AB&T

A Win for the Whole Community

By Brad McEwen

It’s been almost 30 years. Twenty-eight to be exact.

And there’s been a lot of youth baseball, good youth baseball, played in the city of Albany in the intervening years since talented young ball players like Foy Shemwell, Phillip Sledge, Josh Jerkins, John Woodall and others brought home a little league World Series title in 1990.

Scores of young boys and girls, their playing days now long over, have given their all on the countless diamonds scattered throughout this community, but none were able to match that lofty accomplishment.

Until now.

Just a few weeks ago, as the dog days of summer crept to a close, and a new school year approached, another talented group of baseball players, battle-hardened and determined, ended that drought, emerging victorious in a thrilling two-game final, to once again bring youth baseball glory back to the Good Life City.

Over the course of seven long July days, under a sweltering Mississippi sun, the Albany League Baseball 10u all-star team— Joshua Weaver, Dashaun “Bug” Robinson, Boyd Pollock, Grayson Spears, Ben Everett, Colin Snipes, Tray Love, Lane Sceals, William Greene, Gabe Daniel, David Hutchins and Jackson Revell—dug down deep and masterfully played their way through a gauntlet of baseball talent from across the Southern United States before finally coming up against one last hurdle in the path to greatness—the same Canton Stingers all-star team that had ended the Albany team’s bid to win the Georgia State Dizzy Dean 9u championship the year before.

The same Canton Stingers who had defeated the Albany team earlier in this year’s double elimination World Series tournament.

Undaunted and already saddled with that one loss in a 22-team tournament, the boys knew they had their work cut out for them, needing to best unbeaten Canton twice if they were to hoist the trophy.

To say that they acquitted themselves well in the first winner-take-all contest between the two teams is an understatement. Albany came out firing on all cylinders that morning and in short order had earned a lop-sided 10-3 victory, setting up a win-or-go-home scenario that same afternoon.

Again, the talented 10u squad brought their A game and riding a stellar pitching performance from Gabe Daniel, used timely hitting and staunch defense to battle their way to a rousing victory over their rivals, which in itself added an extra sense of accomplishment.

“They have always beaten us and this was like the first time we’ve actually beaten them,” Lane said of Canton a few days after the team returned home with the championship. “They beat us twice before we beat them twice.”

Asked if that made the victory any sweeter, Lane answered in the affirmative, saying the team had been looking forward to a rematch since last summer.

“Oh yes,” he said of wanting a chance to play Canton after the prior year’s loss. “I knew they were going to be there. Yeah.”

“Yeah I was looking forward to it,” added his teammate and close friend Jackson.

The revelation that the two good friends had been waiting a year for another shot at Canton (this time with the ultimate prize on the line) was one of many that came from a series of interviews I conducted with some of the coaches, players and their parents not long after a few co-workers and I crowded around my work computer to watch them seize glory on Facebook live.

Having played little league against most of the boys from that 1990 all-star rec team and having followed the core of this year’s 10u team (mainly the kids from Lake Park Elementary, who are the sons of some of my friends and students my wife has had the pleasure of teaching not once, but twice) since their days playing teeball, I was interested in learning more about how this achievement came to pass, why it took nearly three decades for a baseball rich community to produce another champion and what it meant to those involved to see what is by all accounts an exceptional group of young athletes earn such an impressive accomplishment.

Talent

Much like the 1990 Dixie League team, this year’s champs are first and foremost great baseball players.

As the father of a son who plays in a younger age division in the same Albany League Baseball league, I knew long before this year that this group of kids could play some ball.

Not only have I been hearing about the prowess of these players through the parental grapevine for years, I’ve witnessed their talent firsthand, having popped by the Dixie field numerous times after some of Bear’s games to watch the “big kids” play.

The simple fact of the matter is, you don’t emerge victorious in a multi-state youth baseball tournament with so-so ballplayers.

“These are just some really good ballplayers; good athletes,” said one of the team’s coaches, Cal Pollock, who not only played against the kids on the 1990 championship team, but has also coached the core of the 10u team since they first started playing tee-ball together. “Like that 1990 team, they had pitching, we had pitching; they could hit, we could hit. There’s a lot of talent on this team.”

Head coach Willie Weaver had similar praise, saying at the outset of our conversation that there was no denying that these boys could play.

“The group of kids that we had have been playing baseball for a long time—since they were about 5 or 6,” he said. “They pretty much know the game of baseball. The baseball IQ is pretty high for those kids and that’s very important in winning—knowing what to do with the ball when they get the ball, it’s almost automatic.”

