Coach Tim calls for his team's attention. "Listen up, guys!" he shouts. "Today we're going to do the ‘karaoke.' Does anyone know what a ‘karaoke' is?" Silence and mystified looks. "Okay, I'll show you."
Coach Tim stands by the right field line and extends his arms straight out, like airplane wings. He pauses a moment to collect himself, then he is off! Moving sideways, he keeps his upper body perfectly still while rotating his hips, right-left, left-right, and high-stepping his way toward centerfield. He looks like a Cossack dancer, if you can envision a Cossack wearing a baseball cap, a Polo shirt, and golf shorts.
The team is surprised by his movement, and smiles break out. After about ten paces, Coach Tim reverses course and returns to his original spot on the right field line, slightly winded. "That's a ‘karaoke,' guys!" Without hesitation or doubt, he orders the team members to form a line, turn sideways, and extend their arms, which they do. The team members, mostly seven- and eight-year-olds, are game for anything. At the Coach's command, they are off!
For about five feet. Then the orderly drill devolves into a tumbling thicket of arms and legs. A few kids make progress on their hands and knees but most are on the grass, rolling, scrambling and wrestling like puppies. Coach Tim surveys the chaos and is calmly steadfast.
"Good effort, guys," he shouts. "Hustle back!"
Coach Tim is Tim Stone, A's fan and coach of the Quito Little League (Santa Clara County) Athletics and its AA minor league team, the Rockhounds. He's in his ninth year of coaching, a feat that must surely qualify him for some national endurance medal. When he isn't organizing batting practice, or demonstrating the karaoke drill, he is a partner in a mortgage company in Los Gatos. (I'd like to see any bank loan officer out-karaoke Coach Tim.) Google the term, "regular guy" and chances are, a picture of Tim Stone will rise to the top of the search listings.
I first met Tim two seasons ago when my six-year-old grandson, James, joined the Athletics, one of the teams in the T-Ball program of the Quito Little League. I was impressed by his organization and, even more, his patience. For the first Athletics practice, he had assembled a crack staff of assistant coaches, Coach Mike and Coach Dave, two more Regular Guys. The drills were orderly (as orderly as anything involving young boys can be) and entertaining. The practice was aimed at skill and knowledge development rather than results.
"I promised my three boys I would coach each of them for three years," Tim says. "I wanted to get them started right, at least. I've had good and bad coaches myself. My goal is to have the kids come back. Bad coaches drive them away."
Watching the Athletics practice, I was reminded how difficult it is to teach the specialized skills of baseball to little kids who have few basic physical skills at all.
"It's tough on kids," Tim says. "When they get to ‘A' ball, for instance, they know what they want to do, but their bodies won't let them do it yet."
A surprising example of that is the order in which little kids accumulate their baseball skills. Based on the struggles adult players have hitting a major league pitch, I would have thought hitting would be the last skill the kids would develop. It is actually the first. Next comes throwing. Catching, my strongest skill when I played, is the last and most difficult skill to be mastered. That's why Coach Tim and the Athletics spend most of their practice time on fielding.
To help his team learn to catch with two hands, Coach Tim distributes "pancake" gloves. These are round flat gloves without the pocket of a normal glove. They resemble padded dinner plates. The team is stumped until one inventive kid "high fives" another kid with his "pancake." Two other kids join them. Another swats his teammate on the fanny. Soon, the entire drill becomes forgotten in a scrum of high-fiving, fanny-swatting boys.
Coach Tim surveys the chaos and is calmly steadfast.
"Okay, guys, listen up!" he says. "What's your team?"
I have been away from Little League for a long, long time. I am amazed at its development, not only at the player-coach level, but at the business level as well. I wanted to know more so I did a little research. Little League is now an international non-profit organization. In 2012, LLI cleared $2.8 million on $24.5 million in revenue, mostly from player and team charter fees paid by the thousands of organized leagues in the U.S. and beyond.
Little League International also lists more than $78 million in assets on its balance sheet (cash and property). ESPN paid it $4 million in 2012 for broadcast rights, and the World Series collected another $6 million in corporate sponsorship fees. Clearly Little League has come a long way since it was founded as a three-team league in 1939 by Carl Stotz.
But all is not gumdrops and rainbows in Little League land. I ran across some numbers from a website dedicated to a PBS program called "Small Ball" which claimed Little League supervised 2.5 million players in more than 7,000 leagues across 107 countries. That information was dated 2004, however. From everything I have been able to glean, Little League has had to face a lot of competitive challenges since then. In fact, several years ago, Little League lowered its entry age to admit four-year-olds (mini T-ball) just to match Youth Soccer recruiting efforts. Hey, what's good for soccer is good for baseball.
