats and T-shirts to prove it.


It's been fun to see the big bracket posted outside of Lamade Stadium. Day after day, more black-and-gold "Northwest" stickers popped up on the board, as the Big Sky All-Stars won another game.


At the Little League World Series there's a kind of fun that you wouldn't necessarily see at any other level of baseball.

Dugout, the mascot, gets on the field before the game or between innings and gets players, coaches and even the umps to do silly dances with him. At one game, the second-base umpire played a fake guitar while Dugout danced.

Before the start of another game, Big Sky manager Gene Carlson joined the opposing manager in some boogie moves, mimicking Dugout's movements. For a man who's normally pretty quiet, it was fun to see him get caught up in the fun.

I asked Big Sky player Patrick Zimmer about it a couple of days after he and his teammates did a dance near home plate with Dugout and the Huntington Beach players from the opposing team

"It kind of keeps us all relaxed," Patrick told me. "It was funny."


On Wednesday, the day of the big semifinals game against the Ocean View Little League All-Stars from Huntington Beach, Calif., the Big Sky All-Stars practiced on the field. Then they went swimming, and headed for the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum.

The boys enjoyed looking at a NASA exhibit. The NASA spokesman gave them decorative pins to add to their collections, and some of the players posed for photos inside a space suit.

They wandered around the museum, listening to an audio history of Little League baseball and looking at the glassed-in exhibits filled with mementoes and photos of the history of the game.

Then they went downstairs and did what you'd expect baseball players to do. They swatted some baseballs in the batting cage and they competed at a station where they'd get timed as they run the distance from one base to another. That's where they spent most of their time.

 


Covering the Little League World Series as a reporter can be hectic, running to interview coaches and players and parents and then sitting down long enough to write the stories for editors who are keeping one eye on the clock.

So one of my favorite times at the World Series was one day when I had the opportunity to watch the Big Sky All-Stars practice. It was the day before they played their first game and the practice session was far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the LLWS complex that the boys might have been practicing on a field back in Billings.

In a bucolic setting of trees and green grass. I sat and talked to Dick Reitz, one of the volunteer "uncles" who helped look after the boys while they were in South Williamsport. We chatted and ate apple slices and watched the team go through their regular routine, stretching, throwing and catching, fielding and batting.

The coaches called out instruction or encouragement to players. The boys were focused on what they were doing, but didn't seem nervous at all. They might as well have been getting ready for a regular season game back in Montana.

The whole thing went on for about two hours and I enjoyed every moment.


At practice, the coaches for the Big Sky All-Stars make sure players practice plays over and over and over again, just in case they come up in a game. At practice a day or two before the semifinals game between the Big Sky All-Stars and the Ocean View All-Stars from Huntington Beach, Calif., that practice paid off.

During practice, pitcher Cole McKenzie would throw the ball beyond catcher Andy Maehl, and then run to home plate to catch the ball from Andy, ready to tag out the runner. At the game, that very situation came up, in the second inning, and practice made perfect when McKenzie kept a runner from scoring. With the final score 1-0, that play helped make all the difference.


 

If you looked up "All-American town" in the dictionary, I think you'd find a picture of South Williamsport. It has lots of residential neighborhoods with leafy, mature trees, people walking down the sidewalks or riding their bikes and beautiful old stone churches. You also find a lot of nice people.

People smile and say "hello." If you look lost or unsure, they ask if they can help. And they're willing to stop and chat, about baseball or whatever else you want to talk about.

And speaking of baseball, the borough of South Williamsport comes alive for two weeks every year that it hosts the Little League World Series. Thousands of people jam into the stadium complex, with cars everywhere. While I was in town, there wasn't a time when I went to turn left into the reporters' parking lot that a car wouldn't stop to let me in.

Once the World Series is done, you get the feeling that the town settles down into its quiet little self until the following August rolls around.

 


Along with your full-color Little League Baseball World Series program, you get a black-and-white addendum that lists everything you'd want to know about the players on all 16 teams. As you peruse the stats, you come to realize something about Connor Kieckbusch, one of the players on the Big Sky Little League All-Stars. He's just about the smallest player here. The program lists him as 4-feet, 8-inches tall and 74 pounds. There's another boy, Brandon Carswell from the Arabian American Little League, who is 4-foot, 7-inches, but he weighs 87 pounds. And Tristan Deming, from the Harney Little League in Rapid City, S.D., weighs 74 pounds, but he's 4-feet, 11-inches. So what the Big Sky team has is a very compact package of baseball talent.


