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."
Mustafa Muharib said he didn't like the number ten. The coach told him that was Roberto Clemente's number. The boy said, "Forget Roberto Clemente I'm Mustafa!"
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.
"Any horseplay, give me five laps!" shouted Coach Moises.
He held out his hand and said his name was pronounced like Moises Alou, and that he was from Puerto Rico, where kids are born with gloves on their hands. "We got an international team here, man," he said proudly. At third, there was his own son, Miguel. In left field, there was Gabe Veras from the Dominican Republic. Danny Pedroza was in right, and in center, that was Steven Venturi, the one who had just dropped the ball.
"He must be Puerto Rican," said Coach Joe, who's from Colombia.
"No," said Coach Moises. "I think he's Colombian."
Coach Moises picked out the stars of the All-Stars. At shortstop, you got Coach Tom's son Casey, the kind of player who dives for balls and rarely strikes out. Michael Foley at second was a good fielder and a strong hitter. "And this is me speaking," he said, "you got Miguel, my son," a power hitter.
And then, on another level, were Edgar Medrano and Mustafa Muharib. Nearly everyone on the team was 12 years old, but Edgar and Mustafa were nearly 13. Puberty had separated the men from the boys, and they were that most coveted of Little League player, what Coach Ken referred to as "the studs." They were both "big and lightning-quick," Coach Ken said, with the muscle tone of men and the early signs of whiskers. They could both "crush the ball."
When Coach Ken began to pitch batting practice that night, Mustafa stood elegantly on the left side of the plate, his feet wide apart, the bat high in the air. He snapped around: There was that sound of success. Heads turned to watch the ball as it traveled half again the 200 feet to the right-field fence.
A boy scurried off to try to find the ball; Mustafa loped around the bases. "Faster," someone said, but Mustafa smiled and answered, "I don't need speed."
Hitting was supposed to be the team's strong point, but no one else hit very well that night. Most of them were infielders, and though they were considered fast, they dropped ball after ball in the outfield. When Coach Ken called them in, he told them to pick up the equipment. A chorus arose of "Aw, man!" Everyone assumed he was talking to someone else, and no one collected the equipment. "What are you all doing?" Coach Ken asked finally. And Michael Foley's honest reply was, "kicking mud on each other."
It was time then for the first of Coach Ken's many lectures. ("He is rather long-winded," his wife confessed.) He told the boys to gather on the pitcher's mound, "out of earshot of these casual parents." The boys were told not to sit but to squat "because everything we do, we're going to do together."
"You gotta want it," he told them.
"You gotta hustle.
"If you don't work hard, you only hurt yourself.
"There are no acceptable excuses for anything."
And was there anything else?
"Cups," said Coach Tom. "Guys, you gotta wear cups."
Which caused the boys to wake up and grin and glance at one another, and a few even to grab their crotches and moan.
"You think it's a joke," Coach Tom went on, "but if you get hit, you're going to want to wear a cup for the rest of your life."
It is written on the back of the Little League rule book that "from the rank of youngsters who stand now on the morning side of the hill will come the leaders, the future strength and character of the nation."
That is, if the men on the evening side of the hill perform their civic responsibilities. Many are committed to this cause. One evening there was a pickup in right field, just beyond the fence. Moises said it was the coach who had tried to wrest control of the All-Star team away from Coach Ken. The coup failed, so the coach watched.
This kind of thing was always happening in Sharpstown Little League. Coach Joe said he resigned from the board of directors this year because of the politics. He recalled a squabble between a coach and an umpire that continued until there was a question from a player: "Will you all please leave so we can play?"
The games had not mattered when the boys were younger. The fans had laughed when an outfielder was caught picking flowers, or when a batter took the shortcut to third. But the boys were becoming men now. This was Little League the first level of baseball in which people really kept score and one of the last in which parents could be involved. From the board of directors down through the coaches and into the stands, the concern of every parent was for his child to do well. The result was that everyone was fighting everyone all the time, to win.
It was kind of ugly, kind of like life. In a way, it was another Little League lesson. Coach Ken has many such lessons, but the primary one goes like this: In life, you will have many opportunities. It might be a chance at a job. It might be a girl. At this moment it is the opportunity to win a baseball game. You must work hard and be prepared to fight, or life will pass you by.
