Finding the best sort of youth baseball

They were the summer of ’14 wunderkinds, making it all the way to the Little League World Series in hallowed Williamsport, Pa. — the first time baseball wunderkinds from around here had ever made it that far. Then they almost won it.

But on Monday, the Mountain Ridge All-Stars were up against it.

This summer’s Mountain Ridge team appeared to be much smaller than last summer’s. This is probably why Mountain Ridge found itself in the consolation bracket at the state Little League tournament at the Arroyo Grande Athletic Complex in Henderson.

Mountain Ridge would have to beat the team in the dark green and gold uniforms, the Paseo Verde All-Stars, on back-to-back nights just to make it back to regionals in San Bernardino, Calif.

So Mountain Ridge appeared to be the underdogs.

But I also noticed the Mountain Ridge kids had giant equipment bags with their names stitched onto them. Like pro golfers. The Paseo Verde kids had equipment bags, too, but theirs fit under the bench.

In amateur baseball, one should never discount the team with the biggest equipment bags.

The Paseo Verde kids took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Those who trekked a half-mile or so to the treelined ballpark and arrived late — there is little parking for kids baseball at Arroyo Grande, or even for riding on the swings — thought it was 7-0. The scoreboard could not display a “1” under HOME.

Mountain Ridge rallied in the top of the second.

That’s when one of the coaches started yelling at the home plate umpire.

Soon a lot of grown-ups in the stands and sitting in lawn chairs along the third-base line were yelling at the umpire, too.

I was standing with a couple of Little League officials who frowned and shook their heads and mumbled about setting a good example and being sportsmanlike. And how they thought this was supposed to be about the kids.

By the third inning, Mountain Ridge was so far ahead the grown-ups had ceased yelling at the umpires.

The championship games for smaller kids on the other fields were wrapping up. It was then I noticed something very cool developing on Field No. 2.

There must have been 30 or 40 kids over there — white kids, black kids, brown kids. The latter probably weren’t from the Dominican Republic, but I still bet Colin Cowherd would have been impressed.

They were small kids, average-sized kids, big teenage kids. They had a tennis ball and what appeared to be a plastic bat.

They chose up sides and began to play sandlot baseball.

Or at least a variant thereof.

There must have been 20 kids on each side. There were kids all over the infield and outfield — it looked like one of Tony La Russa’s weird ninth-inning shifts when La Russa managed the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was hard to tell what the rules were, or if there were any rules at all.

One kid would pitch the tennis ball; another kid would try to hit it. When a kid finally would hit it, about 13 outfielders would scurry about like bugs when you turn on the light, trying to catch it.

The kid who hit the ball would run around the bases until he scored or was put out.

It appeared you could put out a guy by throwing the ball and hitting him. The tennis ball was lacking much of its fuzz. When you got hit on the shoulder, it didn’t seem to hurt, even when the big kids threw it.

No score was kept. No trophies were handed out.

No grown-ups were supervising, or watching, or yelling at the umpires — there weren’t any umpires.

These kids were having a great time.

There was an innocence about their game — before long, some of the extra outfielders got bored, so they formed a second organic game down the left-field line — that I remembered.

These were the games I wound up watching.

From over on Field 4 eventually there would come a rustling of grown-ups and lawn furniture. Mountain Ridge had won, 13-2. Don’t discount the teams with the big equipment bags.

(The next night, Paseo Verde would win, 6-4. The kids with the smaller equipment bags will be moving on to San Bernardino next weekend.)

Grown-ups were hiking to their cars, and the organic games on Field 2 were starting to peter out. But they hadn’t yet turned off the lights.

A kid wearing a full baseball uniform smacked one way out into the left-field shadows. Another kid caught it. On the fly. But the other kid was playing in the other game.

A brief discussion ensued. Was the batter out? Or could he keep running?

It still was being debated when the kid wearing the uniform started to run.

A kid wearing a Goonies T-shirt threw the tennis ball at him. He missed. The kid wearing the uniform circled the bases.

When he arrived at home plate, I noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes.

As I started for my car that was parked way down the hill, I still could hear the dull thud of the plastic bat striking the fuzzless tennis ball, and the sound of kids laughing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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