From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Big Leaguers’ Little League Memories

When a band of tykes from Toms River, New Jersey, won the Little League World Series during the summer of 1998, the kids got the second thrill of their lives a few days later—the chance to stand proudly next to their New York Yankee position sakes during the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium. Anyone watching the scene couldn’t help but be borne back into the past, when the millionaire Yankees must have been Little Leaguers themselves, sporting the baggy uniforms and big-league dreams.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” said right fielder Paul O’Neill, who played Little League in Columbus, Ohio. “The games then meant as much to you as these games do now. And you got to go to Dairy Queen afterward!” Added shortstop Derek Jeter, “You didn’t worry about making an error or striking out. You just had fun.”

Roughly 80 percent of today’s major leaguers played Little League baseball, and 100 percent of them recall the experience with immensely fond nostalgia. While baseball remains a child’s game, even grown men for whom it’s a job remember the child within, and nurture it by remembering the old days.

Baltimore Orioles Iron Man Cal Ripken was honing his workmanlike persona before his age hit double digits. “I shined my shoes after every game,” Ripken recalled, “and sometimes wore my uniform to bed because I couldn’t wait for the next game.” In his first at bat as a Little Leaguer, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hit— what else?—a home run.

Most of us, of course, never hit a home run or anything approaching it. But even those who enjoyed the most success on Little League fields remember the simple act of trying, of participating. Said the Philadelphia Phillies’ Scott Rolen, “It was all so easy then. I think we’d all go back and play Little League again, whether you’re an accountant or a baseball player. All you care about is playing baseball and doing the best you can. Unfortunately, you only play six innings. You’d play sixty if you could.” Then again—thankfully—even some major-league all-stars struggled. Pitcher David Cone was cut while trying out for his first Little League team in Kansas City when he was seven years old. “I’m still in touch with the person who cut me,” Cone said with a laugh. “Whenever I see him I still get on him—‘You cut me when I was seven!’”

Cone vividly recalls crying and throwing temper tantrums when he lost games. Sure enough, the intensity that propelled the best to the top percolated inside them as youngsters. Boston Red Sox all-star Nomar Garciaparra was nicknamed “No Nonsense Nomar” when he first started playing in Southern California. He scowled at his less-talented teammates and got so upset with his own mistake once that his own father removed him from a game.

His dad softened up after a while, though, and gave Nomar a brand-new glove that cost $125, way out of the family budget. (Though a shrewd investment on the order of Microsoft’s IPO.) The little boy treasured it, carried it with him wherever he went, even slept with it. He never threw it, though, always placing it down calmly on the bench or dugout steps, a tradition he continues to this day in the majors. “The reason my father gave it to me was he knew I loved the game and he probably thought I could take care of it,” Garciaparra said. “It was such an honor that my dad would do something like that for me. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

No one knew the ten-year-old Nomar Garciaparra, very short and skinny for his age, would later become one of the best shortstops in the history of baseball. The kids generally have more pressing concerns. “The best part was the ice cream afterwards,” major-league superstar Barry Bonds recalled. Added Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, “We had two teams in our area, the Lions and the Expos. Everybody wanted to play for the Lions because they had better looking uniforms.”

“When people ask me what my fondest memories of baseball are,” said Nolan Ryan, who struck out more batters and threw more no-hitters than any major-leaguer, “I think back to playing Little League—because we played for the love of the game and the camaraderie. Little League was the first opportunity for children in Alvin, Texas, to get involved in any organized activity. It was one of the biggest events in our lives.”

Alan Schwarz

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