Even the players themselves recognized the amount of talent on the 10u team, and said they felt that the ability of each of the players played an important role in helping them advance to the championship and beat a good Canton team.

“We were a well-rounded team,” said Jackson. “We could hit and we could play defense.”

“Yeah we could play defense,” added Lane. “And we had pitching depth.”

“Yeah everybody could pitch,” continued Jackson. “They [Canton] were a pretty good team. Well, we were also a really good team, but we had better players than them.”

A Team

Of course it takes more than having a collection of good athletes for a team to become a winner, a fact not lost on the coaches or the players.

“You have to have kids who can go from being the top players on their individual rec teams to being one of 12,” said assistant coach Adam Hutchins. “It doesn’t matter if it’s youth sports or if it’s the workplace. If you take the best from different organizations and they don’t agree to unify under one common goal, it’s going to fall apart no matter how good they are.

“These boys, a lot of them played together for a long time, so that part just kind of happened naturally, but we had new boys come on the team. We had new people move into town and those kids transitioned seamlessly. So it speaks to the character of the kids.”

In mentioning the addition of some new players to this year’s all-star team, Adam touched on what many involved with the group see as one of the most important factors for the team’s success.

While a large portion of the kids had been playing post-season baseball together for multiple years, this year’s squad included a few players who only recently joined Albany League Baseball, meaning it was important for the newly formed group to come together as a cohesive unit.

And by all accounts that’s exactly what happened.

“We knew (the core group of players) were really good,” said Cal’s wife and Boyd’s mom Malinda Pollock. “We knew they were capable. But it was fun to watch this team grow together.

“It’s funny to me to watch the ones that have been playing together. I’ll pick up on things like they don’t even have to communicate, like it’s just something in their eyes, meaning they don’t have to really talk to each other because they have that history. But then the new kids came on and they really didn’t miss a beat. Together they all made a really good team.”

The fact that the boys all came together so well was also not lost on the players themselves, several of whom said that it was easy to welcome the new teammates because they knew they were all good kids and good players, facts they had learned because they had played against them in prior years when battling other Albany area baseball leagues.

“Some of them we already knew pretty well, like William,” Jackson said of the new additions to the team. “We already knew him before he made the team.”

“Tray and Bug were new but we had played against them before,” added Lane.

“We knew they could play,” continued Jackson. “And we were pretty much friends with them. We knew them okay and it just went well like that.

“We knew each other so it was a ton easier. We already knew a ton of stuff about each other.”

A Family

While it was vitally important for the players on the team to come together on the field, it was also critical for the coaches and families of the team to bond as well.

According to several of the folks involved with the 10u crew, it was the strength of those bonds that really spurred the team forward and helped provide the positive momentum to achieve success during the all-star season.

Jackson’s dad, Perry, said a prime example of the way the entire 10u family gelled was the trip the group took to Southaven for the World Series. He explained that while teams from other age groups also made the trip to tournament, the 10u team was unique in the way they handled their travel plans and how they interacted while out of town.

“One thing our group does differently than all the other groups that go out to Mississippi is we do dinners and lunches together as a team,” he said. “We coordinated that because it really promotes a family-type environment where you might be away from home, but everybody comes back together at night—grandparents, parents, players, coaches, everybody that’s there. And that fellowship builds camaraderie.”

“It’s like a brotherhood,” added Lane. “A brotherhood.”

“And that felt really good,” said Jackson.

The significance of that togetherness, and the way all the players gelled, was also noticed by the coaches and the families of the newer players.

“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been coaching, oh my God I don’t want to tell you how really old I am, but I’ve never had a close-knit group of parents who never got in an argument with each other or were upset about something to the point where they’d run off the field or say something,” said Willie. “It was really a family environment and that helped the kids and me and the other coaches very much.

“That played a very big role. I always called us ‘The Family. We acted like a family. We ate together, we played together and that included the parents and that part of it made it that much easier. “I should probably put that at the top. Parents were very supportive of me, very supportive of the team and very supportive of the kids.”

“I have been on a lot of trips involving youth sports over the last 15 years, whether it’s football or baseball, but this one is the one that I will always remember,” added Damier Robinson, whose son. Bug was one of the newer members who was immediately welcomed into the fold.

“I say this not because we won it, but because of the teamwork that I saw from parents, grandparents, coaches and players.”

Coaching Of course, Damier also had high praise for the team’s coaches, headed by Judge Willie Weaver, with assists from Adam Hutchins, Cal Pollock and Mike Everett.

“I have also coached for a while and I must say, this was one of the best coaching staffs that I have witnessed,” he said. “And I don’t say that lightly.”

