Point of View: Who’s Ready To Play

Dominick Mazzeo shakes his coaches hand during a Little League game last spring. Laurie Barone-Shaefer photo

All over the world today there are kids waking up wondering whether they can play baseball. They’re wondering whether their field is okay and how many players are coming. I know, because I’m still one of those kids.

Yes, at age 57, I’m still wondering when I can play and who’s coming. My game of late is more often paddleboarding, but when I’m not on the water there’s only one sport I’m reading books about, there’s only one sport I’m looking to teach others about: that’s baseball.

I know baseball to be both a teaching game and a learning game. When I didn’t know my left from my right, I would imagine myself at home plate and find “right” field and “left” field; I somehow knew where those were. Baseball also taught me how to do things with great emotion but not get too emotional about processes or outcomes –– that’s a lesson that’s come by way of countless balls and strikes, safe and out calls and wins and losses.

And I’ve lost far too many. In Little League, I sat on the bench from age seven to age 11, never getting more than one at-bat and two innings in the field. Even though I wasn’t playing, I wanted to be the first one at practice and I never wanted to leave. One day when I was 12, everything changed: I made play after play, grabbing a chance to play third or right field and I never wanted to give those spots up. That determination stayed with me through high school, college (in Miami, where I played softball almost year-round) and after, in Manhattan, where I played in four softball leagues each summer and also played pick-up games whenever I could.

That latter experience — playing for the field and knowing that if you lose you could be through — taught me the value of intensity, of being “on” every pitch. It also taught me the importance of being a good sport. When my team lost, I was often asked to fill spots on the winning team. That happened not because I had any extraordinary talent but because I could be counted on to compete — to make a play, to keep score, to coach a base, to get the other team out of position, to keep my team loose and, ultimately, to do the little things to help a team win. That attitude kept me on the field more than my skills did.

I started coaching in the Sag Harbor Little League in 2002 and immediately saw it as a way to get kids to work together, to have fun. I’ve been coaching baseball and softball here ever since, leading kids into the Pierson programs. In that time, at least a dozen Little League graduates have gone on to college baseball. One player, Kyle McGowin, is currently on the Washington Nationals active roster. They are all far better baseball players than I ever was.

I coached at Pierson for about twelve years and you might think my favorite coaching memories there come from helping varsity baseball earn county titles. But that’s not the case. The Pierson team that won a sportsmanship award while compiling a 23-2 record is one I’m proudest of. That honor came their way after outplaying almost every team they met. That’s hard to do. Their hustle and intensity didn’t create a sense of loathing; instead, it earned them respect for playing the game right.

Another favorite team was a Little League majors’ softball squad that had a group of girls who had never played softball before. Those girls won their season championship and later became the core of the Pierson softball teams that repeatedly played in the state tournament. They also were the nucleus of the Pierson field hockey team that won a state title. Seeing those girls succeed that way was inordinately satisfying; they knew how to have fun and how to get the best out of each other.

It’d be easy to recount other better-than-winning experiences and name player after player, but there’s not enough space here to do that. That said, the day Jake Federico told me he could squeeze bunt Brandon Kruel home and did, or when Kyle Sturmann came off the field after making a spectacular inning-ending play, proclaiming, “That’s Pierson baseball”, those moments will forever feel good. I’m thrilled those kids came to believe in themselves that way.

For me, coaching is more than focusing on the players who might go on to play after Little League or after high school. It’s about the kids who are there because they want to play, to compete, the ones, like me, who just wanted a chance. We never cut anyone while I helped out at Pierson; we found roles for kids who may have not been “good players”. Oftentimes, those were the ones who kept the other players motivated, who brought teams together, and who said the things the team needed to hear.

I’m writing all this because I want to encourage all aspects of this community to get involved in the Sag Harbor Little League. Coaching at the baseball majors level last spring, I found the current board has embraced a set of principles called “ICARE”, an acronym for Integrity, Community, Accountability, Respect and Effort. I was as impressed by those community-building concepts as I was on their focus ofgetting the game’s fundamentals across to both coaches and players. It’s why when I was asked to serve as player agent this season, I said “yes”. The other board members — Michael Dee, Beth Gregor, Kelly Roesel and Jeff Greenwald — see the game the way I do: as a way of teaching, as a way of learning, and as a way of expressing community.

As player agent, my primary responsibility is to make fair teams. I am also leading the coaching and player clinics this winter. Trust me, I plan to involve everyone who has helped teach me the last 17 years and many of you have already received texts from me. What I’m hoping to do is to make sure when the kids and coaches step on the fields in the spring, they’re both ready to go, ready to work together, ready to make each other “better” in whatever way that’s necessary.

It’s the first week of December and I’m ready for the season to start. Who’s coming?

Little League General Meeting

The Sag Harbor Little League has scheduled a general meeting for Wednesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. at Pierson High School. This is a time for the community to meet the board and to discuss policies and rules. The meeting is set to close at 8:30 p.m.

If you like baseball or softball, please come to that meeting. We, as a board, welcome your participation, and we need coaches. If you want to make a difference for the kids, we look forward to meeting you –– many hands make for light work, especially when it comes to fields, equipment and uniforms.

Registration for Little League opens online January 3 at sagharborlittleleague.com.