One of the tricky aspects of coaching youth sports is the need to deliver consistent and brief -- yet poignant -- messages to the developing athletes.
Michael Steed really seemed to accomplish this as manager of the Fairfield American Little League all-star team that lost the championship game in the New England regional on Aug. 9 before a national television audience. His guidance along with assistant coaches Keith Reynolds and Peter Davenport had to have been a contributing factor to their success -- a 16-3 final record that left the team one step away from the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., that begins for the New England champions from Cumberland, R.I., on Friday night.
Last Saturday night was not the first time Steed had mentioned after a game how baseball is both a beautiful and cruel game. It was one of his themes to the team for the past seven weeks. Fairfield lost 10-6 after holding a 5-3 lead entering the bottom of the fourth inning. They were seven outs away before Rhode Island's pivotal five-run rally.
The season's ending, one step from the Americans' ultimate goal, with bitter disappointment and some tears underscored the painful nature of the sport, or any sport for that matter, or any undertaking that requires and receives commitment and dedication along with hard work.
The Americans' players learned a valuable lesson: a tremendous amount of effort done collaboratively and funneled in the appropriate way won't necessarily result in success, or meeting a goal, regardless of how lofty the targeted ending may appear to some outsiders. Sometimes more is required; sometimes a group can only be as good as good as it can be. Sometimes others might be better.
They don't need to figure out how much of the above applies to them, just recall with pride the wonderful esteemed accomplishments realized together: five tournaments entered, four titles, one runners-up trophy, an eight-game winning streak, a six-gamer as well and a 3-1 record in elimination ball games. Those are the traits of an outstanding team.
The Fairfield American team is left with one of two daunting realities as it reflects on its remarkable summer of winning baseball, showing ability and depth in pitching, hitting, fielding and base running with versatility shown by most players. Either it was the best team in New England and didn't realize its potential, or it was the second best team in the region.
The first scenario would suggest blame belongs pointed at them. And that notion is grossly unfair and just plain wrong. It would be insincere, too. Because Fairfield American teams won state championships and the New England regionals to reach Williamsport in 2010 and 2012, and this year's team and the 2011 edition were crowned in Connecticut but not in New England as well does not reflect negatively on the two regional runners-up teams. Not in the least.
The wise say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This applies to this talented but not-quite-perfect team. The message here is the Americans were more likely to have overachieved than to have underachieved. They were strong with no weaknesses. But their strengths all over the diamond, field and mound had limitations. They weren't quite dominant in any, though they appeared overwhelming at times.
Fairfield faced teams with better hitters, better pitchers and better fielders. Only one team of the 13 they played since June 23 could approach the Americans in all three phases of play -- Cumberland American. And if Rhode Island was better in any or all areas, it was so by a nod, not by any margin too noticeable.
There are many images to be carried away from this tournament season -- all of them memorable.
Brian Howell's slugging and slick fielding at shortstop as well as his close-down relieving. Vince Camera's award as MVP of the District 2 tournament that was amplified by further standout play. PJ Egan's handling the role of ace exceptionally well. Sam Davenport strong pitching as the No. 2 starter.
Then there was Jamie Flink's flair for the dramatic with his opposite-field homers and three game-winning hits, plus his starts in the No. 3 pitcher's spot, particularly on Aug. 2 against Maine, and his patrolling of right field. Ian Bentley's clutch hitting, fine play at first base and spot relieving. Jack Steed's fine fielding at second base and red-hot batting the last two weeks. John Reynolds table-setting at leadoff for a majority of games, in addition to his vacuum-cleaner's glove in center field.
Brian Kiremidjian was reliable with the glove while supplying timely hits, homering in the New England final for Fairfield's second lead of the game. Connor O'Neill had some big hits while playing the corner outfield positions with aplomb. Trey Hensel played outfield and third base with a steady glove and blasted a home run on Aug. 1 against Vermont.
They all contributed, if not consistently then sporadically but often in clutch spots. Who'd want more?
The lasting impression, though, comes from Michael Steed's commentary about the overall experience, at the end of his interviews with the media, a few minutes before Rhode Island's turn to face reporters and photographers on Saturday night.
"There are five boys on the team who do not have brothers. Now, after this, they all have brothers for life."
Youth sports is supposed to build character and teach teamwork all while having fun, developing skills and making fitness a lifelong pursuit. If adopting non-biological brothers for their remaining 65 or 75 years or so can be accomplished as well, then how else could this summertime experience be viewed as anything less than being resoundingly successful and enriching?