Coach Joe was more direct: "We're here to kill. We're here to take care of business. I'm going to hit you ground balls until you're sick of them; I'm going to run you until you puke, but I'm going to teach you how to win."
The words finally printed on the practice jerseys were: "Sharpstown All-Stars Play it. Live it. Love it." Practice began every day with 75 deep knee bends, the better to crush the ball and to scoop up grounders. Coach Ken usually gave a short lecture from the mound, usually stressing "attitude, attitude, attitude." Then it was into the field for "drill, drill, drill."
"Okay, same situation," he would say. "Bases loaded, one out what are you going to do?"
He seemed worried about that. Boys are so unpredictable. They don't always do what you want them to, he said. All you can do is show them and hope that it sinks in.
Coach Ken prescribed repetition. For their refrigerators, he gave them a picture of Mark McGwire, praising the merits of "practice, practice, practice." In practice, he gave them ground balls and lectures, pop flies and lectures, batting practice and lectures. Sacrifice your body, he said. Two hands, he said. No excuses, he said.
Gradually, all of this began taking effect. The first sign was the day a foul ball came Coach Moises' way. When he flubbed it, Eddrick Gilmore shouted, "Two hands!"
"That's right," said Coach Ken, from the pitcher's mound. "Two hands."
But then it was Coach Ken's turn. Chasing a foul ball, he saw peripherally a bucket in his path. He slowed down, held out a glove and flubbed it.
"Two hands!" Eddrick piped up again.
"The bucket " Coach Ken began, but Eddrick cut him short: "No excuses! Take a lap!"
Coach Ken did not generally appreciate this sort of back talk. The players were divided between those who truly "hustled" and those who had an "attitude problem." No one hustled more than Edgar Medrano and Phillip Weiss. Phillip was the kid with goggles. Other boys said they didn't like him, because he threw too hard. Edgar wanted to play baseball in college and was determined to do well as an All-Star. He rode the bus to practice and often stayed afterward. "Come on, man hit me another one," he would say.
At the other end of the extreme were Ian Mosshart, who either scowled or laughed but rarely looked earnest, and Steven Venturi. Steven was the fastest player on the team, but he was always late. The coaches called him "Hollywood" and made him run laps.
Between these extremes was Mustafa, whose mood varied between arrogance and humility. Mustafa could throw the ball harder and hit it farther than anyone on the team. When he did these things well, he was proud, and when he didn't, he was quickly discouraged. The coaches spoke reverently to him, and he looked at them with eyes that drank.
Chris St. Aubin was the only ten-year-old on the team, and the only true "team player." His front teeth still looked brand-new. "Everyone's all fast," he said of his teammates. His father said, "I don't know what to do with you," and that was the definition of a team player someone who usually didn't play and didn't mind.
The boys would forget nearly everything they were told, Coach Moises said, but they would remember until they died what the coaches said about them. You have to be gentle, he said. There's nothing worse than those gymnastics parents, who steal a kid's youth away.
Just then, his son Miguel made a marvelous backhand play at third and shot the ball over to first. "Ooh, Brooks Robinson," said Coach Joe.
"Yeah," said Coach Moises proudly. "Just need to lose ten pounds."
They were supposed to practice in the rain you gotta want it but when the rain came, they didn't want it that badly. The fields were submerged. It was impossible. Three practices were rained out.
One of those days they stayed home, probably watching wrestling on television, according to Coach Tom. Another day Coach Ken took them to see baseball in the Astrodome (oh, what they could have done with a dome!). Another day their field was soggy but another field was not, and they watched the ten-year-old All-Star team play its first game. Coach Tom's son Corey was the shortstop. To the cries of "That's my boy!" the ten-year-olds went down 14-0.
Coach Ken tried to keep his players sharp. When he practiced them twice on Saturday, he brought them doughnuts in the morning "breakfast of champions," he called it. But no one played well that day.
