From the smell of the ballpark, and the feel of the cold grass, to hearing the “ting” on the bat once again, spring is the greatest time of year for a baseball fan. It offers hope for those young and old; from the college elite trying to make their first big league roster, to the toddler just learning to hit the ball off the tee.
While players like Adam Eaton and Trevor Bauer were getting their first taste of the big leagues this spring with the Diamondbacks, 450 boys and girls ages four to 12 gathered to celebrate the beginning of their own journey—opening day of the 2012 Tempe South Little League baseball season.
“Opening day is my favorite day of the season, without a doubt,” says Bill Ottinger, one of the league’s directors.
“It’s an exciting day; you can really feel the energy around the place. It’s very electric. It’s filled with lots of great smiles and laughter.
“On opening day, everybody’s undefeated and anything feels possible.”
Teams lined-up one by one to parade across the baseball field, proudly hoisting their team banners high in front of fans, family and fellow players.
This season Tempe South Little League collaborated with Tempe Rio Salado Little League to make one large pool of players, coaches and teams across the Valley, a move that league president Mark Gordon says will improve the competition in the long run.
“From the kids’ perspective, we strengthened the league by making it more competitive,” Gordon says. “We also provided a more consistent ‘product’ to the community as we forced ourselves to communicate rules and manager/coaching expectations that were assumed but different between leagues.”
Gordon has been the league president for four seasons, and spent the prior six seasons coaching and helping out with the teams his children played on.
Gordon says that the league is a great experience for everyone involved, from player to volunteer.
“From the outside, Tempe South is an exciting, vibrant and growing organization that creates a wonderful environment for kids to learn and love baseball,” Gordon says.
“From the inside, it’s a bunch of dedicated parents that are willing to give to 300 or so TSLL families to help create and personalize that unique experience locally.”
Every season, each team gets to play at least one game at Tempe Diablo Stadium, which is the spring training home of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. It’s a unique opportunity that will stick with a kid for a lifetime—a proud moment as a player gets to step on the same first base as Albert Pujols and throw pitches from the same mound as CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver, three of the Angels’ most elite players.
Much like spring training, Little League isn’t about the wins and losses. It’s about the memories made while growing as a team and a community, and the skills learned through the game of baseball that are irreplaceable throughout life.
“It’s been my experience that the coaches are more interested in measuring player victories by accomplishments rather than just wins,” says Ottinger.
“Sure, we want our teams to win and we can get caught up in that sometimes, but more importantly it’s about instruction and player development to help build well-rounded kids.”
Each year Gordon has been involved in the league, it has grown. Over the last two seasons, Tempe South has added a home run derby for players, a fall baseball league, a league night out, an online sign up for practice fields, and many other community events that bring the league closer together.
Guys like Tom Brown and Bill Ottinger, both league directors for Majors and Minors respectively, are the keys to a successful season. Both have kids who play in the juniors program, which includes players 13-15 years old, but they spend the majority of their time working out issues with team managers ranging from practice field schedules, to resolving issues like rule discrepancies and equipment distribution.
Coaches and team staff typically start volunteering while their kids are playing in the league, but time and time again continue to stay involved after the kids have moved on; a testament Gordon says, to the quality of the league and those involved.
From their website, http://www.tempesouth.com/, you can find registration instructions, schedules, and information about volunteering, which is what keeps the league running. Gordon says that if you want to get involved, he recommends going to a league board meeting, which will give you a better idea of how the league operates and where you may fit in.
You may also want to take a trip out to Tempe Sports Complex, where the league hosts games almost every night. “You’ll most likely see brothers and sisters running around playing with friends or maybe walking their dogs around the place,” Ottinger says. “But everybody is enjoying the experience watching the kids play baseball. It’s a fun and safe way for the family to spend time together.”
Both Gordon and Ottinger have been involved in the league for quite some time, and agree that every year brings something different. “Every year is unique but has a strong element of tradition and timelessness,” Gordon says. “Just as kids ‘age out’ and being to play school ball, a new crop of T-ball and Farm kids will sign up ready to take on the challenge of learning to play baseball.”
Sign up is very easy. Teams often add players up to the first day of the season, and are flexible about making sure players are matched up with their parents and their friends so everyone can enjoy the season.
Though they compete against one another on the diamond, the 500 players, along with everyone involved in running Tempe South are on the same team. As a former player myself, the league offers a lifetime of memories for each player, from those who may never play beyond the little league level, to those that have the chance to go on to play collegiate or professional baseball. It all starts with the beginning of a new season, and a chance for everyone involved to enjoy one of America’s greatest games in its’ purest form.