 

The work of getting to the Little League World Series is the endless hours of practice. One of the perks, as a player, is having kids stop you and ask for an autograph. I asked Cole McKenzie and Connor Kieckbusch about it.

Cole said people would ask him to sign everything from a hat or a T-shirt to a program or a piece of paper.

"It's kind of fun," he said.

Connor agreed,

"It's kind of fun," he said. "It kind of feels like you're famous."

 


The players and the coaches all stay in dorms on the Little League World Series campus that are enclosed by a gate and closely guarded by security people, mostly from the community, who man the entrances. The boys have to swipe their ID cards when they go in and out, and the public, the media and even the parents aren't allowed in.

The dorms are a bit of a sanctuary for the boys, and a place of fun. When I asked the Big Sky players what they had the most fun doing during the World Series, many of them said playing in the rec room with players from other teams and from other countries. There also is a pool there, and many of them took advantage of the opportunity to play in the water.

One day after I had interviewed four of the boys just outside the dorm area, with manager Gene Carlson standing near by, the boys went back inside. As I was standing and waiting to talk to another coach, I saw a few of the Big Sky boys come out of their dorm with bats and plastic balls to play a little impromptu baseball. Even when they don't have to, the boys like to play the game.


Parents are amazing people. OK, maybe not all parents, but what I've seen of the parents of the Big Sky Little League All-Stars, I can comfortably make that statement. They've followed the boys since the regular season began in March. They rooted the All-Stars team on through the district tournament and the state tournament. Then the parents and families traveled down to San Bernardino, Calif., for the eight-day Northwest Region tournament. When the boys won that, the parents marshaled their resources and came to South Williamsport. They got here any way they could, some taking a red-eye flight and one even driving. They booked rooms as much as an hour away from the LLWS complex. They showed up at every game, ready to cheer on the team. And when the boys had free time, they were ready to take them to an amusement park or a movie, whatever the boys wanted.


 

Apparently the song "YMCA" by the Village People is one that breaks through the language barrier. During the International Championship game on Saturday afternoon, both the Japanese and the Mexico fans in the stands stood up and did all of the motions to the song.


 

Most parents have unfettered access to their kids. Not parents at the Little League World Series. The boys stay in dorms with the coaches, and the parents get to see the boys at appointed times.

That usually means picking them up for an afternoon or an evening to watch games in one of the stadiums or a take a break away from LLWS grounds.

After each game, the parents gather up the hill from the stadium, next to the gated dorms, to congratulate or commiserate with the players. It's always touching to see the hugs and kisses, knuckles or high-fives when the boys show up.

Jodi Sulser said at first, it was hard only having limited time with the boys. But she realized it made sense to keep distractions at a minimum and let the boys focus on the reason why they came to South Williamsport.


 

Maybe these are stories you've heard about the parents of the Big Sky players, but they bear repeating.

Brandi MacDonald, mother of player Brock MacDonald, was too ill to get on a flight to Pennsylvania. So she and her father and mother and daughter hopped in a vehicle and drove all the way. She couldn't bear the thought of not being in South Williamsport for her son's games.

Mark Sulser, father of Gabe, and Senior High football coach, took a red-eye flight so he could be at his son's first game at the Little League World Series. He watched one more, and then he flew home so he could coach the team's first game of the season on Friday night. Then he hopped on another red-eye flight to get back to South Williamsport for what turned out to be the team's final game.

Julie Smith, mother of Dawson said that as of Aug. 27, her family had only been home in Billings for four days out of the entire month. They spent the first part of the month at the regional tournament in San Bernardino. Then they went home, hopped on a plane and came to the World Series. That was probably pretty true for many of the families of the Big Sky All-Stars.

It isn't always easy being the parent of a Little Leaguer.

 


One of the most touching moments of the Little League World Series came when the Big Sky Little League All-Stars turned back into regular kids who had suffered a big loss after having so many successes.

After their 11-2 loss to the Huntington Beach, Calif., team on Saturday, the players took off their game faces and let their emotions show, tears flowing as they walked into the arms of their moms to get a little comfort and encouragement. No doubt, before too long, the boys turned back into their normally happy selves. But that was a poignant moment in the midst of two momentous weeks.

 

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