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 > Little League Online > Media > Little League News Archive > 2006 > It’s International Little League Opening Day: Ceremony in Harlem Kicks Off Regular Season

It’s International Little League Opening Day: Ceremony in Harlem Kicks Off Regular Season

Editor’s note: This story, written by Mark Newman, is courtesy of MLB.com. It refers to the inaugural International Little League Opening Day, held at New York City’s Harlem Little League, on April 7, 2006. The event was followed by a luncheon at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK (April 7, 2006) – It was Little League Opening Day, and 6-year-old Noah Brown couldn’t stop laughing.

Brian Cashman, the general manager of another local baseball team called the New York Yankees, was squatting in front of the boy and autographing his Harlem Little League jersey on the chest while the boy was wearing it. That tickled, so Cashman suddenly began tickling him all over his chest and under his arms – nothing but laughter, much to the amusement of parents and players standing there in the outfield of Marcus Garvey Park on an historic Friday morning.

The faces of two Harlem Little League players show the pre-game anticipation that comes with the first game of the season.

Little Noah then left Mr. Cashman and ran over to warm up with some of his little teammates. Five minutes later, the boy returned to the very same spot.

It was International Little League Opening Day, and 6-year-old Noah Brown couldn’t stop crying.

“What’s the matter, baby?” Mrs. Flo Brown asked her son as he hugged against her.

“They told me . . . I wasn’t going to . . . catch a ball today!” he said between sobs.

Welcome to the place where the dream begins. Between that first day of Little League Baseball and your eventual induction one summer into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, there will be highs and lows, hits and misses, diving catches and errors, laughter and tears. And 2.7 million boys and girls would not trade the opportunity for the world, starting with the group that was playing Tee Ball right here.

A close play at first highlighted
the Opening Day game.

The 68th season is under way for Little Leaguers, and this was the first time that the organization began it with the official International Opening Day Celebration. Mr. Cashman was just one of many celebrities in attendance, joining Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, emcee Harold Reynolds from ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Ron Darling, Jim Leyritz and a long line of representatives from corporate sponsors such as Subway restaurants spokesman Jared Fogle, a former Little Leaguer.

“This is baseball at its most pristine, where it’s about kids and just wanting to play the game,” Mr. Cashman said. “But there are so many similarities to what we deal with every day at the Major League level. The message to reinforce to these kids is no different than the one that (Yankees manager) Joe Torre gave our team at Day 1 of Spring Training. It’s about being true to your team and your fans, being at a certain place at a certain time, being accountable to a coach and your fellow players – the same lessons. And have fun. You can’t accomplish anything unless you have fun doing it.”

Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball and Softball, welcomed the players, parents and guests – and a new season that will end as always among the best and the brightest at the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Major League Baseball figures join Little League President and Chief Executive Officer Stephen D. Keener, at the plate. From left: New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, former New York Yankee Jim Leyritz, former New York Yankee Rich “Goose” Gossage, former New York Met Ron Darling, and Mr. Keener.

“Most people are familiar with the conclusion of the Little League season in Williamsport, but we’ve never had an event to kick off the season,” Mr. Keener said. “Little League is the largest organized youth sports program in the world, and this Opening Day celebration was created specifically to honor all 2.7 million participants in Little League, our everyday players, and the volunteers who support them.”

Part of the mission of this particular event was to help drive generosity to send baseball equipment to Little Leagues on the Gulf Coast that were, in some cases, rained out of existence by the 2005 hurricanes. Collection boxes for new and gently-used equipment were set up at the field, and contributions also can be made at www.pitchinforbaseball.org.

“Many kids lost everything they own,” Mr. Keener said. “There are varying degrees of problems down there. Some in the $5,000-$10,000 range, where a dugout or two needs to be fixed, and others where there were many thousands of dollars in damage. We can help with that by driving for equipment help in this way. Most people would understand the emotional attachment, of kids missing a season.”

Calvin Johnston, the chief executive officer of Russell Athletic Corp., is interviewed by New York 1 before the game.

