Feschuk: Little angels in the outfield

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

The little league Canadian Intermediate Championship for 13-year-olds was held recently in Saint John, N.B. Few will soon forget the tournament’s most shocking revelation: Some kids actually still play baseball.

In fact, teams representing six provinces showed up for a full week of hitting balls, snagging flies and making sure no else staying at their hotel ever got a chance to use the pool.

Although the winner would advance to the prestigious Little League Intermediate World Series in California, the Canadian finals were charmingly rough around the edges. The outfield fence leaned sharply away from the field and was falling apart in places.
The games were streamed over the Internet, but one night the announcer simply gave up because it was late and he wanted to go home. Old-timers hung around all week, sharing baseball wisdom in over-loud voices.

“A walk hurts a pitcher more than a hit,” one said to no one in particular.

“That’s stupid,” came the reply.

Several minutes of hostile silence ensued.

Late in the week, a round-robin game was delayed by fog, giving locals an opportunity to tell all their fascinating stories about clouds of water droplets. I like to think I did a passable job of pretending to be interested. “Really, it sometimes gets EVEN THICKER??”

At one point, a coach grabbed a bat and sent a couple of players into the field to determine if it was possible to track a fly ball. He made the kids wear batting helmets. This in itself seemed a fairly persuasive sign they should postpone the game. Kid, we’re playing a sport that depends entirely on your ability to see the ball. Now put this thing on your head because you can’t see the ball.

The Little League people decided to keep playing anyway. It’s like the old saying goes: We’re coming up on midnight, the fog keeps getting thicker, the fielders can’t see, it’s starting to rain and everyone is miserable—let’s play two!

My son Will was a member of Team Ontario, which was the talk of the tournament because its roster included the only three girls in the championship. Dozens and dozens of teenage boys and three teenage girls—there hasn’t been this much awkward flirting since every Hugh Grant movie. The dynamic changed a bit when one of the girls, Chloe, knocked a pitch well over the 250-foot sign in straightaway centre. As a kid on the opposing club put it to a teammate: “She kinda scares me.”

Despite the high stakes, there was a real sense of camaraderie, with kids from east and west cheering on their rivals in the skills competition and joining together in critical pursuits, such as determining whether Chloe is on Instagram. Team Ontario didn’t make the final, but the players left with a sense of accomplishment and, because this is baseball and there is an almost limitless amount of standing around, some of humanity’s most intricate and lengthy personalized handshakes.

My favourite recurring image from the week was pitcher and catcher talking on the mound, gloves held over their mouths just like the major-leaguers do it. Because surely those volunteer coaches in the other dugout have retained lip readers to gain an edge by figuring out if the pitcher is going to throw a fastball or, the other option, a slightly less-fast ball.

For most of these kids, the national finals are as close as they’ll get to the sporting big time. They heard their names over the loudspeaker. Little children pestered them to autograph baseballs. Some players were even interviewed by the local press.

I, for one, was dismayed when Will muffed his chance to make use of the athletic clichés he’s been hearing all his life. “But she was just asking what we thought of Saint John,” he said. I wasn’t deterred. “You could have said you were taking it one neighbourhood at a time.”

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