Roland Park Little League leaves games to the kids

May 21, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

Let's face it, Little League gets a lot of bad press these days, and not just from the pointy-headed academics on the op-ed pages.

For many, it summons images of uptight players striking out and looking for a bus to throw themselves in front of, psycho parents berating pimply-faced teen-age umpires, ranting, win-at-all-cost coaches who see themselves as the logical successor to Earl Weaver in terms of both baseball acumen and motivational skills.

This is more than a little disturbing to someone who looks back on his own Little League career with fondness, who remembers traveling to the games in the front seat of his dad's 1960 Ford station wagon, with the hole in the floorboard through which exhaust fumes seeped, giving the car the same breezy feel as a smelting plant.

So if you're an ex-player who wants to know if Little League is really in trouble, this is what you do: You take a trip to Gilman School, the quiet, leafy campus in north Baltimore, to check out the Royals, a team of 9- and 10-year-olds in the Roland Park Baseball Leagues, as they play the Colonials.

And this is what you see: No basket cases in the lineups.

No nutso parents causing a scene -- one mom behind the Royals' bench is feeding her kids pizza, which might as well be the clinical definition for well-adjusted.

No drill sergeant coaches straight out of "Guadalcanal Diary," just a quiet, patient man named Ron Sheff ("I'm not a shouter") running the Royals and a calm fellow named Kevin Abell doing the same for the Colonials.

On a cool Thursday evening in the spring, what you have here is baseball and kids and a small group of OK adults, entwined in the same timeless rhythms as always.

The players play, with varying levels of enthusiasm and ability, ranging from neo-geek to hot-shot prospect.

The coaches coach, which basically comes down to yelling age-old advice, much of it maddeningly contradictory:

"Be a hitter up there!"

"Take a pitch, see what he's got!"

"Two strikes on you, protect the plate!"

"Don't be afraid to take a walk!"

"Three balls, don't want to lose this guy!"

"But don't give him anything good to hit!"

And the parents watch and cheer and feel the butterflies doing strafing runs in their stomachs whenever their kid takes the mound or comes to the plate.

And two hours later, after the Royals have pounded out a 15-4 win and the players shake hands and none of the parents has pulled a tire iron on the ump, you're left with one singular impression:

If this is some kind of social Rorschach test to determine how the game is doing at this level, then the game is doing just fine, at least on these few acres of God's green earth.

Coaches love the game

There are 30 teams in the Roland Park Baseball Leagues; 420 kids, ages 7 through 14, participate. The program is in its 43rd year of existence and is thought to be the longest-running such league in the Baltimore metro area. Statistics may be the life-blood of baseball, but they'll put you to sleep quicker than a shovel upside your head, which is why it's best not to string too many of them together.

The point is, all those teams need coaches.

Many men (and some women) say they become Little League coaches because they don't want some jerk coaching their kid, or if the kid has to be coached by a jerk, they would prefer the jerk be them.

You get the feeling, though, that Ron Sheff never had to wrestle with the issue of jerkism.

He is 45, a lawyer, lives in Roland Park. This is his sixth year of coaching young baseball players. Temperamentally, he seems ideally suited to the task. He's patient, thoughtful, able to communicate with kids -- even his own kid on the team, Allison, 10, a fact that would probably keep a battery of sociologists busy for weeks trying to decipher his secret.

Plus Ron Sheff loves the game. In fact, this is how much he loves the game: For his 45th birthday, his wife Pam and his 14-year-old son John went out and bought him a catcher's mitt.

"We bought it at Herman's," Pam says with a laugh. "I don't think it was on sale."

Ron and Pam Sheff met at grad school at Harvard, and she knows what makes this guy tick. Maybe a husband can't give his wife a vacuum cleaner for her birthday. But when a wife gives her husband a catcher's mitt, geez, he'll do everything but slop ++ the hogs for you.

A good catch

Actually, the catcher's mitt pales in comparison to what Pam Sheff, a marketing consultant and writer, did for Ron's baseball jones four years ago.

She actually began sponsoring his teams. There it is, neatly written on the back of the uniforms: Sheff and Associates.

"I think he's a great coach," Pam says. "He loves it. And he's a born teacher."

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, to discover that Ron Sheff's coaching philosophy is all about kids having fun while learning the game. "At this level, I figure there are going to be a handful of very good kids who will go on to play at the high school level," he says. "But most of these kids are just here to have fun.

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