Fortunately, the Quito Little League represents a real success story. Quito has 400 players (at all levels) spread over 38 teams, making it a middling-sized league even though it operates in the smallest territory in District 12. (Territories are determined by census statistics.) Next year, the league hopes to increase participation by 10% with its "Everybody Plays!" program.
The League's annual revenues are around $200,000. Sixty per cent of that comes from player registration fees, 20% from the Snack Shack, and the remaining 20% from fundraising. Quito clears $8,000-$10,000 each year as a surplus which goes into a capital improvement fund. Fully half the budget is spent on field leasing and maintenance, 25% goes to player development (equipment and uniforms, mostly), 15% on Snack Shack supplies, and 10% to operating costs.
Quito constructed and maintains five separate fields on the grounds of Rolling Hills Middle School in Los Gatos. It has also paid for the construction of stands, plumbed toilets, storage facilities, and the Snack Shack area. It leases the land from the school by annual permit. Last year, 281 volunteers (coaches, board members, and parents) contributed more than 20,000 hours of labor to the league.
Athens should have hired the Quito Little League to run the 2004 Olympics. Greece would still be solvent.
Coach Tim divides the team. One group grabs hats and gloves and disperses across the diamond for a simulated game exercise. The second group grabs helmets and bats and heads for left field for hitting practice with Coach Mike and Coach Dave. Back in the infield, Coach Tim explains he wants his fielders to get a force out at second base.
"Okay, guys, ready stance!" he shouts. From home plate, he taps the baseball toward the tiny shortstop who manages to knock the ball down. The ball squirts to his left. The shortstop leaps on the ball and wrestles it into submission. On his feet again, he is suddenly confused by his shouting teammates. Was he supposed to throw to first base or second?
He catapults the ball into right field where it is pursued, not only by the right fielder, but the second base man as well. In fact, they are now wrestling each other for possession of the ball. The right fielder wins. Directed to return the baseball to Coach Tim at home plate, he heaves a throw that nearly cold-cocks a chatting Mom standing in the right field foul territory.
Coach Tim surveys the chaos and is calmly steadfast.
"Use two hands, guys!" He shouts. "Two hands!"
I wanted to write this piece because I was curious about the cross-promotional relationship between the Oakland Athletics and the Quito Little League Athletics, between MLB and Little League, in fact. Surely, there must be one. Think of all the talent Little League ultimately supplies to MLB. Think of all the MLB-authorized team uniforms Little League buys. Think about all the indirect, but immensely valuable, brand marketing the A's get from Quito Little League and all the other A's-affiliated teams across the nation. Quito alone has five Athletics teams (at different levels) all wearing A's uniforms and logos. Most marketers I know would donate body parts to get that kind of early brand recognition and loyalty.
MLB is heavily involved in Little League's "Challenger" program for special needs kids. Other than that, I can find nothing, no sponsorship, no discounts on uniforms. This astounds me. Little League International is an essential feeder system for MLB yet it gets little financial support from the most profitable sports league in the world.
Of course, I can see Little League's reasoning. Financially, Little League International is doing just fine, thank you. If Little League took significant money from MLB, it would probably reinforce a less-than-useful image of Little League as simply a marketing arm of MLB. Big League money would undoubtedly come with MLB strings. Bud Selig can't even manage the dispute between the A's and the Giants. Why would Little League International want him meddling in its business?
Coach Tim highlights one big positive that does come from the relationship.
"The affiliation with MLB teams helps us in an important way," Tim says. "High school coaches brought this to my attention, and I realize it is totally correct. Kids are having a hard time learning how to compete as we give them a lot these days.
"Kids just don't know how to fight for their position. By basing our divisions on the MLB format, we want to give them a sense of achievement, progression and competition. I think that's a good thing."
A hard, errant throws flies in from nowhere and blindsides one little guy near the pitcher's mound. He grabs his arm in pain. His face begins to redden. His features scrunch up in preparation for tears. Coach Tim distracts him.
"Don't rub it," he advises. "Just take a deep breath and move your arm around." Coach Tim knows you can't learn how to fight for your position if you are blubbering. That's why there's no crying in baseball. "That's right. You can do it."
After a minute or so, the little guy's hurt dissolves and he realizes he will live to fight another play. He resumes his position. To complete the kid's rehab, Coach Tim taps him a ground ball while directing him to get the out at first. The little guy fields the ball cleanly and wings a perfect strike to first base.
Coach Tim surveys the accomplishment and is calmly steadfast.