Living Aloha: How I Rekindled My Love of the Game
I spent the last two weeks on-site at the Cal Ripken World Series as a team reporter for Team Pacific Southwest, a group of 15 12-year-old boys and three coaches from Honolulu, Hawaii. Oh, and upwards of 50 friends and family members who made the 4,863-mile trip from the island of Oahu to the expansive Cal Ripken complex just off I-95 in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Some necessary background: Cal Ripken Baseball is the youth division of the Babe Ruth League, the main competitor of Little League Baseball. In 2007, it wove an innovative thread into the time-honored quilt of youth baseball.
The unique twist debuted exactly 60 years after Little League Baseball determined all kids under the age of 13 would play on 60-foot base paths with 46 feet between the rubber and the plate. This new division, dubbed Majors/70, boasted 70-foot base paths and a 50-foot offering from pitcher to hitter.
Majors/70 is the goldilocks of youth baseball: not too big, not too small, but just right. The extra ten feet came with accompanying rule adjustments. Passed ball third strike rules came into effect, base runners were allowed to take leads and steal at any time (in Little League you must wait for the ball to reach the catcher), and pitchers could pickoff but for the first time in their young careers would be subject to balk calls.
In short, the result was a better, more representative brand of “real” baseball and an environment clawing its way toward the established prestige of the Little League World Series Complex in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
I’ve spent my last two years as a metaphorical minor league writer, working my way up the chain one level of play at a time, proving that I can learn and cover each level with the increasing complexity necessary to do so effectively.
Last summer I covered the Bethesda Big Train of the Cal Ripken Collegiate summer league, I spent this spring as managing editor for Maryland Baseball Network covering the Maryland Terrapins and by the grace of our editor-in-chief Corinne Landrey, I have been lucky enough to share my sabermetrically-bent musings on our beloved Phillies with you all this summer. As much as I have loved every second of those three positions, the Hawaiian boys of Go Nuts Baseball brought me around full circle, refreshingly helping me rekindle my love for the game of baseball by so openly expressing theirs.
When I first met the team and their traveling entourage, they showered me with traditional Hawaiian leis and shell necklaces. (Technically, I was working as a team reporter intern for a public relations firm. Gifts were allowed. Good thing too, because necklaces quickly turned into local Hawaiian snacks, chocolates and coffee.)
As nice as they were to me, their Aloha-spirit enveloped the complex. It knew no bounds. “Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat,” their manager Al Carganilla told me over and over.
Carganilla played at the University of Hawaii for noted baseball coach Les Murakami, both carrying with him the lessons Murakami championed and passing them on to his players. He preaches effort, hustle and mental toughness to his players, blended with a distinct strategy rarely seen in youth baseball.
His team pitched to contact, trusting their defense to make plays and shutdown opponents. The offense centered around putting the ball in play and forcing opposing defenses to match their own stellar defensive output. Few teams can succeed that way. Even fewer coaches trust their players enough to execute such a plan. But after four years together, Carganilla and his coaching staff sufficiently trusted the foundation their coaching helped cement.
They escaped the Pacific Southwest regional grinder, a perennial powerhouse filled with three regions of potent California pre-teens, punching their ticket to the Cal Ripken World Series. Their success in Aberdeen, a 5-1 record that ended in a U.S. semifinal loss, capped a magical a 34-2 season in which they earned the right to call themselves the second-best 12-year-old team in the United States.
First and foremost, their run reminded me of the true impact of healthy, knowledgeable coaching. After all, those were the relationships that sparked my own playing career and my love for the game.
However, the most discernible difference, the elephant absent from the room, was the lack of a me-me-me attitude that so heavily saturates the modern game. The team was honored to represent the region displayed across their chests, but even more grateful for the privilege of representing the state flag on the back collar of their uniform.
Had the wins not piled up, I got the sense that this team would have conducted themselves exactly the same.
During postgame handshake lines, they put shell necklaces around the necks of their opponents and graciously shook hands. They presented opposing coaches with chocolates and gifts. Each player went into the stands to put leis around the necks of the opposing team’s mothers, grandmothers and sisters.
It was as if they were so appreciative of their opportunity that everyone involved deserved a personal thank you: the parents for allowing their kids to comprise their opponent, the umps for volunteering their time, heck, even the grounds crew.
In my mind, the heightened caliber of play in the Cal Ripken World Series validated what I saw. There was no barrier or mental bridge that needed to be crossed, no necessary suspended disbelief: everything but their heights (and in some cases even that rang false) screamed of big league play.
This was real baseball, and the ability for the team to succeed in that environment made their conduct even more resonant. The simple elegance of their playing style—a true team-first focus carefully instilled through four years of coaching—combined with their professional attitude proved an impeccable combination that echoed the sentiments of the late Roy Campanella:
“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you too.”
These boys displayed conduct beyond their years without losing their youthful innocence. They were both the man and the little boy.
Covering the team without needing to employ the analytical angles I commonly use on this site allowed me to step back and take in the full beauty of their actions. My view of players wasn’t tinted by monthly OPS+ splits or dipping groundball rates. It was a pure, unadulterated appreciation of each slickly fielded grounder or clutch RBI single that mirrored their own passion. No runner-in-scoring-position droughts or win probabilities need be mentioned, just pure, simple, bubble-gum-chewing, eye-black-wearing, benches-hollering baseball. No PED allegations. No service time quandaries. No Rule 5 draft and no arbitration. No Mitch Williams ordering 10-year-olds to bean fellow 10-year-olds (that took place in 2014 at the very same Ripken complex).
The unwavering passion and devotion to the game espoused by the Hawaiian team—and my up close and personal look at how and why it was so deeply entrenched in their attitude—allowed me to strip down the sport to its bare bones: the reasons I fell in love with the game in the first place.
When you spend so much time using numbers to explain on-field happenings, you can lose touch with what you’re actually seeing. The stats become the story: a rising BABIP, a drop in a pitcher’s curveball usage. Quantifications seem markedly definitive, and the shear overwhelming volume of numbers can have a numbing effect. They’re resolute, each digit beyond the decimal point meaningful and representative. Thus is the nature of the sabermetric revolution. But sometimes, it’s those things that can’t be quantified in any amount of decimal points, standard deviations, or rates of change that must balance out the heavy burden we place on black-and-white statistical measures. They allow us to scrape beneath the numbers and remind us why our sabermetric analyses matter to us: because we love the game.
And for reminding me of that, to Team Pacific Southwest, I say mahalo.