Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date/Time: Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Baseball is a peculiar sport.
Though nine players wearing identical jerseys trot on and off the field every inning, most games are predominately decided by one-on-one matchups – pitcher versus hitter, bat versus ball.
Legendary major leaguer Pete Rose put it this way: “Baseball is a team game, but nine men who reach their individual goals make a nice team."
On the surface, America’s pastime surely looks like a team sport. But practically, it appears to function more as an individual sport masquerading around the diamond as something it’s not.
While many at the professional level may support this hypothesis, the boys from this year’s Little League Baseball World Series couldn’t disagree more.
Jacob Bates couldn’t help but smile, his braces glinting in the midday sun, as he started to tell the story.
“That’s when it all started,” said the Great Lakes first baseman. “It’s really helped us build a strong bond.”
Bates and seven of his nine teammates have played together for half a decade. The other two — Zack Nicholas and Griffin McLarty — joined the La Grange, Ky., North Oldham All-Stars three and four years ago, respectively.
The rest have played together since they were seven or younger, some even as far back as T-Ball.
“Most of us have played together for half our lives,” said Great Lakes outfielder Jacob DuBroja. “By now, we definitely match each other’s qualities well.”
This fact is especially crucial for the Great Lakes little leaguers. In what most would call a curious decision, manager Brad Bates took only 10 players to the World Series. Other teams utilized as many as 14.
“We have a phrase around here, ‘Ten to Win’,” Bates said. “I think we picked the best 10 to compete and went from there.”
His approach, while certainly risky, is not without its benefits.
“We all get to focus on one or two positions and get really good at them,” said Jacob Bates. “Every player on the team has mastered at least one spot.”
DuBroja elaborated his teammate’s point.
“All of our pitchers and catchers have great chemistry,” he said, hesitating before adding with a laugh, “and plus, everybody gets to play more!”
While certainly true, the elder Bates admitted the potential pitfalls with his roster situation.
“We have to stay healthy, and we have to lift each other up when some of the guys are struggling,” he said. “Our lineup doesn’t have the luxury of subbing a guy out on a bad night.”
But Bates said that throughout the season, his team’s long history and off-field camaraderie has enabled them to make their difficulties as minor as possible.
“They’re just a bunch of brothers playing baseball together,” he said. “They absolutely love it.”
Apparently, long-time camaraderie is an international sentiment. Just ask the Mexico champions from the Seguro Social Little League in Mexicali, Mexico.
“We’ve grown up together,” said first baseman Hoswaldo Flores through interpreter Sergio Guzman. “Most of us have known each other since we were five or six.”
While Mexico’s approach is not identical to the Great Lakes squad, its continuity is the same. In fact, in many ways, it runs deeper.
Thirteen of the 14 Mexicali players have been part of the same league for nearly seven years. There is only one new face: Ulises Rodriguez, who joined the team this season.
“The key word with our team is balance,” said coach Hector Gonzalez through Guzman. “The entire team works perfectly as a unit. We have a lot of trust in them.”
Gonzales just became a coach this year, but said he’s known many of the players since they were young — especially Carlos Arellano, Kenet Delgado and Jorge Jacobo. He has known these three for the better part of the decade, since they were three or four years old.
“I played baseball together with their fathers about 10 years ago,” Gonzales said. “So I’ve known a few of our guys for a long, long time.”
But that’s not the only long-term connection with his team. Gonzales is also a physical education teacher at a local middle school. There, two of his players — Delgado and Victor Guzman — also happen to be two of his students.
With that being said, the little leaguers from Mexicali — who sit at 2-0, one win away from the International Championship game — do most of their bonding off the field. Going to a sleepover. Seeing a movie. Crashing a local pool, Sandlot style.
To call this collection of baseball players merely “teammates” would only scratch the surface.
“We’ve played together on All-Stars for all many years,” Arellano said. “That has helped in building trust in each other not just as teammates, but as friends.”
Flores said his team’s off-the-field relationships not only help make the unit more successful, but they also have more fun.
“I get to play with my friends,” he said with a smile of disbelief etched across his face.
Gonzales understands the importance of a proper balance between work and play is integral to his team’s performance.
“The fact that these kids know each other helps a lot,” he said. “They recognize their limits, capabilities and virtues as friends off the field, which helps them respect and work together on the field.”
Wednesday night, the Mexico region champions will put their coach’s hypothesis to the test. As they trot to their prospective positions – clad in their ever-recognizable red and green – the outcome will be uncertain.
What will not be, however, is how the boys from Mexicali, Mexico will play the game.
As classmates. As friends. And most importantly, as a team.