This is the time of year when Forest Park is buzzing about the tournament. I don’t mean the No Glove softball tournament that starts tonight; I’m talking about the Forest Park Panthers winning the Bensenville Tournament.
The Panthers consist of 13 “baseball psychos” who compete at the 10-under level. They already won the Winfield Tournament earlier this summer and slaughtered their way to the championship game against longtime rival Westdale.
In the title game, Westdale enjoyed a 1-0 lead, until Forest Park finally tied it in the late innings. (This kind of well-played, low-scoring game is almost unheard of at Little League level, where tallies like 13-8 are the norm.) After a clutch double knocked in the go ahead run for the Panthers, there was still incredible tension. In their last at bat, two Westdale players reached base, before the Panther pitcher was able to strike out the final batter to secure the trophy.
The Panthers’ success was due to the fact that the kids play pick-up baseball on their own from spring to fall. This is in addition to their regularly scheduled games and practices.
They remind me of a Forest Park squad we had in the early 1990s – an ethnically diverse group of players, who shared one religion, which was baseball. They beat teams with much bigger players from much larger communities. I still see two of my former players playing catch in the street.
By contrast, I’ve had other players, who enjoyed wearing a uniform, being part of a team and getting a trophy but didn’t love baseball enough to learn it.
The Panthers are so into baseball, players can hum the theme from “Baseball Tonight.” When they aren’t learning to judge fly balls, they’re studying how the pros do it. It’s a pleasure to coach a team like that, as the four father-coaches can attest.
The Panthers aren’t alone in their summer success. Forest Park’s 8-and-under Rookie All Stars also made it to the championship game in Bensenville, winning barnburners by scores like 19-17.
At the rookie level, the coach pitches to his own players. This makes for a lot of batted balls and plenty of action. Personally, it’s my favorite level of Little League because there are no walks and fielding is the key to winning.
The biggest key for our Little Leaguers, though, is caring coaches. They’ve created a positive atmosphere, where they can help the kids who aren’t superstars and test players at challenging positions. The parents don’t interfere with the coaching and confine their enthusiasm to cheering.
I miss those baseball filled days, when we ate all our meals at the Dugout Café. So, it’s gratifying to see a throwback bunch of kids who play the game the way it was meant to be played – every day.