The Travels of Northwest Little League

If you have read any of my blogs, you’ll know that I coach my son’s Little League team. It is one of four teams from Maryville in the 14-team Northwest Missouri Little League area. The baseball season runs from May to the end of June. Then 13 lucky players are picked to play in the Little League postseason. Most people know about the Little League World Series that is broadcast on ESPN in August. Those Little Leaguers are 12- and 13-year-olds. My son, Sam, is 10-years-old. Their division plays only up to the state championship level. Sam was lucky enough to be picked as one of the 13 All-Stars. Four came from Maryville, including Zach Patton, Keyton Pettlon, and Harrison Kerchner. The other nine came from Stanberry (one), Worth County (three), Tri-County (one), Ravenwood (two), and Albany (two). They were all great kids and the parents had a fantastic three weeks watching their sons bond and compete together. As usual, though, some memorable events took place that I am forced to blog about. I’ll try to keep the personal stuff to a minimum.

The first level is a regional tournament, where three teams play a round-robin to determine seeding in the next level – the district tournament. For two consecutive nights, we traveled to Eagleville. If you love basketball movies, you should know all about Eagleville. In the movie, Glory Roads, the white player that lost his starting job in the national championship game was Jerry Armstrong, a native of Eagleville. Remember the movie? Jerry was the first to start the food basketball game in the cafeteria. That broke the ice of the color barrier. As the team captain, Jerry also accepted the fact the team would benefit from starting all five black players against Kentucky in the national championship game. In two trips to Eagleville, I didn’t see one sign saying the home of Jerry Armstrong. All I saw were firework stands.

The team won both their games. Sam played about half of each game in right field. Here’s where he made his most memorable play. With the tying runs on base in the fourth inning of the game against Harrison County, Sam made an over-the-shoulder catch in right field. It was a little like Bugger’s catch in the original Bad News Bears. He told me he had it all the way. Sam also thinks I believe in the Tooth Fairy.

It was then on the Concordia, a three-and-a-half hour car ride to central Missouri. Did you know that the Concordia Oak only grows in Concordia? I kid you not. That tree can only be found in this one town and nowhere else in the world. It’s kind of like the Spoofhounds in Maryville. The only place in the world where that mascot is found is in dear, old Maryville.
Someone by the name of Paul Thompson discovered this three-hybrid oak in 1974. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell much difference of that from regular oak trees. But it’s cool to have something no one else has. They say it’s hardy and can withstand ice storms. We saw a lot of storms in Concordia, both from the sky and our opponent’s dugout.

The home town LaCoMo East had something that I have never seen on a Little League team; a coach that is closer in behavior to the Morris Buttermaker, the coach played by Walter Mathau and Billy Bob Thorton in Bad News Bears, than a typical Little League coach. Everyone made the long trip to Concordia on a Sunday only to find out it had been rained out. Since we were playing the Princeton Little Leaguers, we asked to play them in Albany and save many, many, miles. Everyone thought it was a good idea but the LaCoMo East coach, who thought we should all travel back to Concordia. He apparently hadn’t heard of going green?

We had another rain out after the teams had arrived. The Northwest All-Stars ended up playing the host team twice and had the chance to see the local Little League coach pull out the stops to win a couple of games. Coach “Buttermaker” of LaCoMo East tried every trick in the book to win the games. He contested the seams of the baseball, base running, substituting rules, and pitch count rules. In the end, the Northwest Little Leaguers beat the hosts twice to advance to the state tournament. It was neat watching the 9- and 10-year-olds dumping water on their coach, Richard Baker, from Grant City. They won 8-7 when Tevin Cameron of Worth County struck out the final batter on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and the next night with a 3-1 pitching masterpiece by Eli Dowis of Tri-County to earn a trip to the four-team, state championships in Festus. Coach “Buttermaker” spent most of his time after the game avoiding an angry father of a player he never got into the game, which is against Little League rules.

