Little League, Revisited

Adam Kuhlmann was outmatched at the 1993 Little League World Series. His 11-year-old nephew helps him to learn from his errors.

Adam Kuhlmann | Longreads | April 2020 | 17 minutes (4,265 words)

It’s a cold, gray morning in late December, the week that sags like bunting hung between Christmas and New Year’s. I pull my mother’s Subaru alongside a large cinder block building identified only by a street address peeling from a rust-pocked and dented steel door. I see no functional windows, just a few square cavities that have been boarded up from the inside.

My wife, Mysha, eyes the grim façade from the passenger seat. “Is it strange,” she asks, “that Chase takes lessons inside a commercial slaughterhouse?”

Chase is my nephew, an 11-year-old with the eyelashes of a Hollywood starlet and a penchant for neon athletic wear. During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, he had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.

“It gives him a leg up,” my sister had told me the previous night after Chase went to bed. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, she explained the nature of today’s competitive child-rearing: how all of a kid’s activities — from his first birthday party to his college admissions — must be coordinated and enhanced, for a fee, by biologically unrelated adults.

At 39, with no plans to father a child myself, I am free to pass judgment on all manner of parental behavior without worrying that, one day, I’ll have to admit I was wrong. So, I reminded my sister about the 1990s, when the most we’d hoped for was piano lessons. As for getting into college, I told her about the Friday night before I took the SAT. I’d stayed up late, crowding around Betsy Newman’s backyard fire pit. I’d joined a boozy, a cappella rendition of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” My test prep had consisted of just saying no to the nozzle of a can of Cool Whip, a triumph of restraint I’d managed without a glance of adult supervision.

My sister patiently absorbed my nostalgia. Then she added: “Chase wants this too. He loves baseball.”

I couldn’t argue with Chase’s results. Last summer he’d been selected for the all-star team of his neighborhood little league. My sister sent us photos of the boys celebrating at a local Mexican restaurant. In one close-up, Chase’s arm is draped over the shoulder of a boy with the same tousled hair spilling from the same star-spangled hat. With the other hand, he is slugging a yellow concoction from a goblet the size of a table lamp.

During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, my nephew, Chase, had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.

Looking down at her phone, Mysha confirms the address, so we slip into a small parking lot in the back of the building. Though it’s no more welcoming than the front, at least we find no sign of doomed Angus cattle.

Inside, the facility’s décor hews to jock brutalism. Forty feet above us, fluorescent lights hang from metal beams, filling the cavernous room with a stadium’s ice-blue brightness. The atmosphere is warmed only by the sound of classic rock rattling from speakers bolted to the walls. Black netting curtains off a pair of batting cages, where a few stocky teens hack at soft tosses. The floor is covered in green artificial turf studded with five-gallon buckets, around which cluster litters of scuffed baseballs.

I spot my brother-in-law, Clay, seated with two other men whose buzz cuts and taut expressions would fit in on the bridge of a naval destroyer. They lean forward from metal folding chairs, studying the ritualized movements of their boys. Nearby is a makeshift pitching mound, where I spot Chase moving into his windup: a fluid and compact gathering of 100 pounds of muscle and bone. His pitch sails high, pulling out of his catcher’s crouch a college-aged man in gray sweats. His bottom lip is swollen with tobacco, and he pauses to discharge a brown stream into a soda bottle before offering my nephew a blunt appraisal: “You’re overthrowing again. What happened to your release point?”

Chase cocks his head thoughtfully. “I forgot to reach out with it.”

“Right,” the coach says, demonstrating with his own right hand before returning a dart to Chase’s glove side. “Fix it.”

In his plush suburban home, Chase is a merry prankster. When he was 4, he stood on the carpeted mezzanine, reached his hand between two wooden balusters, and dropped an untidy sock onto the face of my sister, napping on the sofa below. Here, in this Spartan box, Chase’s aim is nearly as true — but he is all business.

We slide in, and the fathers stand to make room for us in the self-consciously gallant way of Southern men. And suddenly I recognize that I am easily the smallest person in the seating area. This includes my wife, who at 6-foot-1 dwarfs me in a way that attracts stares in public.

Out of the corner of my eye, I track a wide throw that tips off Chase’s glove and bounces once on its way toward our congregated shins. I bend and manage to spear it with my right hand.

One father draws out a whistle through his teeth.

