By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
After the practices came the reward. The boys on the pitcher's mound clustered around the coach, who was digging into a box. In the box were the jerseys, which were dark green with "Sharpstown All-Stars" printed across the front and the boys' names on the back.
Scott Gaskamp held up his jersey and said his name had been misspelled. The coach told him, "That's all right. You've got a new name."
Miguel Martinez said his jersey was too big. The coach told him, "Stick it in the washing machine on hot."
After the jerseys came the team picture. The boys stood in left field, shortest to tallest, everyone smiling, except for those who tried to look tough.
"All right," said the photographer, "on the count of two grand slam!"
"Grand slam!" they shouted.
After the picture came the All-Star team trophies, blue and gleaming, and the boys ran away happy with them, like looters in the night, as though they had gotten something for free. Chris St. Aubin said the trophies were twice as big as last year. Eddrick Gilmore called back, "We're going to win a bigger one!"
And then there were the games.
Bayland Park is a vast treeless plain, field after field separated by chain-link fences. Ken St. Aubin doesn't know the name of the field his team plays on ("George somebody I can't remember. Somebody who did a lot of work with Sharpstown Little League."). But he mows the field and has mowed it for years. When he noticed weeds on the infield, he told other parents to stay off and he'd show them what a real field looks like. He weeded every night after work for weeks. When he saw saint augustine snaking into the outfield, he got rid of that, too, knowing as he did that a true baseball field is sodded only in Bermuda.
"People come out here expecting everything to be right," said Coach Ken, "but a league is only as good as the people who participate."
George Somebody Field came to look like a big-league field, and Coach Ken has come to expect the best of those who play there. He picks his teams carefully and plays them year-round, and when the Little League season begins, his team usually wins the league championship. The reward is the holy grail of Little League coaches: the chance to coach the All-Star team, the league's very best players.
Rising to the occasion this year, Coach Ken had assembled the very best coaching staff:
Tommy Triche, an electrician who lived down the street. During the regular season, he had worked nights so he'd be free to serve as Coach Ken's assistant coach. "Once you get into sports," he said, "you pretty much got to be committed."
Joe Yglesias, the carpet distributor who lived across the street. Joe had played on the same field about 25 years earlier. He was the kind of player who often threw down his bat. "It mattered," he said.
Wayne Pesek, accountant, admired coaching rival and master pitching coach.
Moises Martinez, another coaching rival, whose team had come in second behind Coach Ken's this season. When his cell phone rang, the tune was "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
They would have two weeks of practice before entering the double-elimination tournament. Though the odds were long, Coach Ken was finding it hard once again to think about work. As a project manager at Texas Instruments, he sat through meetings about computer chips thinking only about baseball. He delegated a lot. He dreamed.
Victory, he thought, was just a matter of hard work.
"I guarantee," said Coach Ken, "if the kids had the same intensity as the coaches, they could go a long way."
He showed up in the old BMW dented from the foul balls of players past. On the first day of practice, he wore a Tshirt that read, "It's not how you start It's how you finish." As a coach, he was all business a thin man who spoke with his mouth closed, intense and concerned. His wife, Elizabeth, a smiling woman who works as a nurse in an elementary school, wanted to know what should be printed on the practice jerseys. "Sharpstown All-Stars," he suggested. "Eat. Drink. Sleep." But he didn't have time to think about it now, because there was so much to do.
Back in the late 1970s, when Greg Swindell was a player and Sharpstown was one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, the All-Stars used to win the district championship with regularity. But the suburbs have moved farther out, and with them, the families. This year's team of 14 All-Stars was chosen from a pool of only 48 regular-season players. Coach Ken had always tried to overcome with hard work. He once held practices twice a day, but that only taught that young arms are tender. In any case, 18 years had gone by since Sharpstown had won the district.
Ken began hitting grounders to the infield, Coach Tom whacked pop flies to the outfield, and Coach Wayne went to see what kind of stuff the pitchers were throwing. Coaches Joe and Moises performed their functions from the sidelines.