It was on to Festus for the final weekend of July. Did you know that Festus is about 30 miles south of St. Louis? It’s a good six hours from Maryville, but all 13 players were fired up for their state tournament appearance. The other three teams were Twin Cities from Festus and Crystal City, Web City from near Joplin, and the Daniel Boone Little League from Columbia.

Here’s another fact about Festus. I thought a character from the old TV show Gun Smoke had something to do with the founding of Festus. I was sadly mistaken. There have been three names for this near suburb of St. Louis. In the early 1800s the town was called Limitville. Later on Limitville became Tanglewood. Now it features a White Castle Restaurant and a Jack-In-The-Box and is named after a Biblical figure, Poricus Festus.

Festus may have been named for a heavenly figure, but the temperature reminded us of the opposite side of right and wrong. It was really, really, hot. The first night, there was an opening ceremony in a 110+ heat index. Then, Web City gave our All-Stars their first loss, 10 – 7. We led about half the game but gave up six runs in a wild fourth inning.

That put us in the elimination game with the Columbia team. It was on Saturday evening, but first the Festus people put on an outfield throwing competition, a base running contest and a home run derby, all in sweltering heat. We barely got cooled off when we had to fight for our lives against a very good Daniel Boone Little League team. The man, Daniel Boone, actually did something significant in Columbia, but I don’t remember what it was. I always thought he killed a bear when he was only three, but someone reminded me that character was Davy Crocket.

You would think that being a good parent, watching a bunch of 10-year-olds play their hearts out, would be an easy way for me to stay out of trouble. But there was an incident that I might have cost our team a win. Here’s what happened.

We were trailing 6-4 in the bottom of the fifth when a Columbia batter who definitely weighed twice as much as Sam (59 pounds) came to bat with runners on second and third. The big bruiser proceeded to blast a three-run, over-the-fence, home run. However, I noticed in all the excitement, the runner from second never touched home. I mentioned it to a parent who told the coach. The Northwest catcher stepped on home and explained it to the umpire, but the umpire just shrugged.

All the parents thought I was nuts, but I knew the only problem was how we appealed the play. The rule states time has to be back in before we can appeal. After the home run, we never allowed the umpire to announce, “Play ball!” I knew this, but decided to keep my mouth shut and let the players and coaches sort it out.

We got out of the inning with no more runs scoring and we went into the final inning down 9-4. The umpire ventured towards us in the stands. I asked him if the runner at second had missed home plate. He said, “Yes, but you appealed it wrong.” I told Jeff Patton and Chris Pettlon, both Maryville parents, that I would surely be punished for keeping my mouth shut. I knew the only justice for me was for Northwest to score four runs and get beat by one run. If I had insisted on the correct appeal, Daniel Boone would have only had eight runs.

You can guess what happened next.

The Northwest All-Stars rallied, spurred on by a ringing double by Keyton Pettlon that almost decapitated the big home run hitter at third. When Keyton scored later in the inning, we trailed by a run, 9-8. But a strike out and a ground out ended our tournament run. We could still be playing if I just hadn’t done something very unusual and kept my mouth shut. That doesn’t happen very often. I could have easily walked the pitcher and catcher through the appeal process.

Despite that disappointment, Sam had some great experiences with the All-Star month. He met some great kids from near-by communities and got to appreciate the Maryville players from Horace Mann, Eugene Fields and St. Gregory’s Schools. Sam cried pretty hard after the loss. A few parents I’m sure wondered why the tears. However, Sam can’t help but pick up the meaning of sports just hanging around everything that goes on at Northwest Missouri State University. I have to admit, I had a tear, too. I tried not to show it, and it had nothing to do with the loss. My sadness was because the All-Star experience was over. Sam may or may not ever make an All-Star team again, but he and I won’t forget this one. For me, I didn’t have to wear a coaching hat. I never had to make a decision on who played and who sat on the bench. I never had to figure out how to scrape across runs or position the defense. You know, it was kind-of great just being a parent.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.