“Once a second baseman, always a second baseman,” Clay says.

I toss the ball back to Chase, who registers the deed — and our presence — with a stoic little nod.

“College ball?” asks the other father.

Before I can laugh, say “no,” and explain that this catch had been the most graceful maneuver I’d accomplished in 20 years — indeed, I’d just tweaked my back and would require, this evening, a liberal application of Tiger Balm — Clay jumps in.

“This guy played in the Little League World Series!”

I wince.

***

Every August, the Little League World Series pits the best 12-year-old all-star teams from the U.S. against the top international squads, all of it broadcast on ESPN from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Each year, inevitably, the media anoints one break-out star, a child drawn from utter obscurity into the hot glare of interviews on Sports Center and Jimmy Kimmel. In 2014, it was Mo’ne Davis, a Philadelphia girl with waist-length braids and an electric left arm. In 2018, it was Al Delia, a round, baby-faced slugger known for his catchphrase: “They call me Big Al, and I hit dingers.”

“No shit! What year?”

“1993,” I say.

“Ah. The Tuckahoe American team.”

I am only a little surprised that he remembers this 25-year-old nugget of local trivia. For a few weeks that summer, the team had been the toast of Richmond, splashed across the front page of the sports section and leading the 10 o’clock news. Even after we lost to the three other American teams, we remained minor celebrities. Reuniting to serve as grand marshals of a Thanksgiving parade, we rode through city streets atop flashy Corvettes and waved to cheering crowds like beauty queens, except with bowl haircuts and bad skin.

In 1993, the break-out star was Sean Burroughs, a bumptious earthen mound from Long Beach, California. He threw back-to-back no-hitters on the strength of one pitch: a 77 mile-per-hour fastball that left his fingertips less than 40 feet from each custard-kneed batter. Tuckahoe’s only consolation was taking Sean’s team — the eventual world champs — to extra innings.


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Over my shoulder, metal bats ring, as sharp and steady as blacksmiths’ hammers. But the fathers have forgotten they’re supposed to be monitoring the development of their sons’ hitting mechanics, the minute adjustments to weight shift and launch angle that might, just maybe, yield a Division 1 scholarship.

“What was it like to play in Williamsport?” one asks, leaning in.

In my experience, most men savor invitations to relive their glory days — the time they caught the winning touchdown in the state championship, the last-second jump shot that sealed the upset of their crosstown rival. Looking from face to face, I see an audience eager to revisit the early ’90s, that simple era when Bill Clinton’s smile and receiving an email were still magic.

I say just enough to be polite: “Amazing. It’s every little leaguer’s dream.”

“Yeah?” the other dad says.

I’m no humbler than anyone else. If only the dads had asked about the county Trivia Bowl competition of 1994, I’d have invited them to settle back in their folding chairs for a good yarn — that is, after I’d poured tumblers of the bourbon I keep stashed in my pant leg, labeled “Break In Case Of An Opportunity To Aggrandize Myself.”

But the topic is the Little League World Series. And mine had not been glorious. So, instead, I try to distract them: “How old are your sons?”

***

The 1993 Tuckahoe Little League American team, winners of the 7th District, Virginia State, and South Regional tournaments, had 14 boys on the official roster. A truer record would have listed 13 players — disciplined athletes whose sweat and talent earned shelves full of trophies — and one young man who was also, technically, there.

The team photo begins to tell the story. Two rows of ruddy boys are clad in blue pinstripe jerseys with “Tuckahoe” splashed in cursive across the chest. The tallest matches the stature of the two managers who flank the group, beaming in aggressively pleated khaki shorts. The front row features similarly well-built kids. Their bright eyes and big grins align along an unbroken plane, except where — it seems — someone’s kid brother has snuck into the left corner of the frame. The sleeves of his white uniform flap below his elbows, and his smile looks a little strained, perhaps from his battle with a chronic tapeworm infection. This runty interloper is me.

How had I been chosen from Tuckahoe’s pool of 200 players, all with the same dream of reaching Williamsport? Even with decades of hindsight, it’s a question that baffles me.

Success in baseball does not track as closely to size as it does in, say, sumo wrestling. There are examples of Major League players who, like me, must alter the inseams of their trousers. The Houston Astros’ José Altuve, winner of the 2017 American League MVP, stands 5-foot-6. But in a sport that reveres power — home runs can shift momentum in the blink of an eye — it helps to be Aaron Judge, the 6-foot-6 star of the New York Yankees, whose broad shoulders tell of off-days spent at the Maytag showroom, juggling refrigerators.

