Monday, August 25, 2014
When it comes to the Little League World Series, the boys of summer are actual boys and girls. Over the years, this youth event’s exposure has evolved from a small paragraph in the sports section announcing the final results of the competition to a professionally produced televised sporting event on ESPN. Most people are well-aware of the league and its August competition in Williamsport, Pa. My brothers, who weren’t really into athletics, participated in Little League because that’s what boys did in the summer. My sons played baseball but never participated in Little League because our town didn’t have teams, much to the frustration of many families who viewed the league as prestigious. Last summer, our oldest grandson’s team won the honor to go to its regional but was eliminated in a tough final game. They came that close to going to the World Series – and you only get one chance. In two more summers, his little brother’s team will attempt to qualify. People see it as a significant badge of honor in the world of youth sports.
Lots of powerful stories have come from this year’s event. Mo’Ne Davis, a girl, mows them down from the pitcher’s mound. The first all-black team, Jackie Robinson West from Chicago, has come out of an urban initiative that Little League instituted to rejuvenate youth baseball in the inner cities of America. Having watched my grandson compete, I know how seriously kids take the sport and the opportunity to appear on a world stage. Such exposure brings great ego boosts, but public defeats bring great despair. Only one team will survive to win the trophy and they will leave 15 teams in their wake.
In my humble view, the most powerful story to come out of the tournament came from a loss. The Cumberland Americans from Rhode Island were defeated by Jackie Robinson West and with that defeat were eliminated from the competition. Any loss is tough, but for 11 to 13 year-olds, it can seem like the end of the world. Their limited life experience doesn’t give them the broad context to put the loss in perspective. They don’t see a future beyond the loss and they feel so personally culpable in creating it. Enter Coach Dave Belisle, who gathered his team after the defeat and gave a spontaneous speech that represents the character every coach should possess. I think the speech is so great I’m going to present it here in its entirety thanks to the Providence Journal. As you read it, consider if you could be so composed, positive and supportive in the face of a heartbreaking loss. Consider if you as a parent or a coach rise to the level established here.
“Heads up high. Heads up high. I’ve gotta see your eyes, guys. There’s no disappointment in your effort — in the whole tournament, the whole season. It’s been an incredible journey.
“We fought. Look at the score – 8-7, 12-10 in hits. We came to the last out. We didn’t quit. That’s us! Boys, that’s us!
“The only reason why I’ll probably end up shedding a tear is that this is the last time I’m going to coach you guys. But I’m going to bring back with me, the coaching staff is going to bring back, you guys are going to bring back that no one other team can provide – that’s pride. Pride.
“You’re going to take that for the rest of your lives, what you provided for the town of Cumberland. You had the whole place jumping, right? You had the whole state jumping. You had New England jumping. You had ESPN jumping. OK?
“You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don’t quit. They like guys who play the game the right way. If everyone would play baseball like the Cumberland Americans, this would be the greatest game.
“The lessons you guys have learned along the journey, you’re never going to forget. We’re going to have some more fun. We have two more days of fun. When you walk around this ballpark in the next couple of days, they’re going to look at you and say: “Hey, you guys were awesome!’
“Everybody has said: You guys are awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Absolutely awesome.
“It’s OK to cry, because we’re not going to play baseball together anymore. But we’re going to be friends forever. Friends forever. Our Little League careers have ended on the most positive note that could ever be. OK? Ever be.
“There’s only going to be one team that’s going to walk out of here as World Series champions. Only one. We got down to the nitty-gritty. We’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second. In the world! Right?
“So, we need to go see our parents, because they’re so proud of you. One more thing. I want a big hug. I want everyone to come in here for one big hug. One big hug, then we’re going to go celebrate. Then we’re going to go back home to a big parade.
“I love you guys. I’m gonna love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment in my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time – a looooong time. I’m getting to be an old man. I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.
“So, for the last time, we’re going to yell Americans: One, two three – Americans!”
“OK. Good job. Let’s go. Time to go.”
I can’t read this speech without misting up. As Matt Lauer said on the Today show, “Coach I know what you can do when the summer is over – open a school for coaches and parents.” I second that opinion. Youth sports, even when they end up at the highest competition, should always be about three things: Fun, sportsmanship and pride. It shouldn’t be about winning. Winning can happen and can be a goal, but only within the framework of those three elements. Pride shouldn’t come solely from a win but from games well-played, from even small improvements, from building friendships, and from doing one’s best representing the team, the family, and the community. A win is meaningless if it is gained at the expense of the self-respect of good sportsmanship. And a win that comes from anger, brow-beating, destruction of self-esteem, and blame ceases to be fun and ceases to be of significant value in the formative years of youth sports. A team can be competitive, can set high goals, can triumph and still retain fun, sportsmanship and pride. Coach Belisle’s speech shows how that’s possible. I’m in awe of the man. His off-the-cuff, heartfelt, and meaningful speech provides a standard each of us should try to achieve. He gave those kids a true unconquerable soul.