Little League

March of the champions

Their story began where a story like theirs must.

At practice.

Where someone who doesn’t know them or their secret might not think or care to look.

Because it is no place much worth seeing.

A flat diamond of stone-hard dirt, what’s to see?

The weeds maybe? Those dandelions out there? The girls thought those were pretty, wondered who’d planted them and how the speckles of blooms matched their sunshine-yellow softballs.

One of their daddies told them, “They special-ordered these flowers just for you.”

Of course, they didn’t. Not in this school-yard ball field 2,300 miles from home.

No, the weeds just happened along and took root there.

Kind of the way the girls had.

Want to win the Little League Softball World Series? Show up in a dust pit like that about 100 times a year, shag a gazillion grounders and pop-flies, become one of the best kids on the planet at doing it and then, when you make it to that World Series, go right on gobbling up those line drives and eating that dirt and loving every stinking second of it.

Then, when you quit loving it for a beat or two too long, try running wind sprints down that gritty first-base line with your coach only half barking, “We didn’t come all this way to play this bad!” After a few rounds, he’ll say, “Y’all wanna run or practice?” and y’all will invariably say practice.

That was life for the week and a day that it took the Warner Robins American all-stars to show up in Oregon and defend the very world title that five of them helped earn a season ago. For six of them, the drill was new. But not that new. Softball all-stars flourish on sun-baked soil like this. Softball, as the T-shirts like to say, ain’t soft.

This band of softballing sisters from greater Bonaire sported nicknames like C-Bo, Batman, Pickle, Tushee, Ta-Nay-Nay and Hay Bug to list a few of the Georgia girls whose real names were Sierra, Chelsea, Melissa, Kayla, Taylor and Hayley. They and their teammates — a rubber-armed, windmilling lefty named Avery, a slugger named Ashley, a go-getter outfielder they called MC because she prefers it to Mary Catherine, a fleet center fielder named Amber and an on-the-spot left fielder named Peyton — had long come to regard grimy, powdered earth on their arms, legs, faces and in their hair as perks of being ballplayers.

Five seasons ago, Taylor Brown, the girl who would come to anchor the corner of their infield at third base, had been so bored playing that she’d lolled around doing cartwheels in the outfield during games. The next year she landed on a team led by a fellow the Warner Robins American kids have come to know as Coach Roger, and, before you knew it, Taylor Brown was an infielder batting leadoff.

Now she quotes maxims of preparation off the top of her head. Polished skills, she’ll say, are what emerge when you “show your heart when there isn’t anybody around to watch you.”

The Robins team that rolled into Oregon two weeks ago and took up at an off-the-beaten-path practice field was born June 15. It was chosen from a league of 52 players, girls from four teams — the Huskies, Tigers, Bears and Dawgs.

The team’s assistant coach, a 51-year-old glass-bottle-plant manager named Bobby, would come to call the head guy, the manager named Roger, who runs a janitorial-supply outfit, “a practicing fool.” Which, as it turns out, appears to have been the genius behind the whole works: recreation meets dedication.

Who would have thought it in this day and age? Hard work paying off. Raw discipline jibing with passion and determination on a hard-packed plot, one that a handful of dedicated 11- and 12-year-old girls couldn’t wait to set foot on.

Never mind that when that the workout venue shifted to Oregon that there just might have been some wholesome brand of good karma afoot. That their special field, away from the place all the other Series kids practiced, sat next door to the very high school where Atlanta Braves legend Dale Murphy played his prep ball, and where the No. 9 he wore there is retired on the right-field wall. Not that any of these girls have a clue who Dale Murphy is.

“Is that a race car driver?” second-base pixie Sierra Stella wondered.

Her father, Roger, the fellow with easy-on-the-tiller touch as manager, said, “You might as well say Ty Cobb. ... They’re softball players. They don’t know baseball.”

They don’t need to.

Not when the one of them nicknamed Killa, outfielder Ashley Killebrew, knows more important things.

