It's the height of tax season, the last weekend before April 15, and accountant Tim Dougherty should have been poring over forms and punching a calculator. But his son, Michael, was playing baseball this weekend against some of the best 11-year-olds in the country.
So there Dougherty was yesterday, at a ball field in Jacksonville, keeping score instead of hunting for deductions in his Towson office.
"I guess it's a matter of priorities, isn't it?" Dougherty said.
The "Maryland Orioles 1999 Early Bird Tournament," which ends today, pits the youth league Maryland Orioles against five other teams from all over -- Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Puerto Rico. All have consistently placed within the top five in their age bracket in the Continental Amateur Baseball Association.
The sounds of the northern Baltimore County tournament might have seemed familiar to any Little League family. Chewing gum snapped, rap music blared, cleats clicked on concrete under the benches. There was the "poing" of aluminum bats against balls, and the rattle of balls hitting chain-link fences.
To some Little League fans, the sights might have seemed surreal. Balls rocketed from player to player, catchers nailed runners, shortstops snapped up grounders. It seemed hard to believe the players are fourth- and fifth-graders.
"These kids aren't out here mugging it," said Paul McClintock of suburban Atlanta, whose son plays for the Georgia Blue Devils. "They're playing real baseball."
The tournament, organized by the Maryland team, offered these elite clubs some high-caliber competition at the start of the season. All quickly accepted. "They all wanted to butt heads as much as we did," said Patrick Carmen, the head coach.
The team to beat, this weekend at least, was the Puerto Rico Reds, from Boyamon, near San Juan. Going into yesterday's action, they were undefeated, with three successful suicide-squeeze plays against the Maryland team in a game Friday.
Coached by a former Double-A player, the Reds featured a star pitcher and the dreaded "Canito," an 11-year-old first baseman with a taste for pizza and the shoulders of a longshoreman.
Canito -- whose real name is Heriberto Santana -- has hit a 340-foot home run in his young career. Yesterday, he easily smashed a hit over the head of the Tennessee Giants' shortstop for a stand-up double.
Nelly Torres, a Reds fan, banged the tambourine and began to sing, in Spanish: "What did we come here for? To hit against these guys!"
`Puerto Rico is here!'
Behind her, a man beat a "pandereta," a small drum, and Canito Calderon made as much racket as he could with a "guiro," a gourd scraped by a kind of metal comb. Calderon watched gleefully as his grandson pounded one to left.
"Puerto Rico came!" Torres and others chanted. "Puerto Rico is here!"
Fernando Nido, whose son, Ricky, plays with the Reds, said the chant loses something in the translation. Oddly enough, Fernando is also an accountant, and this is tax season in Puerto Rico. "It was a hassle to make the time to come over here," he said. "But the kids are worth it."
As the Reds celebrated, the Giants struggled. Parents grumbled about a couple of close calls by an umpire. A Giants coach barked at a reporter who tried to ask questions between innings. The kids watched the game grimly.
"We just seem to take the game a little more seriously than most," said Charles Sutton of Germantown, Tenn., a 37-year-old pilot for Federal Express and one of the parents.
Last year, Sutton said, his three oldest boys played in 287 youth league baseball games. Sutton attends as many as he can but can't make all of them. Yesterday, for instance, he had to miss the T-ball debut of his youngest son, just 5.
As red-headed Michael "Taco" Sutton stepped up to the plate yesterday, father Charles shouted encouragement. "Be the man, Mike, be the man!"
Michael walked. But the Reds went on to beat the Giants, 6-3.
Over at the next field, the Orioles struggled with the Georgia Blue Devils.
McClintock of Atlanta, the vice president of a shipping firm, squatted by a light pole as his son, Paul Jr., single-handedly ended the Orioles' hopes. The skinny 11-year-old, playing shortstop, was involved in all three outs in the bottom of the sixth. The Blue Devils trounced the Marylanders, 8-2.
McClintock said that it is no accident the kids are so good. "To get to this level, it takes a lot of determination and hard work," he said. "Paul is all business when he plays baseball. He's very serious about it. Most of these kids, they've got to be."
The Maryland team went on to lose their fourth straight yesterday afternoon, 9-7, against Tennessee.
"It's awful," laments Tim Dougherty, the Towson accountant. "We host the tournament and we're 0-and-4. It's not supposed to work this way."
Coaches and players took comfort from the fact that they have played only a few games, while all the other teams started their seasons weeks earlier. Also, the O's play so many games each year -- more than 60 -- the players learn to bounce back.
"For our kids, it's not that bad," Dougherty said. "By the end of this month, they'll get on track."
Pub Date: 4/11/99