My hometown, Rockledge, Florida, is not a hotbed of sporting talent. When the Rockledge Little League All-Stars made it to the Southeast Regional of the Little League system, it was as aberrational as it was exciting: These were not the biggest, strongest, or fastest kids, but, as "unofficial coach" and parent Scott Aurand said, "Our kids worked harder than any other kids. Because of that, we probably won games that we shouldn't have."
Of course, it didn't hurt to have Ryan Hinz, a lanky, nearly six-foot lefty with a fastball that hovers around 70 MPH (which seems like about 92 MPH from a Little League mound) for most of the Little League-mandated 85 pitches in a game, a curveball that tumbles half a foot, and the command to use both and abuse hitters accordingly.
At the Southeast Regional, the All-Stars went just 1-2, running into the powerhouse that is Warner Robins, Georgia, a town that produced the 2007 Little League World Series champions and the 2009 Southeast representatives, in pool play. Ryan didn't pitch against Warner Robins, but he did compile these statistics at the regional:
10 IP. 4 H. 1 BB. 26 K. 0 R.
It's a good thing his coaches told me all of that before I went to bat against him on a muggy Saturday morning.
I have never played organized baseball. I am not in shape. If there is a diametric opposite of the five-tool player, I am probably it. I anticipated shame and pain in my matchup with Ryan. He delivered.
After watching him whistle a few pitches to the plate and swinging a bat that suddenly felt like a woefully inadequate defense mechanism, I stepped in, smiling, trying to calm myself.
Thwppt-ding. Ryan sailed one high and inside to the backstop, the old scare-the-batter trick. It worked.
I settled in, whiffing on pitch after pitch. I missed high. I missed low. I missed wide. I missed inside. Ryan did not miss much.
After about twenty-five pitches of futility, I made contact, chopping a soft grounder to short that would have been no problem. The coaches and players hooted and hollered for me. My hands shook from the bat-ball collision.
Ryan threw about seventy pitches on that day: I fouled about six off, put four in play, and smacked two to the gap between shortstop and third base that would probably have snuck through for hits. Neither made it out of the infield on the fly.
My smile was gone, replaced with sweat and a grimace.
Afterward, I asked Ryan to rate me as a hitter: "Between bad and okay." Okay, well, on a scale of one to ten? "A three." Hey, that's almost not terrible, right? "Putting four balls in play out of sixty, seventy in a baseball game, that's...that's not very good."Oh.
The Rockledge All-Stars are tight, playing twenty games across Florida and in West Virginia at the Southeast Regional this spring and summer. Some of the team also played on a travel team, that, in a "light year," played 30 to 35 additional games, according to Aurand. The kids bond over baseball. "We feel like we're all best friends," Ryan said.
That doesn't mean any of them like facing Ryan. Chris Aurand, who, at around five feet and 100 pounds, is about average for the smallish, scrappy Rockledge team, certainly doesn't. "For me, it's a living nightmare. If you hit (a fastball), he'll throw you a curveball that breaks about a foot."
The All-Stars saw a few dominant pitchers this summer. They ran into Cortez Broughton of Warner Robins at the Southeast Regional, whose 75-77 MPH heat (MLB comparison: 98-101 MPH) helped his Georgia team go to the U.S. Semifinals in Williamsport. But he was wild, out after 15 pitches "He couldn't throw a strike," Chris said. "I'd put Ryan ahead of Cortez Broughton any day."
I had to ask. "Ryan made me look bad, didn't he?"
"Yeah." Chris laughed.
I'll watch the Little League World Series final today between the hammering kids from Chula Vista, California, and the clockwork dominance of the Taoyuan, Chinese Taipei, and know full well that every single kid on the field is a better baseball player before even leaving middle school than I ever will be.
Walk tall, kids.â†µ
This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.