And it wasn’t just the parents who felt the staff did an awesome job keeping the team on track and working with the families to make sure the entire experience was a success. The players themselves had high praise for their leaders.

“We do have good players, but I still think it’s the coaches and the practices that we have,” said Boyd.

“They taught us stuff that we didn’t know before and once you get that you’re a better baseball player,” said Lane. “You’re just better.”

The notion of getting better at the game was very important to Willie who said that he believes it’s important for the kids to learn the game but also to understand that certain decisions have to be made for the good of the entire team, regardless of past history.

“My philosophy is, ‘play the kids in the best position for the team to win,’” he explained. “That was my theory and motto with the coaches and the kids.

“And what that looked like was, the kids had been playing, since they were 4 or 5, in the same positions, and that it didn’t happen this all-star season. The boys that were batting in the position they were batting in for the last 4 or 5 years, they didn’t bat in those positions. And that was based upon my observations based upon what the kids were doing in practice, what they had done during the regular season and what I had seen from those kids.

“Based on my philosophy I put kids where they had never really played before when it was obvious to me that they could play there. It was obvious to me that some of their talents had been lost because I guess the coaches got into the routine of keeping them playing first base all their entire lives.”

In addition to making sure each player was in the position that was best for the team, Weaver said his other main focus was to make sure the players understood how good they were and that they could hang with any team they faced.

“Number one was motivating the kids, making them know, based upon their past experience of going almost (all the way to a championship) and not making it, instilling in them that they were the best,” Willie said. “They were good but they had to get that in their own mindset.”

For example, Willie talked about the team’s past experiences with Canton and how in order to beat that team they had to know deep down that they were the better team and that history didn’t tell the whole story. Part of changing that mindset, he added, was making sure the kids were relaxed and focused more on playing the game the right way, with teamwork and sportsmanship, than putting the focus solely on winning.

“If the kids think, ‘We’ve got to win this game,’ and we don’t, it’s like the end of the world in these kids’ minds,” he said. “I made it clear to them, and I meant it and I never lied to them, ‘Canton has never been a better team than we have been. We have to have our attitudes right and play our A game and don’t worry about anything else. If they hit the ball, we have a good infield. If we miss the ball, somebody’s going to back it up. And if one goes over our head, we’re fast enough to get it in and stop them at second. So don’t worry about any of that stuff. You do what you do and then we go on to the next one. We’re not going to get upset about it.’

“And they did that.”

That kind of motivation, which was instilled to the team by the entire coaching staff made a huge difference and that fact wasn’t lost on the players themselves.

“They kept us motivated too,” said Boyd with a smile. “And if we didn’t do good, they’d make us run laps. So we did good so we wouldn’t have to run laps because nobody likes to do that.”

While Boyd was joking a little bit in front of his dad, the importance of the coaching staff was mentioned by several of the people I spoke with. And so was the importance of the coaches working together.

“The coaches supported the coaches,” Willie said. “If somebody had a problem with one of the coaches, all of the coaches would get together and talk about it and one of us would respond.

“And I think because I had not been in the Albany league a while the coaches were very protective of me. If something was said or something they’d come to me and say, ‘don’t worry about it, I’ll handle it.’

“That was very family-like and supportive.”

One League

Of course, as Willie alluded to, that kind of camaraderie between coaches would not have been possible, had families like the Weavers not decided to leave other established leagues in Albany and join up with Albany League Baseball. Several of the coaches shared that the team’s success likely wouldn’t have been possible if not for those types of decisions.

“A benefit comes from the Willie Weavers of the world that made the transition,” said Cal. “Which you know it had to be hard to leave leagues that they enjoyed and had helped build. They were the presidents of those leagues and for them to leave and to come over was huge.

“I commend Willie on that. I commend him one, for coming over, and I commend him on not thinking he didn’t belong because he was coming to a close-knit group where they all loved one another. He came over and he knew that and he loves us too. He’ll be the first to tell you, these boys love him and he loves them.”

That sentiment was also shared by some of the families of the players who chose to leave those leagues and come to Albany League Baseball, saying it was a great decision that led to great success.

“I have seen the talent across Albany being split up amongst four parks since I have been coaching,” said Dr. Courtney Love, father of Tray. “I know everyone wants to run their own show. I get it. I have been the park president at 8th Avenue. However, nothing like this would have been accomplished without everyone coming together.

“I can bet that in 2016 if some of our current pieces were with you guys that went to the World Series, that 8u team would have won it all. The talent is here in the City to play and compete against anyone in the country.”