Unlike Altuve, I had no compensatory athletic gifts, preternatural hand-eye coordination or the grip strength of a pneumatic vise. I suppose I ran pretty fast. But every other aspect of my play was average at best. At the plate, I was a master of the two-hop infield groundout. My preferred offensive strategy was simply not to swing. To strike me out, a pitcher had to fling three baseballs, from 46 feet, into a zone the size of a toaster oven.

How had I been chosen from Tuckahoe’s pool of 200 players, all with the same dream of reaching Williamsport? Even with decades of hindsight, it’s a question that baffles me.

One hypothesis involves luck. During the regular season, I happened to play on the same team with a rangy and affable man-child named Michael Brown. When Mike wasn’t developing well-defined pecs or shaving his full beard, he was hitting home runs. Crowds would show up at our White Sox games, lining the chain-link fence, to see him dent cars parked beyond the left field wall. Mike pitched, too, relying on a fastball that our coach once clocked at 70 miles-per-hour. However, because of jerky mechanics, he uncorked these pitches with startling inaccuracy. One batter, having heard Mike’s fastball hiss past his left ear, froze for a pitiful 10 seconds, the bat still cocked over his shoulder. Then, with a 1-0 count, the boy calmly took off his helmet and walked back to the dugout. I had a front row seat to the sad affair, because I was Mike’s designated catcher. That is, I was the White Sox player considered dumb and expendable enough to chase after pitches that careened into the dirt and drummed, hollowly, off my athletic cup. Conceivably, the selection committee may have thought Mike and I came as one unit — a roaring chrome Harley and its poky sidecar, painted with yellow flames but not fooling anyone.

1993 Tuckahoe American Team / Photo courtesy of the author

Perhaps, too, the committee members, all white-haired Major League history buffs, had been inspired by the story of Eddie Gaedel. In 1951, the 3-foot-7 circus performer made one plate appearance for the St. Louis Browns, whose owner used publicity stunts to boost ticket sales and team spirit. After emerging from a papier-mâché cake, Gadael strode to home plate and drew four consecutive balls from the pitcher. When he was replaced by a pinch runner, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Gaedel bowed twice, displaying to all the number on his back: 1/8.

Tuckahoe’s bigwigs may have wagered that, like Gaedel, I would be good for morale.

Indeed, as the all-star season got underway, I became more mascot than teammate. While the other boys played baseball year-round, I had trained as a gymnast. Before games, I’d lead our stretching routine on the infield grass, cracking up our pubescent, muscle-bound sluggers with my Gumby-like contortions. After a win, I’d perform a tumbling pass down the third baseline, turning one back handspring for every round we’d progressed in a given tournament. After we clinched the state title, one of my four handsprings was published on page D11 of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But Gaedel’s story and mine differed in at least one detail: he made it to the plate right away. For all but one game of Tuckahoe’s summer-long tournament run, I was assigned to coach first base. After posting the starting lineup, a manager would find me on the bench, where my feet dangled limply, inches from the cement floor. “All right, Adam,” he’d say. “We need you out by first to rally our guys!” The skit never changed. He pretended urgency, and I feigned disappointment. Frankly, I was terrified by the thought of using my bat and glove under such pressure.

For much of a ballgame, the first base coach is marooned inside a small chalk box, perhaps 100 feet from his dugout. This distance was the primary strategic benefit for our team. It ensured that I distracted the other side’s fielders, rather than our hitters, with my mouthy chatter.

At first, I executed my duties by the book, standing there uselessly and offering time-worn baseball cheers: “Whaddya say, Mikey B? Ducks on a pond, baby!” But by the time we’d reached the regional tournament in Florida, I’d developed my own schtick. I’d use the first and second innings to ingratiate myself to opposing players within earshot: admiring the curveball of the pitcher, congratulating the first baseman for scooping a throw out of the dirt. Flattery attuned them to the sound of my voice so that when, in the crucial late innings, I turned the tables, the effect could be potent.

“Shake it off,” I once said to a second baseman from Texas, who had just let a ground ball escape through his legs. “Everyone will forget it was you who put the winning run on base.”

The boy glanced my way.

I shrugged. “Well, you can hope.”

