As young baseball players mature, the skill and competition advances. They are no longer just playing for the sport, but they are also representing their city and thinking about their future.
LB Whaley, Long Beach’s all-star baseball team, won the 2012 Protect Our Nation’s Youth (PONY) League World Series against Chinese Taipei in Washington, Pennsylvania on Aug. 18.
For the first time since 1965, the program made the World Series in 2007, when they finished as runner-up, but, in 2008, they won the title.
Staff manager Scot Chamberlain and assistant coaches Kirk Salaya and Rick Dent mentored the team to victory. “I would basically tell them they had worked very hard to get to this point,” Dent said. “[I told them] to ‘enjoy the moment and play as hard as you can. And don’t forget that you’re not only representing PONY Baseball, but also the city of Long Beach. Go out there and give it your all.’”
During the regular season, this staff coached for the Astros, one of the Whaley Park PONY teams, and won the regular season championship. “That’s why we had the opportunity to be the coaches for the all-star team,” Salaya said. “What was really motivating was that all the kids that were probably going to be picked for the all-star team were there at the playoff game, either on the team or in the stands, cheering us on because they wanted us to win. So, that way, they could play for us during all-stars. That was most definitely motivating. I remember once that, during a game, Scot said, ‘Can’t you just feel all that love? They want you to make it!’ You gotta be in it. You gotta love it.”
PONY Baseball’s teams are broken up between age differences of two years, which differentiates them from Little League Baseball. With players of only two ages involved, the difference in skills within the age groups are minimized. This gives every player the opportunity to play more positions.
This age-bracket system scales the diamonds and the distance between them depending on the team’s ages. The age groups, from youngest to oldest, are called: Shetland, Pinto, Mustang, Bronco and Pony. For 5- and 6-year-olds who play within the Shetland division the bases are set 50 feet apart. For kids who are 13 and 14 years of age in the Pony division, the bases are set 80 feet apart.
The boys from the six teams of the PONY division at Whaley Park nominated 15 to 20 players to participate on the all-star team. The coaches and managers from these teams attended a meeting to unanimously vote which kids deserved inclusion on the team. 15 boys– nine from Robert A. Millikan High School and six from Woodrow Wilson High School– were officially chosen. Those players are: Max Cauble, Eddie Cervantes, Riley Dent, Jacob Hughey, Griffin Keller, Austin Logan, Tanner Meckes, Monty Petersen, Jay Rohman, Will Semenson, Bryan Smith, Spencer Steer, Trevor Steer and Brandon Wade. Each of these boys also participates on a travel-ball team.
This all-star team was only given a little over two months to practice together before competing in the tournament. Coach Dent had the chance to observe the techniques used by professional ball players through his son, who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2007. “I had the opportunity to go out there to the training and talk to [professional] coaches out there,” Dent said. “[I] picked up on drills– what they were teaching the minor leaguers. I learned a lot from that. And then, my son’s agent, an ex-player from the St. Louis Cardinals, talked once or twice a week– talked baseball. He coached my son on hitting, I learned from him different hitting styles [and] different hitting techniques. So, I took those things that I learned … [and] I was able to apply [them] to my PONY team.”
The agent, who is also a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays, helped the PONY players with their batting. “And I [said] to the boys that this is the guy who taught me pretty much everything I know… so, I’m applying everything he once taught me to you guys. Passing it down,” Coach Dent said.
Even though the boys were given this advantage, there were still obstacles they had to face. “I would say that the biggest challenge for them to overcome is that they were all all-stars, and they were all great players, and they all could’ve started,” Dent noted. “But we only had nine field positions, and we had 15 team players on the roster. The biggest challenge is getting everybody to combine into accepting their role as a team player. You know, even though you’re not a starter, you’re still important to this team. And that you can come in at any time to be a pinch run, pinch hit, [or] come in for a defensive replacement. [We’re] just trying to find play time for everybody as a team. Accept the team concept.”
Salaya agreed with Dent’s statement. He also explained that the parents needed to cooperate with the coaches in accepting their sons’ place on the team. “We had some major discussions with the team and all the parents,” he said. “We played out some scenarios and told them that everyone had to buy into our approach. [I] said, ‘Hey, you guys wanted to play for us, so play. We love being out here too; that’s why we are coaching still.’ We had to reiterate these points a few times in the few months we spent together as an all-star team.”
Before the games, the coaches encouraged the team in different approaches. Being in the winning position, so close to triumph, the kids were already very motivated. If anything, they needed to be toned down, according to Salaya.
Dent, on the other hand, revved up the boys with his chant, “Straight out of Long Beach, stop, drop, shut ‘em down, and open up shop.”
According to Chamberlain, LB Whaley had almost lost one of the first few games of the World Series. In the Section Tournament, the first of four PONY brackets that must be won to get a title, Long Beach was in an elimination game against Paramount.
Luckily, the team was able to make it up against Taipei and come home to Long Beach with the trophy on Aug. 21.
Dent said that these five weeks were the greatest of his coaching career. He added, “To see the boys bond together and sometimes clash egos, they were still able to overcome it and make the teamwork happen.”