Coach Ken kept showing up in his serious shirts "Work Hard. Play Hard." but his team had trouble living up to them. Phillip soon announced that he was off to Boy Scout camp. He wished the team well and said he hoped to rejoin it if Sharpstown was still playing when he returned. Coach Ken told Phillip to make a choice between Boy Scouts and Little League. It was a tough decision for an all-American kid, but he chose to miss the rest of practice for camp and to miss camp for the games.
That was okay with the coaches, but then Hollywood came forward and said he would have to miss the next evening's practice because he had heard about a party in First Colony. Hollywood was told that if he chose a party over practice, he could stay at that party.
In the outfield, Mustafa muffed another fly ball and another and another. He kept trying to catch them at his ankles. At third, another grounder went through Miguel's legs, and at short, Eddrick fielded the ball and came up throwing, without the ball. Everyone laughed, except Coach Ken.
It became clear that a mental illness had spread throughout the team. Baseball was a game of repetition, and the boys were tired of it. "I got on them and told them to get a new attitude," said Coach Ken. Also, he told them to take some laps.
He seemed to think it was the lecture that did the trick. In any case, Mu, as they called him, made a running catch one day and sent a Mu bullet to third, where Miguel was waiting for the tag. "Y'all got to get serious!" Mustafa shouted. "We got a game on Wednesday."
That was the day that everything was easy. Hollywood hit a home run over left field, Eddrick another over center, Michael Foley a couple of hard line drives. The coaches suddenly grew optimistic, their brows unfurrowed. "This is fun," said Hollywood. "This is the first time I've had fun at practice." Coach Ken didn't want to risk anything by letting the boys be interviewed by a reporter. "I don't want them to lose their focus," he said.
At last he gathered them for his final sermon on the mound. He didn't want them to get cocky, so he never told them how good he thought they were. Instead he told them:
Avoid mental errors. They're the worst kind.
Remember, the other team is not our friend. They're our enemies.
Don't argue with the ump. He might be our friend.
If you can't hit curves, don't swing at curves.
"Are we going to talk all day?" Danny Pedroza finally asked.
"Talking's boring," said Casey Triche.
"Talking's part of practice," said Coach Ken, and he kept talking.
Get plenty of rest. Drink lots of fluids. Don't forget your cup. Don't forget, said Coach Joe, to use what's in your cup.
Above all, said Coach Ken, repeating his shirt, play hard.
"Remember, the coaches would love to get out there, and I guarantee you, if the coaches were out there, we'd kick butt."
Ken, Tom, Moises, Wayne and Joe sat up late that night around Coach Joe's pool, drinking beer, eating pizza and talking Little League baseball. Coach Moises went on the record predicting this year's team would make it to the championship game. Coach Joe made some jokes about taking the boys to New York City if they won the World Series in Williamsport. Everyone was pretty excited, except Coach Ken, who said probably every one of the 18 teams in the district was sitting around like this, thinking they had a chance to do something.
The whole trick of coaching, said Coach Ken, "is to get your good players playing good at the same time." It was like starting an engine.
The next afternoon, the sky was clear, and in the sunshine, the Bermuda was a deep shade of green. Edgar arrived early to take batting practice. A younger boy asked, "Hey, Mu, you gonna hit one out today?" And Mustafa grinned.
The stands were filled with mamas and papas and brothers. On the first base side the dugout was adorned with green and white balloons, the third base side with red and white. The Bellaire Little League was twice the size of Sharpstown's. Coach Ken considered it an "uppity" league.
When he announced the starting lineup, Chris didn't seem to mind that he would be sitting on the bench, but Hollywood stared at his shoes. Over the intercom the announcer called out the names of the players, and each side stood on the first- and third-base lines, holding their hats over their hearts for the national anthem and Little League pledge: "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."
Coach Tom's fearless son, Casey, was the first batter. He stepped to the plate, promptly hit a single, and the Sharpstown bleachers began cheering and even blowing a horn. After Casey, Michael Foley walked, and after Michael, Edgar walked, too. And then with bases quickly loaded, it was Mustafa's turn.
