On Little League Stars’ Closing Day, the Star Was Old Dodger Orel HershiserBy Sports @ 3:00 PM July 14, 2010
From Henry J. Brandon
Culver City Little League’s All-Star team completed its season last Friday, losing a four-inning exhibition game to Santiago Little League of Orange County.
Orel Hershiser with Culver City Little Leaguers
But unlike most Little League All-Star teams in their final game, they couldn’t have been happier about their last Little League experience.
Despite losing 2 to 1, the game really was the undercard on a day filled with moments that the players and parents will remember after their baseball-playing days are over.
Culver City participated in Subway’s National Little League Baseball Appreciation Game in Beverly Hills. In partnership with Little League Baseball and Softball, Subway kicked off its second "Baseball DeSIGNS" tour, with an exhibition game featuring teams from Los Angeles and Orange counties.
"We're looking forward to this summer-long event and its culmination in August at the Little League Baseball World Series," said Stephen D. Keener, President and Chief Executive Officer of Little League International. He attended the exhibition game and opening ceremonies.
Mr. Keener was joined by Orel Hershiser, a former Dodger who won a Cy Young Award and was a World Series Most Valuable Player, along with nine-time All Star Fred Lynn, who served as coaches for the two teams.
Also on hand were Tim Leary, Santa Monica High and UCLA standout who played 13 years in Major League Baseball, winning 17 games on the 1988 Dodger World Series champion team; Jared Fogle, Subway’s national spokesman and other Little League International executives. All of the celebrities were a huge hit with the kids, signing every autograph and posing for pictures.
“It’s about creating lasting memories for the kids” explained George Aceves, President of Culver City Little League, when asked why he lobbied to get Culver City included in the game for a second straight year. “Our board really has stressed it wants as many kids as possible to be rewarded and named to our All- Star teams.
“I really appreciated how unique the Subway opportunity was. I wanted our team to have this special moment. I remember how much the kids and coaches enjoyed the experience last year. I knew we had a great group of kids who would represent the league well and really embrace the whole day.”
Lynn captured the total mood of the day when he commented, “If I don’t see smiles, we haven’t done our job.”
The job was well done as there were smiles throughout the whole opening ceremony led by District Administrator Marty Hoy and filmed by several television cameras. The kids and their parents mingled with the celebrities before a big league-type first pitch ceremony signaled the start of the baseball game.
No Time to Hold Back
Hershiser was chosen to coach Culver City and took the position that others regard as honorary, very seriously. He immediately took charge of the team, positioning players, giving fielding tips and when he saw kids tentative at the plate, he reminded them that their swing mechanics were sound and they just needed a more aggressive approach.
When one player joked that pitchers were notoriously bad hitters, he smiled and related that one year he was hitting .400 for most of the season, and ended up hitting .356. With that comment, all seeds of doubt were removed and the team became his, hanging on each word he spoke.
The kids responded immediately, hitting the ball hard around the diamond. Only two spectacular plays by Santiago’s second baseman prevented Culver from breaking the game open as they were unable to capitalize on having men in scoring position as every inning ended. After two scoreless innings pitched by Garrett Doff and Eli Bowie, Santiago touched up the home team for three hits and aided by an untimely error put two runs on the board in the top of the third inning.
This was the same pattern that had cost the Culver victories in its previous two tournament games.
Hershiser, noting a drop in energy level, called the team to the side and repeated again that the general approach was sound. He said a simple adjustment in their footwork would lead to better fielding results.
This was a subtlety that a major league veteran can see easily can see that is not readily apparent to a typical Little League coach.
As if on cue, the team’s shortstop Jordan Caines responded with back to back Jeteresque plays that brought the crowd to their feet and helped Hunter Hutchinson pitch yet another scoreless inning. Down 2 to 0, Hershiser was joined on the bench by his former teammate Leary, who has served as a private instructor to several of Culver City’s Little League’s kids.
“Culver City Little League has some very talented kids,” Leary said. “I’ve enjoyed working with them, trying to help them improve their games.”
Casey Smith tried to bring the locals back, hitting a ground rule double and scoring on a well-placed ground ball by Benjamin Coombs-Perez. Colin Hefner kept the rally alive with a shot to the right side before Santiago recorded the final out. The game was filmed by ABC/ESPN, and portions will be seen throughout the Little League World Series telecast.
After the final out, Culver’s day was not over. The team enjoyed a healthy lunch from Subway, eating some of Jared’s favorite combinations, rehydrating with Powerade, another sponsor of the event, before more baseball.
Hershiser finished his contractual obligations and thanked all the sponsors and then got back to what he really enjoys — sharing his knowledge with kids.
Long after all the sponsors had taken advantage of their photo opportunities and the camera crews were gone, Hershiser gathered the remaining kids on the mound and individually broke the down the pitching mechanics for each player and several of their siblings. As parents tried to videotape and snap pictures of the moment, Hershiser and the kids were hard at work, discussing the advantages of different leg kick rotations, step back angles and the effects of mid pitch head positioning on ball flight.
“I consider myself a serious student of the game,” said All-Star Manager Richard Caines. “I’ve read and watched video on pitching and hitting. But this was next-level information based on many years of big league baseball experience.
“Having two pretty good baseball players in the family, and having coached Little League for eight years, we have some very lively discussions about playing the game,” Caines continued. “I’ve seen mixed results when kids have used private baseball instructors. Some of the things I heard and saw today I’ve never heard before, and I’m sure no one else has told these kids.
“This was unique information these kids can build on. It will help them become better baseball players.”
Halfway into his promise of a brief 15-minute session that had already gone half an hour Hershiser told the parents, “I’ve given out $30,000 of information.” One of the parents yelled back only half jokingly, “and we are available tomorrow, too.”
“It’s vintage Orel” enthused Monique Brandon, former Director of Community Affairs for the Dodgers. She is founder of the Dodger Dream Foundation and worked closely with Hershiser while he was with the Dodgers.
“Orel was always very passionate about the organizations that he chose to support,” she said. “So I am not surprised he did far more than anyone reasonably expected. I finally told the coaches you need to let him go. I knew he needed to get to his next commitment. Despite that, Orel didn’t leave until he had worked with every kid individually including a few little brothers. It’s why he’s so popular and such a great spokesman for Little League Baseball.”
After thanking every parent and player, Hershiser was rushed off by his handlers, anxious to get him to his next appearance. He still leads a busy life, with appearances in Southern California Friday, back to his home in Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker Saturday, and then back to Southern California for commitments around last night’s All-Star game at Anaheim.
He will be the lead analyst for the Little League World Series, and he recently handled the same duties for the College World Series. But to one group of Culver City All Stars, he will forever be Coach Orel.
Eli Bowie, one of the participants and a man of few words, summed up the occasion: “Today was pretty fun.”