SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Gene Carlson enjoys his role as Little League baseball coach.
“I like being with the kids,” said Carlson, of Billings, standing a little ways from the dormitory where the Big Sky All-Stars are staying during the Little League World Series. “It’s kind of neat when you see a kid that you’ve coached previously and they come up to you and say ‘hey coach,’ and they still recognize you and appreciate what you did for them.”
It’s certain that the 12 Big Sky players won’t ever forget Carlson. The 46-year-old manager has only coached them since the end of June, but he’s helped lead them to the World Series. He’s been helped by two coaches, Mark Kieckbusch and Tom Zimmer, who both have boys on the squad.
Carlson doesn’t have any children of his own on the team that won its first World Series game, 6-4 on Thursday. His wife of 19 years, Trish, came with him to South Williamsport.
But his two boys, Eric, 18, and Cody, 16, who aren’t here, got him into coaching.
“I did it to be with my kids more,” Carlson said.
He started coaching when Eric was 8. An assistant coach at first, Carlson took on the responsibilities of head coach about seven years ago.
His focus during the baseball season is to teach players the basics: how to hit, field and throw. His style, most of the time, is pretty laid-back, unless a player doesn’t listen when Carlson teaches him the right way to execute a move.
“Just like my kids, I expect them to do it,” the soft-spoken man said. “If they don’t do it, then I’ll get mad at them. But I still like them.”
Some of the most important lessons Carlson teaches his players are off the field. He talks about the importance of sportsmanship and what it means to be part of a team.
He succinctly sums up sportsmanship: “Be gracious when you lose and humble when you win.”
The Big Sky team has racked up an impressive win record. Since the boys started playing together, their record is 18-1.
They won all but one of their games at the Northwest Regional tournament in San Bernardino, Calif. After winning their first game here, they will play against the Southwest region champion from Lafayette, La., on Sunday at noon.
One thing Carlson said makes his job easier is the chemistry that existed among team members before they started playing on the all-star team.
“They’ve played sports together, whether it be basketball or football or baseball or soccer, for the last, I suppose, five years,” he said. “A lot of them go to school together. So they’re very tight. They all get along.”
Asked how he prepared the boys for the regional tournament and the World Series, Carlson said he kept them busy practicing and tried to keep their focus during practice so they’d stay ready to play.
When the team lost its only game to Bend, Ore., at San Bernardino, he and his coaches pointed out the boys had allowed nine unearned runs.
“So, the next time we play ‘em, we know what it takes to win,” Carlson reminded his team. “No errors, no base-on-balls, no passed balls. Just make them earn their runs.”
In the championship game, against the only team that beat them, the boys kept their focus. A big fourth inning, when his team scored six runs, is when Carlson started to allow himself the thought that the team might win.
Up until then, he had never in his wildest dreams imagined they’d be on their way to South Williamsport.
“That was not our goal,” Carlson said. “Our goal was to get to San Bernardino and then, once we got there, we just took it one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time.”
That’s the same way he’s telling team members to play their games here. If they win every inning, Carlson tells them, they will win the game.
When the World Series is over, Carlson will go back to his other world. He co-owns Don’s Car Wash with his brother.
He hasn’t been in Billings since Aug. 3, when he and the team traveled to San Bernardino. After they won the regional championship, the team and the coaches flew directly to Newark, N.J., and then took a charter bus to South Williamsport.
Asked how things are back in Billings, Carlson smiled.
“No news is good news,” he said.
As for the boys on the team, Carlson knows what they’ll take with them are memories from the experience of a lifetime. He knows he won’t forget the members of the Big Sky All-Stars.
“They’re a great group of kids, and I know when we play the last game, it will be sad to see them go,” Carlson said. “But it’s just one of those things, you’ve got to let them go, and they’ll be fine.”