Coach Ken stood with his arms folded in the third-base coaching box. The Bellaire coach called a time-out to confer with the pitcher, a tall, lean boy. The first pitch came inside, for a ball. The second floated right down the middle. "Steerike!" the ump emphatically said. Coach Moises called out, "Make him pay for that!" And the next pitch Mustafa hit hard, for a foul ball. The pitch after that was high, but Mustafa swung anyway. With the bases loaded, he became the first on his team to strike out.
The batters behind him were quickly retired. Three men were left stranded on base.
But Casey was pitching for Sharpstown, and the other side was no luckier. In the third inning, Miguel and Eddrick made two fine plays, prompting Coach Joe to say, "We're going to win this game." About that time Mustafa stepped to the plate again, and again he struck out.
Mustafa returned to the dugout more slowly than he had left it and quietly took off his helmet.
The game went on for four scoreless innings before Josh Kahanek, the small, substitute right fielder of whom nothing was expected, rapped a double down the right-field line. It was the unheralded first baseman, Scott Gaskamp, who got the hit that drove Josh in.
Scott and Josh were heroes! Sharpstown had the lead.
And just as suddenly, it fell behind. With two down in the fourth, Hollywood in center field dropped a fly ball. Casey hadn't expected that; he gave up a rare walk. With men on first and third, Miguel, fielding a routine grounder, committed an awful mental blunder. Instead of throwing to first for the quick out, he overthrew to second. The ball traveled into the outfield. Two runs scored.
Hollywood and Miguel were the antiheroes. Sharpstown was behind.
By the last inning, the gap had increased to 5-3. Coach Ken, who is known for never surrendering, exhorted his team to "get focused." There were two outs, and Scott Gaskamp was on first when Casey walked. Bellaire brought in its 12-year-old star pitcher, Michael Johnson. With a full count, Michael Foley hit a single to right field.
Again, the bases were loaded when Edgar Medrano walked forward with his .577 batting average. "Come on, Edgar!" Mustafa said.
Edgar hunched over the plate like Pete Rose. When the pitch came, Edgar swung, and he connected. He connected with just enough of the ball to return it slowly to the pitcher, who took his time making the play.
"Final score," the announcer blared, "Bellaire 5, Sharpstown 3."
After the game, the mood of the players was, "We're the Sharpstown All-Stars how could this happen to us?" And among the coaches, the feeling was, "We're the Sharpstown All-Stars it's happening again."
The next evening, the sun was setting when the players took the field. Sharpstown's foe this time was West University Place. Coach Wayne had said, "When you start walking batters in an All-Star game, you're in a world of hurt." Gabriel Veras started walking batters. Before the first inning was done, Sharpstown was down four to nothing.
By their last at bat, the team still had not recovered. After striking out a third time, Mustafa spent most of the game on the bench. Casey, who had struck out only three times the entire season, struck out a fourth against West U. He sat on the bench and leaned forward with his face in his hands. "Suck it up, Casey," said Coach Wayne. "Suck it up."
Michael Foley struck out, too, and then there was only Eddrick, and Eddrick's mother was in the bleachers waving her hands and shouting, "Come on, baby! Come on!"
And there came the pitch, sweet and soft and over his head. Eddrick swung with all of his strength. The power of his swing twisted him around so that he looked like Babe Ruth in the old photos. Except that he was not watching the ball sail away. He was gazing at the sky. It was a clear night sky, and he would probably never forget it.
"Good game," someone said. And Mustafa answered darkly, "No, it wasn't. No, it wasn't!"
They bid farewell in right field, slumped and wounded in the grass, Casey with his thousand-yard stare, Josh in tears.
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Coach Tom told them they had made too many mental errors. "You 11-year-olds remember this," he said.
Coach Joe said this was just a small moment in their lives and tomorrow they would be swimming again and going to AstroWorld. And he was proud of them for trying.
"Everyone come closer," said Coach Ken, and they crawled closer, and he told them they had made too many mistakes. They had dropped balls they should have caught and had missed balls they should have hit. Opportunities had passed them by, but he hoped they had learned their lesson. Most of them would not be returning to Little League, but if they ever needed a friend, they should give him a call.
"Otherwise," said Coach Ken, "maybe I'll see you around the parking lot."