By TIM BARTO
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” baseball-impassioned Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) is on a mission that takes him from Iowa to Boston to Minnesota, where he meets Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster), a small town medical doctor who once played professional baseball but only made it to the Major Leagues for half an inning, never getting the chance to bat.
Ray isn’t sure of his mission, discovering it only as he talks with Graham, asking the elderly doctor what it was like coming so close to his dream of playing in the big leagues without getting to fully realize that dream. Graham held his thumb and forefinger close tother as he responded:
“It was like coming this close to your dreams and then watch them brush past you like a stranger in a crowd. At the time you don’t think much of it. You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening.“
Ray then asks Doc Graham if he could have a wish come true, what wish would that be. Graham:
“You know, I never got to bat in the Major Leagues. I would like to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup – wink; make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. The chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arms as you connect with the ball. To run the bases; stretch a double into a triple, and flop face first into third; wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish.“
Oh, how many of us wish we could make the dreams of a group of young Alaska baseball players come true. The Knik Little League All-Star team from Eagle River-Chugiak flew to southern California last Thursday to play for the West Region title and a chance to advance to the Little League World Series.
The team is still in Southern California, but their dreams have been dashed by a singular positive Covid test. The team was immediately banned from competition before they got the chance to play a single game.
The Little League World Series has been the premier international youth sports tournament in the world for over 50 years. It is held annually in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where the league was founded over 80 years ago. Little League baseball is played in more than six dozen countries, all of whom are eligible to vie for a shot to play at the big stadium in central Pennsylvania. There is an American bracket and a rest-of-the-world bracket, with the winners of each playing for the world championship.
Getting to the Little League World Series is not easy. An American team must first win its district and state titles to advance to its regional tournament. There are eight regional tournaments, pitting the state champions against each other, with the victors advancing to the highly organized, and internationally televised, world championship tournament.
All the regional games are televised by the ESPN network, with the semi-final and championship games being televised on ESPN’s flagship station. Their coverage of the Williamsport tournament takes up much of the network’s calendar for a week and a half in late August.
This whole Little League thing, you see, is a pretty big deal. It’s something that budding young ballplayers dream about. They watch the games each year being played in grand stadiums with real seats, big electric scoreboards, perfectly manicured lawns, and straight-as-an-arrow chalk lines; and they envision themselves playing out on that field and then being interviewed afterwards by the same commentators that announce big league games.
The Knik team, which consists of 11-and-12-year-old boys, was scheduled to play in the Northwest Region tournament in San Bernardino, California, between August 8th and 14th. They arrived in SoCal on Thursday and lined up to take their initial Covid tests that same day.
On Saturday, while getting ready for breakfast, and a second round of Covid tests, their coach, Mike McNeil, informed them that Thursday’s results revealed one player tested positive for Covid even though none of the players exhibited any symptoms whatsoever. They then waited to see what would happen next.
Like many of his teammates, Knik second baseman Ethan Atkinson was attempting to take it all in and make sense of the bad news. He was feeling numb more than anything else, he said during a telephone interview. A few teammates were brought to tears as they went to their dormitory to pack up their belongings and move to a nearby hotel that Little League Baseball was providing . . . so as not to infect the other teams still staying in the dorms.
The manner in which this all took place is a matter of contention with some of the coaches, players, and parents. Saturday was the first day of the tournament and, ironically, was a bye day for Knik, meaning they didn’t have to play until Sunday. It was to be a day for team photos, stadium tours, and stepping onto the rich green grass and bright white chalk lines of the field they had seen on TV. But none of that occurred. The team was told to vacate.
Hotel accommodations were provided by Little League Baseball, and the organization also offered to provide meals catered from the dormitory’s dining hall. In one of the few lighthearted moments of the whole situation – and perhaps a small vindictive win – the team declined the catering offer due to gustatory concerns.
“Mom,” said one player, “they said they were serving steak, but it was just a piece of ground meat smothered in some type of gravy.” So, Knik president Steve Sharp and his board authorized extra funds so they boys could have palatable meals.
Adding to the negative feelings, all the teams that arrived after our Alaskans got there would not receive their first round of Covid tests until after their first scheduled games; so, they were allowed to play. They at least got to step on the field.
Hawaii, it ends up, had one player test positive, but the team was able to provide vaccination verifications for at least nine of their remaining players, so those players were allowed to continue to compete. The Hawaiian player who tested positive, and their one player who was not vaccinated, were presumably vacated from the dormitory complex.
