BRISTOL, Conn. – The Little League Eastern Regional Tournament offers benefits that range far beyond baseball.
The 12 teams – six vying for a New England championship and another six for Mid-Atlantic laurels – are housed in dormitory-style buildings at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Leadership and Training Center located on the east side of a one-time industrial center made famous by ESPN and its ever-expanding campus across town.
The youngsters play and practice together as all good baseball players do, but they also eat together, swim together and enjoy recreational activities together in their dorm rooms, adjacent courtyards and facilities. They are also drawn to the longstanding Little League tradition of pin trading. Most Little Leagues design cloisonné pins, some of them quite ornate, and the players swap them in the open-air pavilion between the dorms and the fields.
Winning obviously isn’t everything.
Under the Microscope
“It’s been great being with your team the whole week and playing baseball at the highest stage,” said Andover National’s dynamic shortstop Daniel Walsh. “It’s awesome. Our team goes for meals at the same time, we go to the swimming pool, we trade pins with other teams and watch the other teams play.”
Walsh, his coach Paul Finn and his 11 teammates are encountering the kind of media scrutiny generally reserved for their heroes at Fenway Park. Several news outlets are actively covering Andover and asking lots of questions. When the Fairfield (Conn.) American Little League plays, the parking lots are filled to capacity, cars line Mix Street, and reporters are everywhere.
It’s a far cry from those peaceful days of early spring when the teams of the Andover Little League play their regular season games at Deyermond Field.
As the environment intensifies, so does the will to win. A trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series approaches what Dorothy daydreamed about when she envisoned Emerald City. The Nationals are within reach so it’s no time to relax.
Coaching is Key
Finn and his coaches – John Kalantzakos and Charlie Ziegenbein – are tested by the ever-evolving nuances of the Little League game, with its re-entry rules, pitch-count limits and special pinch-runners, along with and the traditional challenge of scouting the opposition.
“Me and my coaching staff spend a lot of time talking about what our strategy is going to be for each game,” Finn said.
“I’ve got a phenomenal staff. I have two guys who over the last five days I’ve become very close with. What you don’t see is the 250 pitches of batting practice that they throw every day or the 150 ground balls they hit every day. They just work their tails off.”
Their efforts have paid off.
After Andover dropped a hard-fought (R.I.) American in Saturday’s opener, the (Vt.) Community Little League 17-1 on Monday and Tuesday morning.
The Nationals completed the preliminary round with a 5-2 loss to Goffstown, N.H., but still qualified for the single-elimination championship round where they will meet the New Hampshire squad again today.
Andrew Selima, the cleanup hitter who pitches, catches and plays some outfield, has been the team’s top run-producer with a .700 batting average, five walks and eight runs scored. Despite the enthusiastic crowds and the media scrutiny, anxiety is not an issue, even when he comes face to face with the potential tying run.
“I’m not nervous because I know I can get the next batter out,” Selima said confidently. “If somebody hit a home run, it wouldn’t really matter. I just go on to the next batter because [that moment] is gone and strike him out.”
Walsh’s defensive exploits supplement a .500 average (6-for-12). He has a penchant for hitting to the opposite field. His father Dave, the Nationals’ de facto hitting instructor, played at Eckerd College in Florida and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners.
Michael Reilly, a third baseman/outfielder when he’s not pitching, is 4-for-12 (.333) with a team-leading seven RBI, four from his grand slam against Barre. Sam Conte, a center fielder with pitching duties, has driven in six runs, three from his homer against the Vermont state champions.
Outfielder Dan Gemmell is 6-for-11 (.545). First baseman Connor Gillette and catcher Nathan Abbott have four hits each.
The team is batting .366 and has scored 27 runs while allowing just 13.
On the hill, Reilly is 1-1 with a 4.29 ERA having logged a team-high seven innings.
Their eyes are wide as they walk around the Giamatti complex, savoring their role as youthful heroes. Most of them will go on and play high school ball, some will probably play in college. Maybe, just maybe, one or two may have a shot at a professional contract.
But the bottom line is that not one of them will ever forget the week they spent vying for a berth in the Little League World Series, where the innocence and exuberance of youth will be remembered far longer than the pressure to win.