Friday, July 21, 2006

Susquehanna Fever

One of the most unshakable of all diseases in Washington is known as Potomac Fever. Sufferers of this incurable malady want to be president so badly that they will foresake all other pursuits to beg for money, speak at rubber-chicken dinners, study arcane policy, suffer fools gladly, and genuflect toward the inalienable right of New Hampshire to hold the first primary. The greatest victim of Potomac Fever was Harold Stassen, the onetime Minnesota governor who ran for president nine times.

Sufferers of Potomac Fever can be seen buttonholing perfect strangers, muttering in a trancelike way: "This time I think I have a shot ... The polls look good ... What I need to do is perform better than expected ... We could surprise some people ... If we get some breaks, we can win ... Hey, crazier things have happened."

I was thinking about Potomac Fever because a similar condition sometimes consumes the coaches of youth sports teams. These coaches convince themselves that they can win the Little League World Series, say, and then build their lives around that goal. They scout kids in the local leagues. They build year-round training programs. They plot how to advance through the long hit summers of qualifying tournaments. They get reports on potential opponents.

Call it Susquehanna Fever, after the river the winds through the Allegheny Mountains and by Williamsport, Pennsylvania, site of the Little League World Series.

The chances of reaching Williamsport for the World Series are slim for everyone. More than 7,000 American teams compete for eight slots in the 10-day tournament. But no matter. The eternal optimism that grips pols with Potomac Fever also grip the coaches of 11- to 13-year-old boys.

I've met all kinds of coaches who work for years to get a shot at Williamsport. They range from the kind and relaxed to the calculating and intense. You hear plenty about the ones with veins bulging from the neck. I want to tell you about a kinder, gentler one -- Emmett Lee, the coach of the Tracy Little League all stars, about 100 miles from San Francisco.

Lee is a 70-year-old grandfather who started coaching Little League 10 years ago when his grandsons started playing ball. He spent 25 years coaching high school football and gold at Tracy High School. He played baseball and football at Santa Fe State.

Last year, Lee took the Tracy all stars to the championship game of the West regional tournament in San Bernardino. Rancho Buena Vista, from just outside San Diego, defeated Tracy, 7-2, in a nationally televised game to advance to Williamsport.

This year, Lee and his Tracy Little Leaguers are back at it. After winning the district championship, Tracy begins play tonight (July 21) in the Section 3 tournament. The winner of that tournament goes to a Northern California tournament, and the winner of that competition goes to the West regionals.

Lee knows that Tracy's chances of advancing as far as the regionals again this year are slim. He looks at the other teams in the tournament and is impressed at their size and skills. The kids are bigger than ever, thanks to a new age cutoff date that allows more 13-year-olds to play a tournament traditionally dominated by 12-year-olds. And the skills? "Let's just say that some of these kids do nothing but play baseball. It's like breathing for them," Lee told me today.

"We would have a chance to go a long way if one of our kids from last year, Casey Wickman, stayed with us, but he elected to go to Junior League," Lee says. "But that's OK. We'll go as far as we can."

Lee plans to coach this year and next and then call it quits. Last year's team featured his grandson Josh Wesley. This year, his 11-year-old grandson Jonah Wesley is the team's star pitcher. "I want to see him through Little League and then I'll call it quits," he says.

Lee laughs easily and talks honestly about the intensity and pressure of Little League tournament play. He wants to win -- and in fact, last year hge was willing to lose in order to win -- but gets dismayed when coaches and parents begin to treat the games like millennial warfare.

We talked about one one of the more intense coaches from last year's West regional tournament. I told him that I thought he was a pretty good guy, even though his intensity could be overwhelming.

"Youth sports brings out the worst in people," he said. "There are some pretty good guys who become tyrants. But you know, losing is not the end of the world."

Lee found himself in the middle of a controversy last year when, after going 2-1 in the first three games of pool play in the West regional tournament, he used his his lesser pitcher and lineup in a game against the all-stars from Chandler, Arizona -- a game which Tracy lost, 16-15. That was so Tracy would match up against Chandler -- and not the powerhouses from Vista or Nevada -- in the semifinal round of the tournament. In the semis, Tracy trounced Chandler, 10-0, to advance to the finals against Vista.

"That's how things work with pool play," Lee told me. "It was an advantage for us to lose. It doesn;t make any sense when you don't have to win a game to use your best pitchers.

Other teams criticized Tracy for purposely losing to dodge a tough opponent, but what's Lee supposed to do? Wear out an already exhausted pitching staff so that he can fight against a better team and blow his team's chancs to make it to the title game?

Lee made his decision and just chuckled when other teams got those bulging veins and threatened to protest with league officials.

What makes Lee's nonchalance so remarkable is that he's a guy who really, really cares about the game. If you want to see how much, visit him at his eight-acre spread in Tracy.

At that spread, where he lives with his wife in one house and his daughter and her family live in another house, you will see two Little League fields, two batting cages, and three pitching mounds. Kids play there all summer. The little kids play on the 60-foot bases, and the bigger kids extend the bases to the regulation 90 feet. On the larger field, a grove of trees about 300 feet from home plate define the outfield.

Before you point to Lee's field of dreams as signs of Little League intensity, think again.

Lee originally built a field in the back yard of the house where he and his wife used to live -- to provide play space for his wife's day care business. And when his daughter decided to move home, they bought athe eight-acre property and went all out with the baseball fields.

"Really, there's so much competition for field space, kids don't have anyplace to play, so we decided to build these fields," Lee says, laughing. "That's all. It's just a place for kids to play."

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