Kids learn to play ball

`Small Ball' focuses on a winning team


April 14, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

In the spring of 1995, a handful of parents in Aptos, Calif., a small town south of San Francisco, entrusted their 5-year-old boys to the tutelage of a baseball coach named Dave Anderson. Seven years later, those kids had matured into one of America's finest Little League teams.

In a new PBS documentary, Small Ball: A Little League Story, (tonight at 8 on MPT), filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker do more than follow the Aptos All-Stars through their 2002 season, a nail-biting campaign that took them to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. They remind viewers of the national pastime's almost endless capacity to bring out the best in those who play it, teach it and treat it with respect.

That's a tall order for a 90-minute television film, but from its opening moments, the documentarians serve up the kind of details that make their movie as gripping as a big-league playoff match. A mom in a blue sweat shirt watches a game from a row of bleachers, her hands folded as if in prayer. When her cell phone suddenly rings, she becomes a reluctant announcer. "Somebody's on third," she says. "No outs."

When the "plink" of aluminum bat on ball rings out, though, the play-by-play comes to an end. "Honey, I really love you a lot," she tells the caller, "but this is not a good time. We just scored another run!"

In other words, only the game matters, and on that level, Alvarez and Kolker succeed, finding just the right details to share the beauty of a great American game. Anderson, a semiconductor salesman in his other life, and his assistant coach, former big league pitcher and onetime Oriole Mark Eichhorn (he had a 6-5 record in 1994), have a mellow, good-natured approach, but their knowledge never stops revealing itself. "Hands back, stay closed, line drives," says Anderson to a slumping hitter. "Smooth it out a little," Eichhorn tells Anderson's son, Kyle, a lefty pitcher. We see the players putting just such instruction into effect.

Managers from John McGraw through Joe Torre have always known that in baseball, the little things add up to the big wins, and Small Ball shows these 11- and 12-year-olds reflecting that wisdom as they pitch, field and bat their way through a succession of gut-wrenching tournaments. One boy after another saves a game with late-inning heroics that reflect what they've been taught.

But no two baseball teachers have the same methods, and the Aptos coaches speak with voices that are hard to forget. In his wraparound shades, Anderson is "California cool," sometimes the taskmaster, sometimes the friend. Eichhorn's goofy send ups of Popeye, Donald Duck and the Cowardly Lion deflate escalating tensions at just the right moments. As the season progresses, and as parents, coaches and players start to sense what they might achieve, it's plain as a line drive that these two are as good as it gets in youth coaching, communicating high expectations and nearly unconditional affection.

Each year, more than 7,000 teams play Little League ball worldwide; just eight make the World Series. When they started their project, the filmmakers could only guess that Aptos, a good team, might be one. But the real miracle of Small Ball might be the way it shows kids and grown-ups respecting and trusting each other, learning along the way that it's possible to achieve things neither ever imagined, in ways they could never have foretold. It's a great lesson for any season.

Small Ball

What: A Little League Story

When: tonight, 8 p.m.-9:30 p.m.

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

In brief: A timeless reminder of all that's good about baseball.

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