Keep playing, Coach Russ Bales told the Broadneck Orioles after they lost their first Little League game, 20-3. Try your best. Practice hard. Don't give up. Have fun.
Keep trying, he said, after they lost the second game, 27-7. You're young. You're learning. Don't give up. Come to play.
Keep at it, he said, after they lost their third game, 22-3. Good try. Nice hustle. Don't give up. That's the way.
But even the coach had to admit, as they lost game after game -- 12-1 to the Athletics; 18-11 to the Phillies; 20-8 to the Tigers; 14-4 to the Devil Rays -- that this was not going to be an easy season. Parents moaned. Kids hung their heads. Have fun. Fun? How do you have fun when the losses keep coming and the games are cut short -- it's called the slaughter rule -- because the other team's lead is so large? How do you learn that winning isn't everything when there's a big board full of numbers that tells everyone who's losing? How do you find the good in a season that starts off with two weeks of rain, no experienced pitchers and all but five players brand new to the team?
And what about those returning players? How do they forget last year's record?
They were the reigning champs, and now they hadn't won a game.
But look on the bright side, Coach Bales told his team, echoed by his assistants, Sam Minnitte and Mike Roe. You won last year, but you were young and didn't get much playing time. This season you'll play lots of innings, at every position. Want to pitch? You'll pitch. Want to play infield? You'll play infield. Everyone plays everywhere. Everyone gets a chance. Why should the game end early because of a slaughter? If the other team's coach doesn't mind, we'll play the innings, just for practice.
Don't give up, Coach Bales told his team. You struck out, but it was a good swing. You missed the pop fly, but you hustled. You fouled those balls, but you connected. This is a learning season and you're learning every day. Losses? Not really. You lost the game, but you outscored them for two innings. You didn't take the lead, but you made those guys nervous enough to change pitchers. Erase that rough first inning and you won the rest of the game.
Hang in there, said the coach. Play inning by inning. At-bat by at-bat. Out by out.
Which is how the Orioles of Broadneck started winning.
In spirit, if not in games.
The parents brought snacks and screamed and cheered. The boys high-fived and screamed and cheered. One game, they hTC gave themselves nicknames -- Brandon Guernsey was "Moo Cow"; everyone mooed when he got up to bat. There were pizza coupons handed out for special efforts and an ever-growing list of season highlights to feel good about. Kevin Roe making a double play. Dennis Dempsey catching a fly ball in center field. Sammy Minnitte getting to pitch for the first time. Ian McKeldin hitting a triple to deep right. And the mistakes didn't seem to matter.
"No one said, like, you stink," said 11-year-old Kevin Roe. "Say you'd miss a fly ball or it went under your glove, they'd all say 'Nice try.' "
"We could lose by a slaughter rule and still leave the field laughing," said 10-year-old Derek Miller.
They had fun?
"More fun than last season," said Dan Ammon, 12, who played on the winning Orioles team. "It got more and more fun because we kept getting closer to winning. And this year I've been hitting pretty well. I was really proud of myself."
Close to winning? Oh yes, which brings us to their recent doubleheader: O's leading the Marlins 10-8 at the top of the sixth -- and final -- inning. But the Marlins tied it up on a base hit to center field, and then a Marlin runner collided with second baseman Jared Birkholz.
"Do you want to play or take a break?" Coach Bales asked Jared.
But the very next batter hit a sharp grounder that took a bad hop, hitting -- and breaking -- Jared's nose.
With Jared off to the hospital, the game fell apart. The Marlins scored three more runs and won, 13-10.
The Orioles' season record was now 0-11.
Down to nine players -- two others were already out with injuries -- the Orioles took the field for their 12th game of the season, stomachs full from a between-game snack of pizza, brownies and soda. Dick Miller, a Little League district administrator who was umping the game, heard an Orioles coach say: "Hey guys, we're down to nine, and that's the best thing that could happen to you. No one comes out of the game, so just play and have a good time."
The Broadneck Orioles were leading 10-4 with two outs in the bottom of the third inning when pitcher Ian McKeldin -- who usually doesn't eat before games -- clutched his stomach and called time out.
"Coach, I don't feel so good."
"Ian, we've only got nine players. Can you play shortstop?"
"Well, no. "
But he had to play somewhere. After some position shuffling, he took his place in left field. Surely he wouldn't have to run too much out there.
Only the very next batter hit a fly ball straight to left.
Ian looked up.
Ian made the catch.
Ian didn't throw up.
And as if that wasn't enough, the O's scored 13 runs the next inning.
And as if that wasn't enough, the O's slaughtered the Marlins, 23-9.
From his spot near first base, umpire Miller heard a young voice, an unidentified Orioles player who spoke for them all:
"I knew we could do it if we just kept trying."
Pub Date: 6/22/98