Learning Life Lessons From Little League

Among them, says this coach, are teamwork, accountability, and the rewards of effort

WALTER WRIGHT is not your typical Little League parent. He's a lot more zealous. Enthusiasm is his first, middle, and last name.

As the co-training director of the Needham (Mass.) Little League as well as a team coach, such passion is an asset. He wants the town, which has a reputation as a hotbed of youth soccer, to grow ballplayers. Not because he wants this western suburb of Boston to become a Nickelodeon-level farm club to the Red Sox, but because he believes fervently in what the game has to offer.

He speaks of a well-run program as a ''field of dreams'' for young people. Participation, he says, brings children face to face ''with being coached, having something expected of them, realizing that improvement is inherent in the game, and that effort is almost always rewarded.''

In his view, one of the beauties of baseball is that it puts a child on the spot in a positive way, forcing him or her to step up to the plate literally and figuratively.

On a soccer team, he notes, kids can ''hide themselves'' on the field; in basketball they may lean heavily on a star player or two. In baseball, however, a certain degree of accountability is built in: Each player takes a turn at bat, and each has an area of the field to patrol.

Consequently, he says, maturity more than talent is often the biggest factor in whether or not a youngster sticks with the game.

At the youngest ages, where baseballs can be teed up rather than pitched, the emphasis is on introducing 6-to-8-year-olds to the fun of baseball. Once they outgrow the all-comers Rookie League and single-A Little League, tryouts occur, and the game turns more serious.

This is evident in the rigorous practice schedule of the ''major league'' team Wright helps to coach. The 10-to-12-year-old boys on the Indians practice six days a week, an hour and a half a day, sometimes in teeth-chattering New England spring weather.

Last Saturday, frost covered the grass as Wright pulled his family's hulking station wagon into the DeFazio Field parking lot for a 7:30 a.m. practice. The boys looked unfazed by the cold or the early hour, but the coaches quickly dispatched one member for hot drinks and doughnuts.

Spring-training regimen

The boys seem to relish the spring-training-like regimen, and Wright, a corporate and business lawyer by trade, says the frequent practices agree with the families. ''The parents love it,'' he says, electing to stand rather than sit on a frigid aluminum bleacher.

Walking the fine line between seriousness and fun is a tricky proposition in youth leagues, and Wright seems to have the knack. He barks sometimes, but doesn't bite; he knows how to kid and joke to make a point; and perhaps most importantly he sees the players as lovable.

''Some of these kids are so sweet,'' he says off-handedly, and later adds, ''You can't be afraid to put an arm around a child.''

Helping grown-ups keep the game in perspective is one of Wright's toughest responsibilities. Two of his greatest concerns, he says, are adults who verbally abuse umpires, and coaches ''who are excessively negative.''

''You can't say to a child, which is not true, 'You cost us the game.' When you begin to keep score, you have to explain to children that everybody is responsible for game outcomes. Even if you played a wonderful game, there's still some other way you could have contributed, maybe by hitting four home runs or pitching a no-hitter.''

Despite the way baseball showcases individual skills, Wright says it's important to build esprit de corps. ''You've got to develop a group focus, a team mentality,'' he observes as, behind him, players practice in groups of three on relaying throws from the outfield.

Get used to the cheers

''I like my teams to be loud and proud,'' he says. ''I want them encouraging their teammates all the time. I want them to hear people cheering for them and get used to having people cheering for them.''

On the other hand, he believes at the older levels of Little League it helps to create friendly competition and occasionally have coaches act Lombardi-like. Call it mental conditioning.

The coaches are tough at practice, he says, ''because we know how they're going to feel when they drop the ball in a game. There may not be tears, but you can see it in their eyes.''

Opening Day in Needham is April 23, and the Indians will play in the season's first game, carried live on the local cable channel. (Opening Day teams are penciled in on a rotating basis.)

A former high school and recreation-league player, Wright spends much time studying technical books on his favorite subject. He can discuss Dusty Baker's theory of batter knuckle alignment, but at the moment is working on a parent-friendly teaching manual.

''Skill development is very important in baseball,'' he says, ''because there is an element of danger, even when using modified [soft-core] balls.''

Participation in Needham Little League is soaring because of changing demographics and the efforts of people like Wright to talk up the sport and make it a fun developmental experience.

The foundation of this education, he stresses, begins with parents and children playing catch, an activity he vigorously encourages. ''If kids can throw and catch, you can teach them to play the game,'' he says. ''And once they are throwing and catching, they can teach themselves the game by watching TV.''

* More on youth sports: See Page 15.

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