Another team had a player test positive a week or so prior to arriving in San Bernardino, but that was apparently a long enough stretch of time to allow that team to compete in the regional tournament.
The Knik coaching staff inquired about having a second test run by a different tester, such as a private doctor, but they were told that was not an option. Little League Baseball is confident they are using the most accurate tests available. A coach from the Oklahoma team in the Southwest Region tested positive, then went to a private clinic to get re-tested. Those results came back negative, but Little League did not budge: Oklahoma, like Alaska, is out.
Knik manager Mike McNeil is, obviously, disappointed. Back in March of this year, he took a look at the talent in the Knik league and realized they were going to have a good All-Star team. (The teams that compete in these tournaments are made up of the best players – All-Stars – from the Major teams within the league.) Pitching is the key to advancing in the tournaments, and Knik has a half dozen solid pitchers on the roster. Coach Mike was confident that their team would have a pretty good chance, come August, to make it to Regionals.
And here comes another “kick in the gut,” as Coach Mike described the unfolding events: due to Covid travel policies, international teams would not be coming to the United States in 2021, so a true “world” championship would not be held this summer; however, this anomaly allowed for two teams from each region being allowed advance to Williamsport.
Knik, which has never had a team advance beyond Regionals, would have perhaps their best shot ever at advancing to the big dance.
But Coach Mike’s biggest concern is how his group of boys are going to manage once they realize what was taken away from them. He appreciates what a big deal this tournament is, and he knows his ballplayers have been dreaming of getting this shot; a shot that is, except for an exceptionally miniscule group of players, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
Mike takes his coaching and mentoring seriously, and his concern for the boys’ well-being is appreciated by players and parents alike. Moms Laura Atkinson, Theresa Westerlund, Stacie Gracey, and Aree Newkirk, all had praise for the manner in which Mike and the other two coaches have handled this whole situation. The parents all know the coaches are disappointed, but the staff has maintained its composure and continues to lead by example.
The Moms all admitted they were more emotional about the situation than their sons, but then, most of them added, 12-year-old-boys aren’t really good about showing their emotions.
Laura learned of the news while being dropped off by her husband to catch the first leg of her flights out of Anchorage and toward California. “It took my breath away,” she said of hearing the news. She missed her flight, had a good cry over her son’s lost dream, and then booked a redeye flight to be with Ethan – baseball games or no baseball games.
Aree Newkirk expressed the same sadness for her son, Pace, and his teammates, but also lamented the lack of fairness in the process. It seems that all teams are not being treated the same. Knik tested positive and was banned from the tournament. Other teams played prior to test results being received. Hawaii had a positive test, but the other players were allowed to continue.
Theresa Westerlund, who is also in San Bernardino with the Knik team, spoke of the strong bond between these pre-teens. It seemed to her that they had really come together as a team. They played exceptionally well during the District and State tournaments, and were looking forward to being on TV and playing on that beautiful diamond in San Bernardino. It was difficult for her son, Gus, to watch the other teams play on TV. He didn’t make a big deal of it; he simply didn’t want to watch.
Ethan Atkinson said his biggest regret is not being able to watch himself and his teammates on TV and YouTube. He recalled filling out the questionnaire given to him by ESPN, asking for tidbits of information that would be used to introduce the players during the broadcasts. He and his teammates had fun doing this and were excited about the whole experience, but now many don’t even want to talk or even think about it.
I happen to know Stacie Gracey and her family because they are ardent hosts for Chinooks players each summer. Baseball, as well as a pleasant personality, are in her blood and those traits have been transferred to her son, Weston. Asking her permission to speak to Weston, Stacie agreed, but provided the caveat that her son to talk may be like pulling hen’s teeth; not necessarily because he’s upset, but because he’s a 12-year-old boy. Thankfully, Weston agreed and called me.
Weston doesn’t think the whole situation makes sense. He’s trying to put his feelings aside for now and concentrate on having fun with his teammates and making the best out of a bad situation.
When asked what his biggest disappointment with the whole situation was, Weston said, “Not getting to play on that field.” Very much like Moonlight Graham. I only wish I had Ray Kinsella’s magical ballfield to allow Weston and his teammates to play again.
Tim Barto is Vice President of Alaska Policy Forum, President of Chinooks Baseball Boosters, and is saving his money so he can buy his own cornfield and turn into a baseball diamond where Covid tests will not be required to play.