Hey There, Stranger!
Winning and fun go hand-in-hand for Canada
Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Tall Pat. Yankee Pat. Fancy Pants Frank. This might sound like a group of birthday clowns or perhaps some obscure minor league mascots, but these nicknames simply belong to the men who coach the Canadian Little Leaguers at this year's Little League Baseball World Series.
And these coaches are just fine with that.
"These kids are very competitive, so all we have to do is get them to relax," said manager (Yankee) Pat Chaba. "If we take all the tension away, that elevates their game to the level they're capable of playing at."
The tactics employed by Canada's coaches are unorthodox, to say the least. Many coaches would cringe at the sights and sounds observed in and around the team's dugout. But then again, few teams can lay claim to the perfect 21-0 record that the All-Stars from Little Mountain Little League in Vancouver, British Columbia have compiled on their way to South Williamsport.
The nicknames are only a small fraction of the goofy environment that envelops the team from Little Mountain. Coach Frank Soper can hardly contain his excitement when describing all the fun rituals that the players will likely remember the rest of their lives.
From the goose that starts rallies by becoming less of a goose, to the socks that have rounded the bases plenty of times but still haven't come within 60 feet of a washing machine, here is a list of some of the traditions on which the team prides itself:
- The fancy pants: The "fancy pants" found their origins as the ugliest pants Coach Soper could find in Value Village. He wore them under one condition—that his players would smile when they went up to the plate. To his credit, though the pants have changed every game, they are still incredibly ugly.
- The stinky socks: The stinky socks didn't begin as stinky socks, but as long as Little Mountain kept winning, the more convinced Lucas Soper was that they could not be washed. Under any circumstance. Even after a local firefighter gave the younger Soper a bag normally reserved for hazardous materials in which to store the stinky socks.
"I didn't realize it until about eight games into our win streak," said the older Soper. "Lucas took his shoes off, and the smell just absolutely ravaged our dugout after the game."
Now the stinky socks are used to encourage the players to have fun—in a very unique manner, of course.
"Each of those kids that doesn't smile every at-bat down to third base gets the sock smashed in their face," said Coach Soper. "On the other side, if every kid smiles every at-bat, one of the coaches takes the sock in the face."
The players took the pleasure of fulfilling this agreement Saturday afternoon during their press conference following their victory over Panama, drowning Manager Chaba in the putrid odor, which grew to fill the entire room.
- The rally goose: By no means is the Little Mountain rally goose a traditional rally species. As Little Mountain approached the Canadian national tournament, Coach Soper felt the team was in need of a mascot. Much to his delight, he found one as soon as he stepped inside a local store in Ancaster, Ontario, where the tournament was being played.
"I saw this huge Canadian goose, and it looked like it was made out of white maple," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, we're a Canadian team, we want to win the Canadians and [go] to Williamsport…so what better thing than this Canadian goose made of white maple?'"
Though Soper's logic was impeccable, the rally goose's first moments of mascot-dom were less than flattering.
"The first two batters come up, and they got two quick outs," said Soper. Of course, this is when antsy Manager Chaba went to pull the lineup card out from under the rally goose to see if anything had changed since the game started.
The rally goose would have none of that type of behavior, promptly falling to the ground and correcting the error of Chaba's anxious ways. A piece of the goose broke off, and the next batter immediately ripped a double off the outfield wall, starting a rally that by itself would be enough to defeat their first-round opponent.
"What we didn't know is that in—I think—Australia or New Zealand, in cricket, there's a phrase, 'Break the duck,'" Soper said with a straight face. "What happened was when we broke the duck, we actually scored runs. So ever since that moment, every inning we play that we don't score a run, we break a piece off of that goose."
Is it a stretch? Yes. Does it matter? Not at all. Why? Because the team is having fun.
- Pre-game pushups: Most teams have a pre-game routine, but pushups are not usually a part of it. Understandably, few coaches could think of a reason for players to exert unneeded energy right before a game. That's why Coach Soper puts the kids on his back and does the pushups himself.
"Before games, when we do our infield/outfield practice, I typically do the infield," said Soper. "The kids start out pretty far back, and we do grounders, every time we get a round in they start coming in closer and closer. So we end up getting four or five in. If a kid can field every one perfectly, I go on the ground, the kid stands on me, and I do pushups while they're standing on my back."
Necessary? Maybe not. But…
"It's another little thing to keep the kids loose," said Soper.
- Pre-game charades: Many coaches value the other team's pre-game practice. It is perhaps a sacred time where a coach is able to gauge the mood of the other team, and in a case where he has never seen the other team play before, learn of its greatest defensive threats.
