The Big Sky All-Stars have captivated Montana for a month now. Wednesday’s victory over the scoring juggernaut from Huntington Beach, Calif., stunned the nation’s baseball experts.
ESPN commentators stated the obvious advantage. The California team plays year-round in its balmy climate, while Montana’s team is lucky to get in three months of baseball a year. And any Billings baseball parent can tell you, those three months include a lot of rain, a lot of wind, and an occasional tornado chasing the team from Roundup to Billings.
In addition to the weather advantage, the California team exemplifies the new era of youth sports. Increasingly, pre-teens join “pay to play” travel teams, hire paid coaches for every position, and employ personal trainers. This requires a commitment from each player of thousands of dollars per season.
Take a look at the California pitcher on Wednesday night. According to the Huntington Beach Independent, after the Little League World Series the pitcher/first baseman will head to Cooperstown, N.Y., to play in a travel team tournament. From Cooperstown he will fly to North Carolina to try out for a national team. This California All-Star is 12 years old, presumably a schoolboy.
As the Big Sky All-Stars take the field on Saturday for a rematch with California, we should celebrate the fact that a kid can succeed, at the highest level, without intensive and expensive training. The volunteer coaches in a small town Little League can produce champions.
Billings boy Cole McKenzie, who also pitched on Wednesday night, provides a great example of the opportunities provided by Little League’s neighborhood baseball system.
Cole is truly a product of Little League. He lives a few blocks from his home field at Rose Park. He’s been coached by a string of volunteers who give up their summers to teach kids the game. Cole has no hitting coach, no personal trainer, no pay to play. Just a boy, a bat, a bucket of balls and, of course, a baseball family.
Mother Lori drives the van, makes the treats, stoically watches the games, and has imbued Cole with the calm confidence that defines him. His sister Kate is a spitfire, cheering him on, believing in him, and openly loving his success. She rejects sibling rivalry in favor of all-out sibling revelry.
But it is Cole’s father, Kelly McKenzie, who gave him the gift of baseball. Kelly’s been a fixture in Little League for years, even before Cole played tee-ball. He has coached hundreds of local kids, teaching the basics in a no-nonsense fashion, one lesson building on the last. He pushes the stars and encourages the less skilled. He coaches the game with a quiet passion. All of his skill, all of his passion, have taken root in his boy. And Cole has come to love the game, a mirror image of his father.
Little League’s $70 admission fee and volunteer coaches may be old-fashioned, but Little League will not be rendered obsolete. Each of the 12 All-Stars from Billings has a story like Cole’s. And boys and girls across Montana live near a field. They learn the game from volunteer parents like Kelly McKenzie.
The Big Sky All-Stars have proven that when you have a kid, a bat, a bucket of balls, and a passionate coach, magic may find you. And that magic may envelope your town and your state for all of August.
Martha Sheehy is a Billings attorney and proud Big Sky Little League mom.