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TIMES CHANGE, BUT THE JOY OF LITTLE LEAGUE STAYS THE SAME

A month ago, Jim Busha called my house looking for help. He's a lifelong friend and the tireless president of Lake Shore Little League in Hamburg. All I remembered as I listened to the answering machine was him mumbling the C-word before I became faint and my world went dark.

Did he just say coach?

Busha had five teams but conned only one manager, his brother Don, into taking a squad in the boys instructional league. He wanted me to, you know, offer an extra pair of hands. Before I gave him my answer, which was "No way in hell," I prepared all the usual excuses. Work. Kids. Vacation. Golf. So what if they were in reverse order?

I'm not sure why, but after a good night's sleep I changed my mind. What the heck, I thought. I covered the Sabres the past two years. I can tolerate anything.

Something strange happened between our first practice and our season opener last week. I walked onto the field for our first workout thinking I would teach a dozen boys the fundamentals of baseball and walked off after our first game with a lesson from them about the basics of having fun. The kids in this league are 6, 7 and 8. They know nothing about baseball other than this:

They serve candy after games.

Maybe things were different when I was that age. We didn't need instructional league, where the coaches pitch, because we had enough kids who could throw the ball over the plate. We knew, once we made contact, the destination was first base, not third. I don't recall our first baseman chasing bugs during infield practice.

However, my new team, the Yankees, had at least one kid, maybe more, who before the season didn't know whether he batted left-handed or right-handed. That told me he never swung a flyswatter, let alone the Super Black Magic Titanium Double Blaster XXL these little monsters use nowadays. I also quickly realized these kids didn't need simple instruction on fielding grounders. They needed catcher's masks. By the time they picked up the ball, scanned the field, located first base and sent a hook shot toward the kid chasing bugs, the batter was laughing on third.

We had a left-handed kid show up for practice with a glove fit for a righty because he lost his own. No problem, he said. The little lefty spent the entire practice throwing with his right arm. To him, it didn't really matter, especially after I told him we had an extra left-handed bat. He just looked at me and smiled, his innocence very much intact.

It's for these reasons that minutes before our opener, I whispered to my father that one was the over-under on the number of outs the little Yanks' defense would make in the game. I was trying to coax him into taking the over on a sucker bet, knowing this one was locked up in the equipment bag.

Our first opponent, the Rangers, had two men aboard when our shortstop, a 46-inch, 40-pound blond, called me over. What would he ask, I wondered? Where he should throw on a grounder in the hole? Was there a force at second? Was he looking for explanation of the infield-fly rule?

"Coach? Coach? Coooaaaach!"

Yes, Bryce.

"Can I get some pop?"

"Bryce, we're in the middle of an inning," I said. "See that kid to your left. He's on second base. He's also on the other team."

"So can I get some pop?"

It was beautiful.

An inning later, a little Ranger was forced out at second but was standing there, frozen, long after the ball has returned to the pitcher. I walked up to him and lifted his helmet above his eyes.

"Good job, buddy," I said. "Good hustle, but you're out."

"OK," he said, "Where do I go?"

"To the bench," I said.

"Which bench?"

Another kid stopped me during the game and asked me the score. I told him it was 5-5. He asked me who was winning. And so it went for two hours and four full innings of unrelenting, gut-busting amusement.

You know what else happened in our first game? Bryce fielded two grounders from the first two batters, and Zachary caught both tosses at first. Adam caught a line drive in the third inning and leaped with both arms in the air, thinking the Yanks had, in fact, won another World Series. Nolan and Brandon, who on the first day of practice could barely swing and miss, let alone hit, positively smoked balls to the outfield.

They say kids don't enjoy baseball the way they did years ago, and statistics support the argument. Fewer kids are playing ball nowadays, with soccer, skateboarding, PlayStation and so many other interests that were foreign to their parents. They haven't grown up learning the game in diapers like we did. In fact, it was obvious some never even played catch until our first practice.

But nobody is going to convince me they're having less fun out there. Look at their faces after they get their first base hit, stomp both feet on home plate or slap fives with their newfound blood brothers. At some point during our first game, I realized baseball really hasn't changed at all. It's still a game for the kids.

A few little Yanks and their parents thanked me after the game when I knew darned well I should have been thanking them. I've covered pro baseball, covered baseball on virtually every level, but this was, by far, the best game I ever saw. Sure enough, the kids asked me about the score. Here comes the best part:

We didn't keep it.

It's my first season. We'll be undefeated.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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