Bill Sutton: Baseball's long and winding road

Bill Sutton: Baseball's long and winding road

Against my better judgment, I ended up coaching Little League in the 1990s for teams, including my three sons — Ben, Matt and Zak. I hadn't had the best experience myself as a Little Leaguer, and I had heard plenty of horror stories from others. But my coaching career was much different, especially when I linked up with a tremendous group of co-coaches, including Ron Rothschild, Joe Vitosky, Jeff Unger and Bill Scheidemantel. From the very beginning, we were determined to be ridiculously affirmative, as long as the kids were legitimately trying, even when their best efforts yield spectacularly disastrous results (like when one kid finally hit the ball but then proceeded to run the bases backward, we commended him for his originality). We came to call the approach "being Peanut League positive," and we carried it on at the end of the game in our tradition of "Plays of the Game," in which each player was to mention an especially good play by one of his or her teammates.

One of our most memorable games was the 1996 Urbana Peanut League championship game, which was played late enough in the summer so that we were without one of our stud players, Aaron Sutter. We were facing the other best team in the league, and, as Peanut League games were wont to go, it was a high scoring affair. According to league rules, each team was limited to five runs per inning until the sixth (the last), when all restrictions were off. Both teams were capable of scoring a lot of runs.

As we went to bat first in the sixth, we were leading 18-17, but we knew we would have to score a bunch of runs to hold them off. Unfortunately for us, two of our first three batters made outs, and the only reason it wasn't all three was because Zak had really hustled to barely beat a throw at first. But we were really looking at disaster — two outs, no runs and a lineup including a plucky but inexperienced player (Erica McKee) who hadn't actually managed to hit the ball fair once all year.

And then the heavens opened! With the help of Ron Rothschild's excellent pitching, the next 20 batters managed to reach base safely, including Erica — twice! In the process, we scored 18 runs to put the game securely out of reach. Some of it was really good hitting on our part (I think Nick Leigh may have hit two grand slams in the inning), some of it, unfortunately, was mistakes from the other team as they got progressively demoralized, and some of it was just unbelievably clutch play, especially from Erica, when any one out would have ended our inning.

By the time the other team came to bat, they had little left and we escaped their at-bat with only a couple of runs scoring, ending the game 38-19. I have never seen anything like it in all my years of playing and watching sports, and it was wonderful to watch the joy of my players, as they turned imminent defeat into glorious victory. I'll never forget it.

Two years later, we were back in the Farm league championship game, against essentially the same team. Once again, it was a tight game, and it came down to the bottom of the sixth. With one out, they had the winning run on third and two good hitters coming up. My kids looked ready to give in, so I figured I'd better do something, though I had no idea what that might be. When I gathered the pitcher, catcher and infield together at the mound, my first baseman was already crying. All I could think to do was to remind them of the obvious — the pitcher couldn't throw a bad pitch, the catcher couldn't let one get by him and all the fielders needed to be ready to make plays. And then I told them we would have plenty of time to cry after the game, but right now we had to concentrate on business. Not exactly a "Get one for the Gipper" speech, but it was the best I could do.

That did seem to settle them down. The pitcher (Aaron Sutter) threw strikes, the catcher (Joe Unger) caught everything thrown to him, the first batter struck out and the second grounded to the shortstop (Devin Schiedemantel). When his throw reached the first baseman (Nick Leigh) in time, I let out a tremendous sigh of relief as the kids headed jubilantly to the dugout, and I knew we had it made, especially when our number nine hitter walked to start the extra innings. We went on to score nine runs with no outs, and I finally told my next batters to make outs so we could finish the game before it got called by darkness. The kids went on to shut out their opponents in the bottom of the seventh, and we celebrated our second city championship in three years.

For a variety of reasons, my Little League coaching career came to an end after that Farm league championship. But I watched my players move on to the suited leagues with great interest. The two best (the aforementioned Aaron Sutter and Nick Leigh) ended up on a new team coached by Marty Kirby, the coach of the teams we had narrowly beaten in the previous stories. Marty took that team (Brownfield Sports) to the Twin City championship two years later, when Nick drove in Aaron for the winning run in a thrilling 4-3 victory. I watched that one, with great satisfaction, from the sidelines.

I continued to watch those Little Leaguers over the years as they moved on to Urbana High School. Aaron and Joe became tennis studs, Nick starred at soccer, and only Devin, Alec Vitosky and my son Zak continued to play baseball. Ultimately, however, Zak ended up on another team coached by the legendary Marty Kirby and Russ Rosenberger — an Urbana Junior Legion team that also included a number of players from those earlier games and which ended up making it to the national finals in Ohio when Zak was a high school junior. Zak flourished under Marty's tutelage and learned enough baseball to be able to contribute, as a coach, to a baseball team in the Dominican Republic where he spent a year volunteering after high school. The school was sufficiently impressed with Zak's coaching abilities to hire him as a third-grade teacher when they needed a replacement, and, as an 18-year-old, Zak enjoyed an incredible and successful run there. He has since graduated from the University of Illinois with a Spanish degree and is now teaching Spanish at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, where he was wonderfully mentored by the mother (Pam Krisman) of one of his Junior Legion teammates. And we all still use the term "Peanut League positive" to describe any situation that needs a little grace added to the mix. Who says Little League has to be all about crazy parents, out-of-control coaches and miserable childhood experiences?

Bill Sutton, 64, grew up in Urbana, went away and returned in 1974 and has taught U.S. history for 22 years at University Laboratory High School. He and his wife, Jane, who works at the Urbana Free Library, have three adult children. Sutton played Little League baseball on what he describes as a "dismal Coca-Cola team that, I think, ended up winning the Twin City championship a couple of years after my time."

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