Players may also use this time for the same purposes. Many coaches will even accuse their players of not caring enough if they don't stand out in front of the dugout and pay careful attention during this time.
Sounds like a good idea. It's just not what the Little Mountain All-Stars do.
"What we do is when the other team takes the field, we actually don't face the field, we go to some other area, and we do charades," explains Soper.
Is nothing sacred?
- Pre-game speech: A time-honored tradition surely honored by Soper and his staff.
"We have a very, very brief, 20-second talk."
Short and sweet, eh?
"We don't even talk about the game. We just chat about what we did that day, breakfast, or something."
Short, sweet, and to the point.
By this time, the Little Mountain All-Stars are clearly ready to play, relaxed and ready to smile every time up to the plate. Throughout the game, kids are encouraged to—well, be kids. Sing, dance, laugh, and play all they want, but most importantly, smile.
Things were not always this way, though. The fancy pants tradition started three years ago when the mood was altogether different at the team's games.
"With the same group of kids, give or take a couple of them, we were playing in the provincials for [that age group]," said Soper. "Our team was a very good team, but we were 0-3."
With no more losses to spare before elimination, Soper saw frustration in his coaches' faces and stress in his players'.
"I took a step back and looked and said 'You know what? This isn't how Little League Baseball is supposed to be. These kids are good ballplayers, and their nerves are getting to them.'"
Having studied sports psychology as part of his education in kinesiology, Soper decided to work on a different approach in coaching his kids. His first order of business was to visit the wonderfully inexpensive clothing store known as Value Village.
"I found the ugliest pair of pants I could find," said Soper.
When he walked into the dugout at the team's ensuing elimination game wearing these pants, the team burst into uncontainable laughter. When he could finally recapture the kids' attention, Soper made a deal that changed the team forever.
"I said to the kids, 'OK guys, I'm going to coach third base in these things. I'm going to take all the heat, all the humiliation. You guys have to promise me you're going to smile every time you go to the plate.'"
Then he threw in the kicker.
"If you guys win this game, tomorrow I'll come in a different pair of pants."
The team won their next five games, and Soper has been Fancy Pants Frank ever since.
The tradition has grown to a full-blown pre-game chant ("Frank's pants! Frank's pants!") that was on display Saturday afternoon at Volunteer Stadium, when Tall Pat and Yankee Pat partook in the pants saga, too.
The World Series dress code required that the coaches remove the pants before beginning Saturday's game (thankfully, they were wearing regular khaki slacks underneath), but the kids were still smiling throughout the entire game. (Soper, Chaba, and Reynolds would actually dispute that their pants, ugly as they may be, are outside the bounds of the dress code, but they conceded the matter for Saturday's game.)
The difference was evident between the two teams on the field Saturday, but this phenomenon is not new to the coaches from Canada.
"At this level, they're all good ballplayers," said Soper. "The difference is what the Panama coach said yesterday, 'Our kids were nervous.' The same thing happened in the Canadian championship. That coach said, 'Our kids were nervous.'"
Soper cited the example of Braves outfielder Rick Ankiel as a professional who failed to reach his potential as a pitcher, his original position, because of "nervous reactions", as Soper called it.
"If you can't get over the nerves, you're bound to fail."
Despite all their craziness before the game, Soper knows his kids are still not immune to nervous reactions during it. As Panama mounted a comeback in the final inning of Saturday's game, Soper regretted not calling his team together early in the inning and telling a joke.
"Nine times out ten, when I go to the mound, I say nothing about what they have to do. They know what they have to do," explained Soper. "What they need to do is relax. Ninety-nine percent of the coaches out there, when they give them their analysis, tell them what they have to do and how to do it, are building more anxiety."
He has also observed coaches who will remove players from the game or their current position after a single mistake. Soper can barely handle the sight.
"Perfection or punishment only increases the pressure," he said.
Other teams are starting to catch on, though.
"At the end of the [Canadian national] tournament, you know what they were telling their kids to do?," asked Soper. "Smile."
Smiling wasn't all the other teams were doing, as one team even busted out a whiteboard on which insulting messages would be directed toward one of the coaches—on their own team.
"It's something dumb, but it's a relaxing phrase that eased their tension," said Soper.
This kind of atmosphere has earned the Canadian team fans from around the world. On the wall between the coaches' and the players' rooms in the International Grove at the Little League World Series are posted letters from admirers as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.
"They are not congratulating us on our win. They are simply saying, "Congratulations on taking this game and having fun with it.'"
The simple mantra to live by, as Soper repeated over and over:
"Make it F-U-N."
Well, easy for Fancy Pants Frank to say.