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Beyond Warner Robins American’s hardball heroics

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. —

The tennis ball became a baseball. That simple. And in an instant, fun bounced hand in hand with the pure desire to play.

By then, the Georgia boys had claimed starring roles at the Little League World Series. Even so, with four nationally televised games already under their belts, the Houston County home team wasn’t above taking part in a contest of no consequence.

Last Tuesday, during what was supposed to have been a time to relax with friends and kin at a riverside campground for the diamond all-stars from down South, in a field nearby some kids on vacation with their own families struck up a game of glorified stickball.

The Georgians couldn’t resist joining in. Their parents marveled at that. That made their parents feel good. Baseball hadn’t morphed into some day job for the young guys from greater Bonaire. It wasn’t some get-out-of-school-free card they’d been clinging to. It wasn’t some all-or-nothing quest.

It made them happy, their mamas and daddies content. Baseball was good. Even in the form of an air-filled orb, campground pickup ball wasn’t beneath them and their ESPN credentials.

It is easy to make the mistake that the occasional sports observer might try to analyze why or how those same sons of the Southeast lost to California on Thursday night. Little League match-ups are quite often the ultimate coin flips when it comes down to who advances and who goes home. “There’s a lot of luck involved” is a phrase the manager of the Robins world-title team from ’07, Mickey Lay, uses to all the time when explaining his club’s triumph.

The 11- and 12-year-old Robins baseball teams since July 2007 have lost but four times in more than 50 games. Ponder that pile of wins and the wonders therein, all under different coaches and pretty much different players, before you question any slip-ups or second-guess strategies. Then ponder them again. The losses, half of them in games at the Little League World Series, become hiccups.

The boys on this semifinal team will never hang their heads looking back. They know the work they put in, the gold they struck, even if they didn’t haul home a world-title banner.

They played hard, practiced long and they played fun and practiced fun. They did it over and over. Returning to school Aug. 4 would have been far easier than the roadwork they put in.

You knew this season’s squad had rolled into South Williamsport with the proper bearing when, after hurler Conner Smith pitched his heart out in an opening win over Iowa and, carefree as could be, asked, “Coach, who do we play tomorrow?”

Here they were at Little League’s Mount Olympus — where after a win over the Staten Islanders the New York Post would, in a headline, dub them the “Bat Men from Robins” — and the air suited them just fine.

Player Jake Farrell’s grandmother made the trip up and mentioned how remarkable it was to her personally, that here she had pictures of Jake and his teammate Kal Dempsey taken at her pool earlier this summer. Now they had all of a sudden become mini matinee idols. One minute they’re at her house, the next, Linda Farrell said, they’re in Pennsylvania “signing autographs — for girls!”

In truth, their baseball journey, from the north Georgia foothills to the wilds of West Virginia, was complete the second they pulled into the World Series park.

“I think it’s OK to call it a journey,” their team’s manager Randy Jones would say the night his boys were eliminated. “But journey’s kind of a harsh word. In so many ways, baseball is life. ... And, in turn, as a coach, I use life to describe baseball.”

He went on, “The winning part is nice, but it’s not what it’s all about. It’s watching the kids grow up and get better and learn about life.”

He spoke of how surely there would be talk about things in the team’s 11-10, season-ending defeat “that I should’ve done it this way or that way. Nah. I left it all on the field, and I thought (the players) did, too. We worked for that, knowing that one day that could happen. So, no regrets.”

Not after this dream run to boy-baseball heaven, where, as Little League President Stephen D. Keener put it in his opening-ceremony remarks, “Everyone leaves Williamsport this week a champion.”

Imagine a county fair where ball games replace the merry-go-round. That’s the feel here. It seems that the only thing that really stings at the Series is the yellow jackets that buzz around the concessions pavilion.

After Robins’ leadoff batter Justin Jones was stung four times by bees and went on to swat two home runs in the team’s series opener later that day, one of the Georgia team’s chaperones joked, “We’re thinking about bringing in a beehive.”

Tuesday night, the Georgia boys practiced beneath a crescent moon. Up the hill two fields away, a brass band played “Hello, Dolly!” and the smell of kettle corn and funnel cakes wafted in the distance.

A pool-play duel between Texas and California was unfolding, and now it was time for business, for the young Georgians to hone their strokes and focus.

Randy Jones, perched, as is his custom, on a blue, 5-gallon bucket with a Chevy logo on it, watched over the goings-on from a catcher’s crouch.

“Don’t run to first like you’re an old man! I want some hustle out of you!” he hollered. “I want some fireworks with a contact swing!”

Wednesday afternoon, beneath a clear-blue, 80-degree bake, he was back on the bucket. Give him two months with your all-stars and they’ll make you proud. Give him three years and he’ll make more.

His assistant coach, Nathan Hunt, called the balls and strikes and barked instruction from behind the chain-link backstop: “You wanna go home and sit and watch ‘Oprah?’ ”

Their practices are clinics. There are probably minor leaguers who don’t get the full-on input that Hunt, a middle school coach by trade, and Jones, an electrical engineer, supply.

“Focus on the pitcher’s release point,” Hunt would say. “If it’s low, let it go! If it’s high ...”

“Let it fly,” player Kyle King chimed in from the infield.

“Hustle every pitch!” Jones would stress. “You can have all the sandlot you want next week!”

You could print T-shirts that tell the secrets of their success. They’d bear four, one-word sentences: “There. Are. No. Shortcuts.”

Half an hour or so before the end of Wednesday’s workout, Jones said, “Hey, let’s win a world championship while we’re here! Let’s go! Let’s bear down!”

Hunt, who at the opening ceremonies had slapped a hearty high five with Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame, kidded one day while herding the group to a game, “Come on! Y’all are acting like a bunch of 12-year-olds!”

To hear Randy Jones tell it, the fun-loving boys blossomed this summer.

After the California loss, Jones praised player Blake Jackson, who’d walked twice and smacked two singles in the game. Jones had begun coaching the smooth shortstop three seasons back.

In the moments following their first defeat in 34 games as manager and player, Jones told Jackson, “When I got you three years ago, you were a boy. Tonight, you’ve become a man. ... I’m so proud of the way that you’ve grown up.”

As for the rest of the little “Bat Men from Robins,” they, too, matured. They found themselves, and their parents bore witness, in their love of a game.

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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