In some ways, it’s all so unrecognizable.
The Mid-Atlantic Region jerseys have given way to school-issued blue-and-gold. All those people, the 20,000-plus who turned out last August at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, have been replaced by a smattering, perhaps 80 or so. From world champs who’ve heard cheers from 50,000 before a World Series game in October at Wrigley Field to seventh-grade classrooms.
Life has changed for Maine-Endwell’s (N.Y.) Little Leaguers since ESPN cameras captured their momentous feat at Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
And one could argue the biggest adjustment has come on a baseball diamond. Dimensions have been drastically altered, forcing adjustments on the mound, in the batter’s box, defensively and on the basepaths.
All one needs to do is listen.
“I was (swinging) so early on all the pitches.”
“It’s not as easy to hit a home run as it was.”
“The run to first, it seems like you never get there.”
“(My curveball is) still not dropping like it was.”
Those comments came from Payton Bennett, Jordan Owens, Brody Raleigh and Mike Mancini, respectively, players who make up 25 percent of Maine-Endwell’s modified baseball roster this spring.
Yeah, baseball has changed dramatically for those kids, as it does when little leaguers make the jump to representing their schools at the modified level. They go from facing pitchers standing 46 feet from home plate to 60 feet, 6 inches. The bases set 60 feet apart in Little League extend to 90 on regulation fields and the outfield fences are just a rumor for most of them.
Last summer in Williamsport, where Owens, Raleigh and Mancini helped M-E win the Little League World Series, 230-foot flyballs resulted in home runs. This season, they’re often routine outs.
Along with Owens, Raleigh and Mancini, Jack Hopko, Conner Rush, Billy Dundon, Justin Ryan, Jayden Fanara and James Fellows – all of whom celebrated in that magical 24-0 summer of 2016 that ended with a 2-1 victory over South Korea in the LLWS International final – are experiencing a new brand of baseball.
Mancini, a seventh-grader, called the adjustment “huge.” On a Little League field from the left side of the plate, the speedy Mancini said he felt he had a good shot at beating out groundballs to the left side of the infield. With an added 30 feet to first base, Mancini said, that’s no longer the case.
He also remembers facing South Korean pitcher Junho Jeong in last season’s International final before more than 23,000 fans at Lamade Stadium. Jeong possessed a fastball clocked at 70-plus mph.
“We still joke about it; we thought he was throwing high-80s,” Mancini said. “That was a tough game, but it’s definitely a huge adjustment going from a kid who literally seems like he’s 15 feet away to a kid who’s 60 feet away. Just standing in the box against the South Korean pitcher it was like, ‘Don’t hit me.’ ”
Fast forward to April 27 at Recreation Park in Binghamton, where M-E earned a mercy-rule victory over the Patriots to improve 3-1 on the season. They looked smaller and slower but only because of the field.
In reality, they’re bigger and faster. Up close, one can see they’ve matured physically in the eight months since Williamsport, some of their voices have deepened and soon enough their frames will develop to fit the larger dimensions.
And make no mistake, they still performed some eye-opening feats. In a practice April 26, Fanara hit a shot to the left-center field gap that one-hopped the fence at Struble Field. Owens also hit a gapper that made it to the fence on a few bounces. Those are no small accomplishments for seventh-graders.
Mancini flashed that smooth glove at short, making a backhand stab in the hole before delivering a strong throw to get a runner at first.
But growing pains were just as obvious. Outfielders broke in on balls over their heads, there were a couple of drops in the outfield, hitters still adjusting to the added distance lunged at pitches and pitchers missed badly with off-speed offerings.
“Certainly, it’s a big adjustment,” said Joe Hopko, an assistant coach for M-E last summer. “The fact it’s a bigger field, it’s real baseball. It’s leadoffs, it’s pickoffs, there’s a lot more strategy.
“Last year at the level the kids made it to, there’s no reaction time. Everything happened so quickly on a smaller field like that. You get on a regulation field, you have more time to react, more time at the plate, more time in the field. It’s a big adjustment for these kids and they’re going to take their lumps, which is good in a way. In some respects, it’s back to square one for all these kids.”
M-E modified coach Matt Simek said the learning curve is most noticeable in the field.
“The throws are longer in the infield, throws from the outfield to the cutoff man are longer,” he said. “The infielders are realizing the game actually slows down at this level because they’re thinking they get a groundball and they have to get rid of it, whereas now they look up and say, he’s still got 25 feet to go. I have more time than I thought or more time than I had in Little League.”
Just about everyone asked had a story about defense. Owens, a center fielder, said chasing down balls in the gaps means longer runs; Rush, a catcher, spoke about no longer throwing from his knees on steals, as well as the importance of arm strength to make longer throws; and infielders Raleigh and Bennett mentioned the extra time they have to throw after fielding groundballs.
“The kids aren’t throwing as hard, so you have to stay back and move to the front of the box,” he said.
Eighth-grader Bennett, who played on the 2015 M-E Little League squad that won the New York state title, said one of the advantages of batting on a bigger field is “there’s a lot of grass to hit to.”
Mancini spoke of another adjustment.
“It’s pretty sweet to be a world champion,” he said. “We all have it in the back of our heads. It’s been pretty tough, too. You have kids yelling at you, ‘You’re not a world champ no more.’ That’s the funny part. You always get those hate messages, but that’s the fun part.”
Simek said he discussed with his assistant coach whether the squad needed reminding that this isn’t M-E Little League Part II; it’s M-E modified baseball.
“They’re starting to understand what they actually accomplished, but they’re not letting it get to their heads the way you might think,” Simek said. “There’s a reason this team won the Little League World Series, but there’s also a reason this team won the sportsmanship award. These guys all play with class and respect.”
Turns out, that talk hasn’t been necessary.
Of all the nuances to be learned in all aspects of the game, Mancini said: “That’s the beautiful thing about baseball. You have to make adjustments to see how good of an athlete you really are. We knew coming in, our coaches said it, my dad said it — it’s not going to be an easy adjustment. As the season progresses, even now we’re starting to get it, the throws we need to make are longer. We take our time, shuffle our feet – just the fundamentals.”