The long and often harsh Winter in the middle of the country, in Iowa specifically, was coming to an end again. That year, like many years before that one, was particularly cold, snowy, and at times bleak of warmth or sunshine. When the winter started to fade in late March, and there were a few good days in a row, it again came time to play baseball. This is a story, mostly true, but with a little literary embellishment. A story about a season that started on a cold day in late March with a first practice and ended in early July in the hot sun of summer. It is a story about a group of boys playing their last season of little league baseball, and for them and for many of their parents it was the last dance of their youth baseball years. It was for most of them, the last season they would put on a baseball uniform and play the game they had been playing since they were very young. Many of them, but not all of them, had played together for eight or more years. They were not always on the same team, but even when they played against each other, they were still friends. They were then, and in many ways today are connected by the game, and the times they enjoyed together. The last season, the last dance, was just three years ago. Though today, looking back at it in memory, it seems much longer than three years. Since that season, this group of boys have become men, and they have moved on from their high school years to go into jobs, or colleges, or will graduate from high school this year. Sadly, we lost one of the team in a car accident. The word sadness doesn’t come close to describing the depth of that loss. However, in the memory of that season, which more than one of the ballplayers has told me was the “best season ever”, he is with us forever.
This story is based on my personal memories of that special season. However, I encourage the team, or their parents, to add their own memories and stories. You can do this by adding comments here, or by sending them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include them by editing and adding onto the story. I’ve also pulled copies of many of the photos here from the facebook pages of the players. If any of you want me to remove any of these photos, or if you have ones you want included, please let me know. Although I’m writing this story, it doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to you, and you get to decide what get’s included. If I make any mistakes, then you can correct me.
The lineup in alphabetical order – Adam, Brandon, Connor, Dalton, Joe, Kip, Luke, Matt, Mike, and Thomas. They were also known for that season as K No De, Double B, Con Man, Bubba, Jose, Kipster, Fishbones, Flash, Robes, and T Train.
My good friend, Jim Riesterer, and me got together in January 2011 and agreed that we wanted to coach our sons in their last season of little league baseball. Jim and I had coached the previous season together and enjoyed doing it. We shared a common philosophy – let the boys play and have fun. This final season was my eighth and last as a coach, and Jim had coached both baseball and his daughter’s softball teams for at least that many. Looking back now, Jim and I were not so much coaches as we were zookeepers. Our main goal game to game was to let the animals run loose, but not totally out of control. The first decision was what team name to pick. The year before we were the Cubs, because that was Jose’s choice, but this year it was Robes turn to choose, and being well raised in tradition by his dad, he went with the Giants.
It was cold and wintry day that early Spring for our first game, and there were not many chances to have a practice before the season started. Some of the boys wanted to practice, but an even larger group shared Jose’s opinion. ”We don’t need no stinking practice, let’s play”, He said more than once. The first game day came soon enough, and that Saturday, they “warmed up” for a few minutes and then stood together on the big field at Doanes Park in Pleasant Hill (PH), Iowa. The boys spent more time in the dugout with a box of donuts I brought from the store, than they did warming up. I’m sure we played the other PH team that day, but don’t remember the scores or who won. I don’t remember any scores from the season, or the team’s actual won/loss record, but I know we usually won games, and when we lost one we still had fun.
Most of the individual games are now distant and vague memories. I do have a recollection of a double header we played in Dallas Center, where after winning the first game, the boys seemed to get bored and fell behind by about ten runs. And then all of sudden, something happened, and as it was often with them, it became contagious. Hitter after hitter came up and knocked the ball all over the place, at least four hit balls to the fence and we scored enough runs to have the winning runs on base. Someone, it may have been Mike; hit a rocket that found its way right into a glove, and the game was over. The reaction on the bench was nearly unanimous, everyone said, “Let’s eat.”
There were several things about that season that stand out in my memory. First, there was constant laughter. Yes, the boys played ball hard and played to win, but they had fun doing it, and were almost always laughing together and teasing each other. There were often loud, on occasion obnoxious and irreverent, but they understood this was their last season and they were going to enjoy it. Mostly, as coaches, Jim and I tried to stay out of their way, and we laughed a lot too. They would sometimes randomly change positions; they would often ignore our signs when running or batting and do whatever came into their minds. They asked more often to get out of the game for a seat on the bench than begging to get into the game. They didn’t trash talk the other team, but trash talked each other almost all the time, and learned to take it as well as they gave it.
It wasn’t like they didn’t know how to play the game well, because they did. There were many games and many plays where we as coaches sat on the bench and wondered how did they just go from goofing off to making that double play? They would flip balls out of their gloves, make diving catches, and unbelievable digs, tags, and stretches for outs. I remember a day versus SE Polk where Mike hit at least three balls off the outfield fences but none of them got out, and other days when Matt and Connor hit balls well over the fences. Those two not only got hits more often than not, but ran the bases with abandon. One time, an opposing player had the ball in his glove, all ready to tag Matt out, and then stood there unbelieving as Matt jumped about three feet in the air over the glove and landed on his feet safe at third. The pitching that season was deep, varied, and very effective: Matt throwing very few pitches and getting almost nothing but outs, Dalton and Connor not giving up an earned run all year, Adam was throwing rockets, and Thomas had his wicked curve ball.
There was one Saturday, one doubleheader, that defined that season. We were in Urbandale on a beautiful Saturday in May, their ball park always looked good, and the PH boys mostly had a long history of going there for games that turned into heart breaking losses. There were no losses that day, the boys hit everything and everybody Urbandale threw at them. They made all the plays, made all the pitches, and won both games easily. And after many years of going there and going home beaten, they left there that day with smiles and victories. They did it with class, but they also did it with lots of fun and laughter. And most importantly, they did it with dancing in the infield. Yes, they danced on a baseball field, doing a little shuffle step, heal-toe, heal-toe, keep moving up and down a line.
I’ve watched many baseball games in the last fifty years, but I’ve never enjoyed one as much as I enjoyed that day in May three years ago. There are thousands of youth baseball teams getting ready to play this season all over the country, but personally I doubt there is any team anywhere that is ready to have as much fun and joy playing as the 2011 PH Giants did for their last dance. The boys are all grown now, moving along their individual paths and finding their own way to wherever they are going. My hope for them is that every one of them gets many more opportunities to again experience the happiness and joy they shared with each other when they played, laughed, joked, teased each other, and even danced during one season of baseball.
Where are they now? Mike is a freshman at Drake University and working spring and summer as a baseball umpire. Joe is working in Des Moines and doing some modeling work as well. Luke will graduate from East High in May, and he just qualified for a national bowling tournament in New York. Brandon is living and working in Mississippi. Matt is working in the Des Moines area. Adam is working as a carpet tech/installer in the Des Moines area and is married with a child. Connor is working in the Des Moines area and studying at DMACC. Thomas is working in the Des Moines area. Dalton is working in the Des Moines area.
More Photos – The credit for the very good game day photos from that Saturday in Urbandale goes to Cindy Bayer. I had a few of Mike in my computer, but the rest came from photos shown on the boy’s own Facebook pages and taken by Cindy.by