Coach Willie agreed, saying that he thinks it’s “awesome” for there to finally be one baseball league in Albany.

“When I started a long time ago we had Dixie, Little League and Dizzy Dean and all kinds of things,” he said. “And then parks fell apart because one league couldn’t play the other and it was just fractured. So it’s a lot better now. The kids are in a position now where they can play together and they can have 10 teams and that’s awesome. In the past you had four or five teams and you’d play each other over and over again and you’d never really get the experience.

“So this is just awesome that it’s the only league in the city.”

In fact, he feels so strongly about the positive benefits of having a united city league that he has been vocal about the city of Albany and Dougherty County needing to give more support to youth baseball.

“I know that the city doesn’t support baseball as a league like they should,” he said. “The city and the county have shown very little interest, very little support. They don’t realize what the children did for them. They hear about it and it’s like just another day in the life of a child.

“My opinion is that they should really recognize these kids. And it’s not too late. The mayor sent me an email and said she wants to do a resolution. “That’s what the city of Albany is going to do. The county hasn’t said they’d do anything but I think they should do something to really acknowledge the history these children have made. I think it’s awesome that it’s the only Albany league and the only real league in Albany. The city and the county need to support the league, they really do.”

As Willie mentioned, a good place to start showing support for the league is by recognizing the accomplishments of the 10u all-stars, and honoring them for bringing baseball glory back to Albany.

More than a game

But in recognizing their accomplishment, the community also has a golden opportunity to celebrate the kind of children who were on this team, meaning they can highlight the characteristics of integrity, kindness and sportsmanship that we should all strive for.

Throughout my journey to learn more about this team, and figure out how they did what they did, I was confronted repeatedly by the notion that in addition to being great baseball players, this particular group of kids are simply good people.

Willie told me about how the team worked hard on supporting each other and making sure sportsmanship was kept at the forefront, both internally and externally.

“I had a couple of incidents where a kid on our team would make an error early on and the kids would heckle them,” he said. “Our own kids would say, ‘We could’ve had three outs; we could have won by now.’ Well, that kid was brought to the side, with the kid he heckled, and we’d have a conversation and understand that we are teammates and we should support each other.

“When somebody misses the ball, we lift them up and we tell them that it’s just a ball game, we’re having fun, we’ll get the next one.

“And with these kids I’ve seen things like, a kid runs to first base and gets thrown out and then turns around shakes the first baseman’s hand, that kind of stuff. That stuff happened.”

“They deserve what they got,” added Cal. “Like I said, good things happen to good people and it’s just karma for them to win something like that because they’re the kids that are going to hold the door open at Woodall’s for an old lady to walk through. They’re the kids that are going to say, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am.’

“When you go to Mississippi for six days and you’re in the Fairfield and you hear from everybody, from the janitor to the general manager, how well-behaved they are. Sometimes I scratch my head and want to know which ones they’re talking about, but then you hear it about all of them. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Even when they were talking about their experience at the World Series—how good it felt to win, and how cool it was to be recognized as winners when they returned home—the players made a point of talking about how much it meant to them to see their teammates be successful and how much it meant to them to act appropriately throughout the all-star season.

“Sportsmanship,” Lane said when I asked what things were important in earning the win. “Like I said, if you’re down and you pick somebody else up, that’s a great person to be.”

“I was excited for everybody because this is like our first World Series win, and I really liked how we acted about it,” he continued. “We weren’t like sore winners. We wouldn’t go up to the Canton Stingers and be like, ‘Oh we beat you!’ We were like, ‘Good game, good game,’ stuff like that.

“I mean don’t be like the other teams, like bush league, I guess. If your team does that, just that’s wrong and you should never do that and you should be nice to the other team.”

And they would even call each other out if one of their teammates was acting inappropriately.

“I would tell them to stop,” Jackson said when asked what he’d do if a teammate was being ugly to another team. “And then I would go to whoever they’re telling that to and tell them not to listen that they were just being mean.”

It was refreshing to hear young men talk that way about playing a game that seems to, far too often, generate animosity and poor behavior from children and adults. As I listened to coaches, players and parents talk about the value of community and acting with high character, I started to truly understand why this team had such great success.

“The experience really, it captures the beauty of youth sports, especially youth sports through the game of baseball,” said Adam. “It brought people throughout the community who may not otherwise have that opportunity to meet together.

“Sometimes as an adult, I guess maybe you know more and can be blinded by what’s not important. Kids just do it for the joy of it and the enjoyment of being together. So that’s the beauty of it, seeing 12 really good kids individually come together and pursue one common thing and have great success at it.”

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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