David Rhode is the founder of “Pitch in for Baseball,” an organization he started last summer to help baseball programs in need around the world. His group just shipped equipment to the Ocean Springs and D’Iberville Little Leagues in Biloxi, Miss., and many barrels with more gloves, catcher’s gear, bats and helmets were on the way Friday to destinations affected by the hurricanes, and elsewhere. One bulk shipment had to be shipped overnight to make it for a first game.

“I sold a business two years ago, turned 40, and realized I wanted to make my mark,” Mr. Rhode said. “Do something to make a difference. It felt like the right thing. Sports provides so many of life’s lessons. It’s learning how to deal with adversity, how to get along with others. It’s so gratifying because kids need this stuff so badly.”

Harlem Little League players
cheer for their team.

They needed this “stuff” badly in Harlem back in 1988, and that is where Dwight and Iris Raiford came in. They founded the Harlem Little League back then, and in 2002 that organization won the Mid-Atlantic regional and played in the Little League Baseball World Series – an unbelievable grassroots story.

“We’re just happy to be chosen to be a host here,” Mr. Raiford said, greeting guests as they arrived Friday morning. “We’re proud that the symbolic opening of the 2006 Little League season will be on our field. And to be able to send some equipment to leagues that need it most is so important. We’re also grateful for our league’s sponsors, and for Little League’s national sponsors, who help keep costs to parents down. Without sponsors, our league and Little League itself could not hope to provide the same level of service to the community.”

Companies that sponsored International Little League Opening Day included: Ace Hardware, The Active Network, Bank of America, Bryant Heating and Cooling Systems, Choice Hotels International, ESPN, American Honda Motor Company, New Era Caps, RE/MAX Real Estate, Russell Athletic, SNICKERS Brand, Subway, Sunkist Growers and Wilson Sporting Goods.

Part of the fun in being a Little Leaguer is being with your friends in the dugout while you wait for your turn at bat.

Mr. Keener said he hopes that the International Opening Day Celebration will become an annual event, and it is possible that it will be rotated to other host cities. In the meantime, they were soaking in that pristine baseball scene on Friday. It was time to teach them to throw to the right base, to run the bases counterclockwise, and to just have fun watching the little dude who rounded third and headed for...the adjacent dugout.

“It’s not about winning or losing,” said Mr. Gossage, one of those teaching all of those basics. “The memories I have of Little League are just as important to me as playing in the World Series. The no-hitter I pitched in a Little League championship game was an unbelievable experience for me.

“It doesn’t get any better than this . . . Every life lesson itself is out here on the baseball field – teamwork, how to persevere, the highs and lows, the fact that life is not a bed of roses.”

Noah Brown already was learning that. Flo Brown consoled her son the way Little League moms so often do. “You’re going to make the catch of the day,” she told him. And she added, of course, “There's no crying in baseball.”

You might have been a Little Leaguer yourself, and you gotta love ’em. Now their season is officially under way. Next stop, Williamsport.

David Rhode of Pitch in for Baseball explains the need for baseball and softball equipment for Little Leagues in the U.S. Gulf region.

Representatives of the Little League family of sponsors who supported the International Little League Opening Day were introduced on each of the sidelines.

Harlem Little League co-founders Dwight and Iris Raiford are interviewed on television before the game. Mr. Raiford is the former chairman of the board of the Little League International Board of Directors, and remains a member of the board. Mrs. Raiford is a member of the Little League Foundation Board of Trustees.

Ron Darling, former pitcher for the New York Mets, shows a young Harlem Little Leaguer some pointers. Mr. Darling is now one of the announcers for SportsNet New York.

The crowd for International Little League Opening Day in Harlem sang “Take me Out to the Ballgame,” and cheered for both teams.

Rich “Goose” Gossage (right) and Ron Darling
acted as coaches for the two teams.

Jim Leyritz watches as a Harlem Little League player drives the ball off the tee.

Omar Minaya, general manager for the New York Mets, addresses the attendees during the post-game luncheon at “Play by Play” in Madison Square Garden.

Longtime Little League friend Harold Reynolds was the master of ceremonies for both the Opening Day Game, and the post-game luncheon. Mr. Reynolds, a former Major Leaguer, is an analyst for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, and has been providing commentary during the Little League Baseball World Series for ESPN and ABC for several years. Information on Harold’s video series, “Harold Reynolds Presents Baseball,” can be found here.