Friday, August 4, 2017

Supervised “sandlot” teams throw youth baseball into extra innings by Walter Lunt

Windham’s Little League season is long over. Baseball is not. League play ended on June 17 with the championship and all-star games. But then, wait! Beat the drum and hold the phone - players on both the winning and losing teams wanted to play on.
Liam Kalakowsky’s mom, Erin, remembers a conversation with her son the day after the big games.

“He seemed depressed and sad. I assumed it was because his team lost the game, but when I asked him he said he didn’t care about that, he was feeling down because the season was over.”

So, Erin started texting other moms. Likewise, their sons and daughters still wanted to play. What about pick-up games? Can we do that?

Enter Mike Butterfield, a member of the Board of Windham Little League. Continued League play was not in the cards, but Butterfield was determined to put youth baseball into overtime. The moms’ text chain had attracted 10 or more interested parents.
“My son was bummed when the season ended, so (pick-up play) was a great idea, it keeps the interest up,” said Butterfield.

Butterfield contacted school officials about the use of fields at Manchester School. He also started a Facebook page. After conferring with other parents, a game plan began to form; a plan distinctive for its lack of formality: no practices or drills, just games, no umpires, communal coaching, random teams, adult pitching, outs from the field only and play open to all boys and girls, ages six to twelve. 

Sandlot baseball had its official debut on July 5.

Butterfield’s pre-game instructions to the players are, like the rules, simple. “Okay, you guys, before you choose teams, I want you to remember why we’re here. We’re here because we all just want to play to baseball, the greatest game in the world.”

During play, suggestions for improvement come from both adults and the kids themselves. Calls on plays are usually made by the adult standing closest to the play. Disagreements are rare, and conflicts nonexistent. 

“The girls want to improve their softball game, explained Butterfield, “So we’ll pitch ‘em a softball if they want it. When they play defensive, they field baseballs.”

Two young players from the coach-pitch division of Little League were particularly energetic and spunky during one recent game. They swung hard, ran fast and made frequent loud calls of encouragement to older players, obviously seeking their attention. The adult pitchers moved off the mound to offer more generous pitches to the young hitters. Both got hits, and cheers.

“The little guys are obviously giving 110 percent,” observed parent coach Chris McDonald.

The games, dubbed the sandlot league, have grown in popularity over their four weeks. Twelve players showed up the first week in early July. By August, the numbers grew to 22, with parents and grandparents in tow.

“We welcome all kids who just want to play, not just Little Leaguers,” says Butterfield. One recent week saw one participant from Gray and three sets of brothers/sisters.
“It’s going really well,” observed Liam, eight, “lots of people are coming.”

“We’re here for the love of the game,” commented Cory Butterfield, whose son, Mason, vows to play until the end of October.

Sandlot moved to Lowell/Ciccerone field in East Windham. Master caretaker Bill Ciccerone keeps new grass on the field and prepares the grounds each Wednesday in time for the 6 p.m. start of play. 

After the start of school later this month, the games will be played on Sunday afternoons. Abby Vopal, whose daughter Sophia recently played minors division softball said, “These kids are chomping at the bit to get on the field; they’re having a blast.” She explained how Sophia was taken aback by her brother’s opportunity to participate in sandlot. Her enthusiasm to join opened the way for girls to play.

Willow Washburn, 10, was playing her first game of sandlot and observed, “I was nervous at first, but I figured boys are just boys, and they don’t really bother me. I love how we use baseballs and softballs.”

Tate Robinson, nine, who played minors division baseball, said he was there to improve his game. “Now I know more stuff,” he said, “I’ll get better at baseball.”

Anna Herald, 11, said she kept hearing about sandlot and “convinced my parents to come.”

Her brother, Graham summed up the experience this way: “You get to learn. It’s America’s pastime.”
As expressed in John Fogerty’s popular youth baseball anthem “Centerfield” - if you’ve got a beat-up glove and you’re ready to play, go see the coach, mighty Mike Butterfield. He’ll put you in.

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