When the Davis American Little League All-Stars finished their impressive run in the 9/10-year-old postseason, the team ended the playoffs with a 6-3 record.
In winning the local District 64 tournament, a sense of accomplishment was painted on the faces of these 13 youngsters.
Even two weeks later, in losing two straight games at the next level, you could barely tell the difference in demeanor.
The smiles were still there. The pizza tasted the same. The kids learned a little more baseball and the families continued on with their summers — none the worse for wear.
It was youth sports done right.
Managed by Keith Millward and coached by Stephen Inouye and Chris Trinidad, our DALL tournament team should serve as a blueprint to follow for all kids’ squads — in any sport.
I had a chance to chat with Millward and Inouye about their formula. They validated something I’ve known for a long time: Confidence and communication are foundations to almost any accomplishment.
“As far as the levels go, I think in some ways (9/10) is more challenging in regards to the parents and playing time,” says Millward, who coached varsity baseball at Fairfield High for seven seasons (1999-2006). “The high school level, it’s pretty clear-cut: It’s competitive baseball by that point. The lower Little League levels of all-stars — and even our regular season — it’s pretty clear the priority is participation and fun.
“(All-Stars are) in a gray area where it’s Little League, it’s participation, it’s fun — but now we’re also going to make it very competitive where the goal is to represent your community and win.”
Inouye, who managed the AAA city champion Angels with Trinidad as his right hand, says getting the all-stars to understand the “next level” — and bringing the parents along with the game plan — was the secret.
“You have to remember, every one of these kids pitched, played shortstop, were the stars of their teams. Every one. All of a sudden now, someone is getting one at-bat,” veteran coach Inouye told me.
Making sure it’s fair is “sometimes walking the line,” believes Millward, who managed the major-division Red Sox, for whom his son Owen played:
“(As coaches), we had to choose our words carefully and constantly re-evaluate our priorities and keep the kids motivated and excited, but still try to play the best combinations in an effort to try to win most of the time,” Millward says.
“You must make sure everybody gets the constant reinforcement for their contributions, no matter how small. To me, this level is the challenging level.”
And how do you get all the parents on board?
“It’s impossible,” Millward admits about making everybody happy. “(As coaches) we just had to be at peace with this — it’s impossible to create an environment where every parent is going to be satisfied completely.
“But I think you avoid a lot of trouble by communicating in the beginning.
“The very first thing I said to each family before they even accepted a spot on the roster was ‘It’s a situation where not very much playing is guaranteed and I just want you to have a conversation with your son and be sure that he’s excited about participating … even if his playing time might not be very much.’”
Trinidad, Inouye and Millward were constantly evaluating players, constantly giving their charges chances to show their stuff in practices and games.
Case in point: Colin Walsh …
The versatile AAA Yankee didn’t see mound duty until the final playoff game — with his team trailing 6-0. All Walsh did was hold North Oakland scoreless while so motivating his teammates that Davis rallied to lead, 7-6, before falling late.
Millward says his staff reiterated every day to the players: ” ‘Don’t ever stop trying to improve and showing us what you can do — every time we practice, every time you get an opportunity in the game.’
“Colin is a perfect example of that. He wasn’t part of the (pitching) equation up to that point, then he was player of the game.”
Inouye praises the DALL parents for their support from the stands and during discussions with their kids in the car, the living room and wherever the subject came up.
“It prepared the kids for the experience,” Inouye adds.
Millward and Inouye were delighted with the support from DLL President Paul Hasson and his experienced board, who provided just the right framework from which coaches and kids can grow.
“Kudos to Davis Little League, in general, for their policy of inclusion and really urging everybody to play a lot of kids at a lot of different positions,” Millward continues. “And by not having the regular-season games count toward the postseason, it really takes away all the motivation for coaches to be cut-throat and play to win during the regular season.
“So all these kids — not just the all-stars — have had an opportunity to play at lot. In Davis Little League you’ll never have a kid who goes through his whole career just playing the minimum.
“By the time these kids get to (season’s end), they’ve played a lot of baseball.”
And Hasson and other board members are sensitive to the fact that Little Leaguers want to try other sports.
There are coaches’ and players’ clinics during the year, Fall Ball later on and fundraisers here and there, but participating in other sports is encouraged.
To wit? Millward and his son Owen will turn their attention to hockey while Inouye’s family focuses on soccer for a while.
But come next spring, you can bet this trio of Davis American coaches will be back — and it might be a good thing to feature them prominently when DLL conducts that first coaches’ clinic.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-320-4456.