A Prayer for Owen Meany, Bad News Bears and Hardball are classic movies. They all depict the ways life and baseball intersect and influence each other. Here in Marin, like thousands of places across the country, we have our own life university called Little League, where hundreds of young minds and bodies are made stronger through sport. Kids start the season learning how to properly hold a mitt and end, one hopes, with a bases-loaded bottom-of-the-ninth home run. To celebrate the beginning of baseball season we reached out to a longtime Little League enthusiast, player and coach Michael Cann, who along with his brother Peter coaches the Mill Valley Tigers.
SOMETIMES ICE CREAM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WINNING
It was the only hit Justin had all season. A fastball, way high and outside. A pitch that only a 10-year-old who swung at everything would swing at. It wasn’t until I heard the distinct ping of Easton aluminum connecting squarely with a leather-covered ball of yarn that I even looked up and noticed that he had just roped one deep to center field.
Suddenly everyone’s going crazy. In the dugout. In the stands. Kids and parents going nuts as Justin careens around the bases for the first time all season. My job as third base coach is to tell the runner what to do, yet I’m practically speechless.
I hold him up at third base. We’re both breathless. I can barely contain my excitement for him, thinking that this is probably one of the greatest days of his young life. Finally catching his breath, he turns to me as says, “Coach Mike, I need to call a time-out.” Thinking that this pivotal moment in his life is overwhelming him, that he needs a moment to bask in the glory, I reply in my most fatherly voice, “Sure Justin. Take your time. Are you hurt?”
“Um, no. There’s an ice cream truck over there and I want to get some ice cream.”
APPARENTLY YOU SHOULD NEVER ACCEPT CANDY FROM COACHES EITHER
The plan was to surprise the kids on opening day with a special treat: an entire tub of Bazooka bubble gum that my brother (and co–team manager) Peter bought. Two hundred and twenty-five individually wrapped pieces of sugar, glucose syrup, artificial flavors, glycerin, titanium dioxide, BHT and Red Dye #40. Enough for every player to scarf down 18.75 pieces each before the start of the game. And they did.
What could possibly go wrong?
So it turns out there’s this thing called a continuous glucose monitoring system. If you’re diabetic, you use it to measure your glucose levels in real-time via a glucose sensor that’s inserted under the skin. If your glucose level approaches a low or high limit — such as when cramming 18.75 pieces of Bazooka bubble gum in your mouth — the sensor triggers a pager-like device that flashes red and beeps like crazy.
Fast-forward two innings. The opposing team is up to bat, and most of our players are out of the dugout, the same dugout that’s now beeping away. I have no idea what’s making that noise. I’ve never heard of a continuous glucose monitor, nor heard that chewing gum could trigger a diabetic emergency. Not until the brother of the diabetic child walks over to me and — rather nonchalantly — says, “That’s Scott’s glucose monitor. It means his glucose level is off and he might go into diabetic shock.”
Scott, way off in right field, happily chewing on a giant wad of gum, has no idea his monitor is pinging away. Trying not to panic, I call a time-out and ask Scott to come to the dugout. Noticing the beeping, he walks into the dugout, reaches into his backpack, and with the calmness and dexterity of a surgeon, turns the alarm off and takes his medication.
As I watch Scott calmly trot back to right field — with nary a word— it is at this exact moment I realize that 10 years of fatherhood, of raising a wonderful and strong daughter to the best of my ability, is about 10,000 years short of the time needed to be a faultless Little League coach. I also make a pact that day to ask every parent of my players if there are any dietary restrictions or medical issues I should know about (and parents, tell your coaches — never assume).
SOMETIMES WHAT YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR IS RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE
I’m not sure who called the Mill Valley police during the baseball game, but everyone was glad they arrived. We were the Bad News Bears team that year, in last place, playing the second-place team, with the winner going to the La Ginestra championship game. It was the fourth inning when the mildly concerned wife of one of our coaches realized that their 7-year-old son, Blake, was missing.
Fifth inning, score 10-6, we’re losing, no Blake. Sixth and final inning (there are only six innings in Little League unless a tie needs to be settled), score still 10-6, no Blake, and a whole lot of concerned coaches and parents at this point. Since it’s the final inning with the outcome almost certain, we decide to continue the game while everyone not playing searches for Blake. That’s when things get … surreal.
Blake’s older brother Chris, our best player on the team, walks up to the plate with bases loaded and proceeds to crush the second pitch to left field — a grand slam home run to tie the game, and our first home run of the entire season. His coach/father is having an emotional crisis at this point. One son is very missing, and the other just experienced the greatest sporting moment of his life.
The Mill Valley Police have arrived by now and are driving along the bike path, our search and rescue mission at full tilt. It’s starting to get dark. A second team meeting, with the decision to continue playing while everyone else continues the search. It isn’t until the eighth inning, score still 10-10, that we find Blake, who’s been under the stands, playing with his iPad (“It’s darker down here. I can see the screen better”), blissfully unaware of the turmoil above.
In the ninth inning we scrape together a single run. Game over. The last-place Mill Valley Tigers are headed to the La Ginestra championship game the next day.
I could fill a book about the joys of coaching Little League, of teaching kids how and why to love the game of baseball, of working together as a team to achieve a common goal, and of the core values team sports can teach us about winning, losing and camaraderie.
In our clan, Mill Valley Little League baseball is a cherished family affair. It’s given me the unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience of co-managing a team along with my brother Peter while coaching both my daughter Carson and Peter’s son Colin. My father coached Mill Valley Little League, my mother went to every game to cheer us on, my two brothers and I went on to play college ball, and today we coach our son, daughter, and the kids we used to be. Full circle.
Spring season just started for Little League teams all over the country, and soon there will be kids playing Little League baseball at a field near you. I implore you: at least once this season, go see a game, sit in the bleachers and cheer the kids on. I think you’ll find it as rewarding as I do, a shared community experience that brings excitement and joy to kids and adults alike.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “A League of Our Own“.