On deck with big dreams

Games: When Little Leaguers compete for the state championship, winning isn't everything for the players and their dedicated fans.

August 01, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The agony. The ecstasy. The snowballs.

Eight teams took the field yesterday for the start of the Maryland Little League Baseball Tournament. After a week filled with wins, losses and hot weather, one will be crowned state champion.

To watch it happen, families from across the state descended on Arbutus Middle School, lining the ball fields with fold-up chairs and umbrellas to cheer on their 11- and 12-year-olds.

They guzzled water and sports drinks, clapping for both good plays and bad ones. Not once did a complaint about an umpire's call rise above muttering, even after a thrilling 1-0 game between Frederick and Halfway ended with a close play at home plate.

Everyone in attendance had the same goal as Travis Jenkins, a power-hitting right-fielder for the Broadneck All-stars: "We want to play the kids from Tokyo."

But for Maryland teams, the road to the fabled Little League World Series -- held each year in Williamsport, Pa., and broadcast on national television -- must pass through this double-elimination tournament in Arbutus.

The winning team will go to Bristol, Conn., to play in the Eastern Regional championships. No Maryland team has ever won the World Series, and the last to make it there was a group from Brunswick in 1986.

"We want to be the first," said Brad Larson, the starting catcher for Arbutus. "I think we're good enough to beat any other team here."

Not that winning or losing was the most important thing yesterday. The top priority was drinking enough water -- with having a good time coming in a close second.

Many players also kept a bit of their attention on the snowball concession stand, hoping to be rewarded at the end of their games.

"There's one thing I tell all the kids and the parents," said Dick Miller, the district administrator for Central Maryland, who has been involved with Little League for 38 years. "If it's not fun, then it's not Little League."

With an innocent excitement that can't be found in major league baseball, the championships began with a parade of uniformed players marching across the neatly manicured baseball diamonds.

Halfway. Frederick. Arbutus. Broadneck. North East. Denton. Hughesville. West Salisbury.

Hung with pride nearby were flags marking every baseball championship won by an Arbutus team, going back to 1953.

As each player was introduced, he ran out to his position on the field and was joined moments later by his counterpart on the opposing team.

Then came the national anthem and a recitation of the Little League pledge by players, coaches and the crowd.

"I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose I will always do my best."

Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, was on hand to throw out the first pitch, though his initial effort was an embarrassing slip into the dirt at his feet. (He did manage to make two other successful throws to the starting catchers in the opening game.)

Finally, it was time to play ball. For the Little League championships, each league creates a team of its all-stars, so the play is far smoother than typical neighborhood games.

"Opening Day is always a thrill for everyone," said Debbie Everts, administrator of Little League's District 1, which includes Halfway and Hagerstown in Washington County. "Nobody is a loser yet, and everyone thinks they can make it all the way."

The state tournament resumes at Arbutus Middle this afternoon with four games and continues with games every evening this week until a champion is crowned Thursday or Friday night -- and almost all parents said they will be back for every game.

"We'll be here yelling for them," promised Elizabeth Conner, who's son, Chris, was the starting pitcher for Denton yesterday. "This is too important not to come and watch."

While a couple of players admitted to pre-game jitters, their parents and other fans were at times overwhelmed by nerves.

Jim Cholet paced quickly behind the Frederick dugout as his son, Michael, struggled to pitch the ball over the plate in the first inning against Halfway. And no one cheered louder when Michael managed to escape the jam while giving up just one run.

"I never got the chance to play Little League when I was his age, so this is my chance, too," said Jim Cholet, who made sure to wear the same shorts and T-shirt as when Michael last threw a one-hitter. "You don't want to live your entire life through your children, but once in a while, I think it's OK. This is one of those times."

In the meantime, on the other field, the team from Denton was working on a 5-2 upset of the defending state champions from Hughesville.

And cheering them on was former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, whose grandson, Andrew White, is the starting third baseman for Denton. As did many of the parents and grandparents from Denton, Hughes wore a T-shirt with his grandson's last name and number on it.

"We keep trying to get to the beach, but we won't get there as long as the team keeps winning," Hughes said. "I'm in it for the long haul."

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