Before she and her mates shoved off for Portland, she was asked what the half-dozen new additions to the Robins-softball syndicate might discover there.

“They’re not just gonna learn how to play softball better,” Killebrew said. “They’re gonna learn, like, life stuff.”

Girl, would they ever.

Which brings us to the place their story ends. The Oregon chapter of it anyway.

Where everyone finally found them.

Of all places ... on the dirt.

Still standing.

Rising above it.

Marching as champions.

“One for all, and all for one,” as their pregame cheer would have it.

On the pristine Alpenrose Stadium infield dirt.

All while the ballpark PA announcer called their names over the hoots of other teams and fans chanting the war cry of series runner-up Burbank, Calif., whom the Georgians had just defeated.

“West Coast in the house, in the house, in the house!” they barked, butting in on the Robins girls’ crowning moment.

Chelsea Whaley, the Robins catcher who was behind the plate to squeeze strike three in the bottom of the sixth inning and seal her team’s second series title in as many seasons, later said, “I can’t believe all the teams did it against us.”

The West’s manager said no ill will was intended, that “our fans are happy to be here” and were merely being enthusiastic in soothing the just-beaten Burbank girls.

But during the trophy presentation? At the expense of the kids who’d just won the Little League Softball World Series?

Never mind, though, because this was where the Southern girls shined.

They paid the slight no mind, at least outwardly.

They pressed on while the “West Coast in the houses!” rained down from the mouths of grown-up fans in the crowd and from ballplayers on other teams ringing the infield. Some might say the display was little more than a giddy, end-of-the-tournament sing-along. But it played out like a slap in the face, and the Warner Robins Americans didn’t so much as flinch.

Practice makes perfect, and perfect makes poise.

Stella, the Georgia manager, didn’t mind if, during the game, folks rooted against his girls. Everyone knew their league had won the series in 2009. It’s only natural to pull against the favorite. But the outbursts during the trophy presentation, Stella said, were uncalled for.

“Classless is the polite way to put it,” he said. “Tacky is what I would say. I don’t know if it was because we won it all last year that they didn’t want us to win it again. I don’t know what the deal was.”

Nor did the Georgia girls. Nor would they care. They don’t fret over hurt feelings. They just play the game. Sometimes when it hurts. Perhaps especially then.

After first baseman Avery Lamb slammed into her own dugout fence to glove a pivotal first out in the fifth inning, a medic was adamant that she leave the game.

“I didn’t want to sit the bench the last three outs of the Little League World Series,” Lamb said. “I knew that I had to toughen it up. I wanted to be out there when we won.”

Lamb would later march into her team’s postgame dinner party on a new $43 set of crutches, her left knee wrapped in ice.

The unfortunate unsportsmanlike display last week at the series championship, where the spectators may have numbered 500, will likely become but a blip in the Georgia girls’ memories.

They can always let their minds drift back to another evening when the limelight was warm and a home crowd of 4,000-plus roared its approval.

It was perhaps the most glorious eve of their softball lives, when they punched their ticket to the World Series, when their youngest player looked toward the sky.

There had been talk that day of a flyover by an Air Force jet. But this wasn’t it. A single-engine plane puttered overhead. Someone in their dugout asked, “What’s that?”

Eleven-year-old Kayla Quakenbush, the team’s most junior member, didn’t miss a beat.

“That,” she said, “is the plane waiting to see who it’s carrying to Oregon.”

Anymore it seems these Warner Robins girls can just about soar cross country to Portland on their own will power. Maybe it is no coincidence that the Oregon state motto is “She Flies With Her Own Wings.”

Don’t be surprised if, in the not-too-distant future, another troupe of fast-pitch phenoms from Warner Robins American makes another run at softball Shangri-La.

Winning ways seem to grow in the grit on the ball fields down below Ga. 96.

Don’t look now, but a few of this year’s cast members have little sisters, and they like to play in the dirt.