The strategy didn’t always work. Yet some boys couldn’t help but get flustered, kicking at the dirt, slapping their gloves against their thighs — because who’s expecting to be taunted by a moppet in an over-large helmet?

Looking back, I don’t think I was, by nature, a jerk. But I liked the feeling I’d influenced the game somehow, even from the sidelines, and I savored the encouragement of my teammates.

When I returned to the dugout before the sixth inning of our nail-biter against Texas, some starters grabbed their gloves and crowded around me. “What did you say to their second baseman?” asked Mike, grinning.

Nate, our catcher, laughed and added: “It looked like you told him his dog died.”

My experience departed from Eddie Gaedel’s in another important respect. While I was just learning the trade, he was a seasoned jester. The little guy may have worn a Browns uniform, but, surely, he knew he didn’t belong. He sensed the cheers were more for the spectacle — its novelty, its audacity — than for the player himself. That’s why he lingered and took a second bow. He understood that, tomorrow, he’d return to the circus.

At 12, I wasn’t so secure. Eventually, in victory or defeat, the summer would end. Would there be a ring in a big, striped tent to accept me?

Middle school, in case you’ve forgotten, is the phase when belonging means everything. Jock, nerd, gamer, or stoner: an adolescent’s most fervent wish is to find purpose and meaning — an identity — by way of a group. The more distinguished that group, the higher the stakes. In the summer of 1993, I was tapped, out of obscurity, to join a team that traveled from tournament to tournament, state to state, running over the competition. Unmoored from town and family, I was surrounded by bigger boys whose feats I couldn’t match. I recognized the disparity on some level. And, out of my acrobatics and my ill manners, I’d formed a certain clownish identity. But to admit that my status on the team was contingent on an act would have been too painful.

Instead, I tried to hide it. I ignored the substance of playing ball — the endless reps fielding hot line drives — and focused on the image. During batting practice, I studied teammates like big Michael Brown, hoping to replicate the swagger of his loose-limbed stance, if not his towering home runs.

After Tuckahoe had punched its ticket to Williamsport — with a 6-2 win over Georgia — an equipment company sent us a selection of pristine graphite bats. I called dibs on the flashiest one — a pure white barrel with lurid green lettering — even though, at 31 inches, it was much too large. To wield it with any purpose, I had to slide my hands beyond the leather grip, like I was throttling poultry. It was this bat that I lugged to the plate in our final game that summer.

On a muggy August night, in front of 5,000 people at the fluorescent-lit stadium and countless more at home, Tuckahoe squared off against boys representing the Midwest. Both teams’ records of 0-2 in the round robin had already eliminated them; we were playing with nothing on the line. When our batting order was posted, I found my name filling the number-9 slot.

Some of the regular starters seized me by the shoulders and rattled me like a doll. “You’re in, dude!” they cried. I was shoved from the wings and onto center stage, my size-5 cleats resisting, but slipping on the dugout’s damp floor.

By the bottom of the third inning of a scoreless game, I had already committed an error on a slow chopper to second base. As I fetched my helmet and bat, anxiety jangled and stiffened my hands. On my way to the on-deck circle, I met our lefty ace, Ryan Mathews. He was probably playing along when he urged, “Knock it out of the park, little man.”

The big Ohioan on the mound was nothing like the raw pitchers I’d faced during the regular season. He stared me down from the left side of the rubber, his glove hiding his mouth like an outlaw’s bandanna. While I strangled the bat and locked my quivering knees, he grooved two fastballs in for strikes.

As the all-star season got underway, I became more mascot than teammate. While the other boys played baseball year-round, I had trained as a gymnast.

I wanted to call for time, step out of the batter’s box, and maybe spit in the dirt, the way I’d seen Mike and Ryan do it. But I just stood there, my head swimming in the hum of the crowd, at least half of them urging the boy to finish me off.

This wasn’t at all like Eddie Gaedel’s at-bat. As he’d soaked up the delighted applause of the hometown crowd and watched each off-target fastball, he had the security of a script. The Browns’ owner had forbidden him to shift the bat from his shoulder, to pretend he stood any taller than 3-foot-7. But that night in Williamsport, I was playing real baseball, an improvisation that requires skills — timing, coordination, and strength — I’d never really tried to develop.

On the mound, the pitcher started his wind-up. He stepped back, then gathered his knee to his forehead, as though nodding Yes, you should be afraid. The ball tumbled out of his hand and blew past me on the inside corner. Strike three.

My turn in the spotlight lasted all of 90 seconds.

***

An attractive and personable woman in the company of aging male athletes is much like Earth’s distant sun. Through the invisible but implacable force of gravity, her presence alone is enough to determine the movements and interactions of other bodies. So it is that Mysha finds herself feigning polite interest in the patently embellished collegiate exploits of the two baseball dads. The larger man rolls up his sleeve to reveal a thick, pink scar crawling on the inside of his right elbow.

“Tommy John surgery in 1997,” he announces. “Rehab was hell. But I was back on the mound in less than 10 months.”

“Gosh,” Mysha says.

“Damned injury was the only reason I didn’t go higher than the 14th round in the draft.”

Mysha’s nod fails to communicate sufficient awe. He continues: “The draft is when the pros pick you to play in their organization.”

“My dad told me about that once,” she says, smiling. “He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.”

In the early 1970s, Mysha’s father was an All-American forward at Kansas State, where he made hearts flutter with the criminally brief basketball shorts of the era. Today, he mostly uses his 6-foot-9 frame to change light bulbs for other retirees at his condominium complex. Also: to embody, wordlessly, all my insecurities as a man.

While the group carries on, I overhear Chase’s coach instructing him to repair to a rear room to complete his arm exercises.

“Three sets of 15 on both sides,” the young man says. “No cheating.”

Inspired by the dads’ pissing contest, I ask Clay if the facility’s amenities include a bathroom. He points through the same darkened hallway where Chase has disappeared.

Before I return to the group, I poke my head into the cramped rear room, where the floor is strewn with medicine balls and kettle bells. Red elastic bands loll from pegs in the cinderblock like exhausted tongues. Chase is alone. He faces away from the doorway where I watch. Gripping the end of an exercise band, he works the small but growing muscles of his rotator cuff. “Four, five, six,” he chants.

I want to call out to him, to say, “Nice job.” Tell him he’s a hard worker, a fine athlete, a good nephew. But Chase doesn’t need that. Already, he has surpassed the uncle whose World Series run, I know, is the whole reason he invited me today. Here in this cold little cell, he isn’t performing for the adulation of a crowd or the acceptance of his teammates. He seems not even to worry about the gaze of his granite-hewn coach, whose critiques would have withered me as a kid. My sister was right: Chase wants this too. He loves baseball.

Next year, Chase will turn 12. If again he’s tapped for his league’s all-star team, he will stand at the start of a wide road that narrows, remorselessly, on its way to Williamsport. Like every year, there will be one champion and one break-out star. Part of me welcomes this prospect, hoping he’ll have a chance at celebrity, at being treated like a Major Leaguer for a spell. Another part of me worries. I know how the spotlight makes kids too conscious of themselves, so that even the most talented and accomplished feels the need to act like somebody else.

In August of 1993, after his Long Beach team won the title, CBS invited Sean Burroughs to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman. For the segment, host and guest go outside, where Letterman pitches and Sean hammers balls down the canyon of 11th Avenue in Manhattan. The visuals — Sean in a voluminous silk shirt, swinging the bat with a liquid stroke — are embellished by the sound effect of broken windows. Back on set, Letterman asks what Sean wants to be when he grows up. In truth, he will become a first-round draft pick and a starting third baseman for the San Diego Padres. But here’s what the boy, mugging for the camera, tells an audience of four million viewers: “A gynecologist.” Sean’s precocious response jars with his voice — high and pure, a child’s.

Yes, athletics will always involve more than just the joy of movement and the satisfaction of a well-struck ball. Crowds will gather wherever young athletes compete with integrity and finesse. But how should we support them? Sometime before next season, I want to tell Chase my story. I want to admit that, despite autographing clean, white balls on a big, green field in Pennsylvania, I had been barely more than a circus performer. But I worry my story may deflate rather than deliver him.

For now, in the rear room, I watch my nephew finish his set of 15. He pivots around for his left hand, and he meets my eyes. I decide not to linger. This room, with its stark walls and scent of sweat, is his. I wave and return to those one-time athletes — who just want everything for their boys, whose glory and scars are slowly fading — where I belong.

* * *

Adam Kuhlmann, a middle school teacher and MFA student at Pacific University, lives within a shout of saltwater in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Editor: Sari Botton