When I decided to take my Dukes Baseball Club (9u) baseballers to South Carolina for the Youth Baseball Nationals, I knew it was an ambitious endeavor. The travel teams that attend these tournaments have been together for years. I just formed my squad of ethnically diverse all-stars last July and have had them in a rigid baseball boot camp ever since. Three months of indoor training from December-February followed by a Spring season of Sunday double headers playing up in a 10-year-old division. Competing in the tournament (June 27 –July 3rd) against other well-oiled 9u machines would be our biggest test to date.
Eleven players and their families (35 people in total) traveled to South Carolina by van, car or plane and met up at the Horizon Hotel on 77th street in Myrtle Beach. Everyone checked in at different times. I drove with all of the equipment, my wife and two kids, including my son who is the eight-year-old starting shortstop for the Dukes. During the 11.5-hour trek, my mind was entrenched in a sea of numbers and probable lineups, potential matchups and a multiplicity of scenarios. I was on my Joe Torre. Real heavy. I also was taking a trip down memory lane, fondly recalling my days of playing travel ball. Of course I wanted all of my players to enjoy themselves, but the $10,000 we raised, the endless practices and the grind the coaches put in demanded that these young bucks grasped the importance of the moment. My wife organized the pins for the pin-trading contest, booked the lodging and the order and purchasing of the new jerseys and hats. She also designed our attractive banner. Other parents contributed in various ways to make sure our week-long stay in Myrtle Beach ran smoothly.
In a tournament such as this - especially for first-timers - the allure of the water parks and swimming pools, smorgasbord of edible delights and the overall scene are easy pitfalls. They historically serve as distractions and contribute to the players forgetting they traveled all of that way to play extreme-level youth baseball. Novice players and their families often believe they are on a vacation, when in reality, to win these tournaments your mind has to be focused on the task at hand and an even higher level of discipline is required to survive the grueling week and balance engaging off-the-field activities with on-field tournaments rigors. Too much swimming and eating before a game or the night prior to an early morning game can render 8, 9 and 10-year-olds helpless and easily lacking the lateral movement needed to field a ground ball, the quick reaction needed to connect with a baseball and the mental toughness needed to fight through the pressure and the unknown with people watching and stakes about as high as an elementary school kid is going to face in any aspect of life.
The opening ceremony is where the reality of the moment began to set in for the Dukes. We held our personalized banner in front of us as we walked into Doug Shaw Stadium with the 50 other teams that made their way to the Youth Nationals from places such as New England and Miami and Ohio, New Jersey, Georgia, Michigan and Tennessee, just to name a few. The stands were filled with family and friends of all of the teams and it was a festive welcoming parade. I’m sure the kids felt like rap stars. They all were looking around and getting amped, immersing themselves in the moment.
That night we had a coaches, parents and players meeting. We tied up some loose ends and told everyone to get a good night’s sleep. Sleeping is a hard task for anyone with life-changing events on deck in the morning, but fighting through the anxiety and resting your mind in preparation for showtime is one of those on the job challenges that all travel teams must work through. The entire ordeal can be like an out of body experience for certain kids and by the time they get comfortable in their own skin, the tournament is over and they didn’t get a hit. Or made about six crucial errors. Or walked 10 people.
Saturday kicked off pool play. We played a double header. The first game was at 11:15 am. against The Georgia Blaze. We opened with our traditional pre-game routine singing, “It’s time to represent. It’s time to represent,” as the lineup was read. We started off slowly, probably caught up in the in the awesome facility that is Grand Park at the Market Common. It’s an 11-field baseball home of dreams with fully synthetic turf surfaces for an incredible Major League-type playing surface. The synthetic turf provides much faster drainage and virtually no rain outs and is beautifully manicured. Several tunnels of batting cages on synthetic turf surfaces available for pre-game batting practice. Everything was moving at warp speed for a minute. The Blaze came out smoking and capitalized on a few silly errors to take a 6-0 lead after three innings. We were fortunate to shake off the jitters, gain our composure and pulled out an improbable 13-8 comeback victory.
When you are a team from New York and travel to any other region of the country, people immediately have mixed feelings towards you. They are excited that their tournament was attractive enough to pull a team of city slickers into the mix. On the other hand, New York teams are known to be cocky, full of swag and even seen as “inferior” athletes by people from other regions of the map. Being that it was Dukes Baseball’s inaugural appearance in this national tournament, that first win raised a few eye brows.
Not too many people spoke with us prior to the game, but after we showed some grit and the ability to ball out, people started asking questions about those young boys from NY. It’s hard to top a debut in which you erase a six-run deficit and win by 5, but Game 2 against the South Miami Wahoos was even more magical and in many ways it was our official coming out party. Once again, the Dukes sputtered out of the gate still overwhelmed by the moment, but in true fashion, we were able to make up a 10-3 deficit thanks to a premature pitching change by the opposition, some key hits, a ton of stolen bases and some help from the baseball gods. By the time the game’s 1 hour and 45-minute time limit expired ( or six innings, whichever comes first) I was running from my third base coach position to hug nine-year-old pitcher Iravan Bhattacharya, whose steal of home plate gave us an 11-10 walk-off win and to this date, one of the most miraculous comebacks in the tournaments history.
It was our finest moment as a team. It’s definitely a step up from winning The College Point World Series (our first tournament win in 2013). Some local fans started calling us “The Cardiac Kids,” a name often given to sports teams that have a habit of pulling off the improbable or failing miserably. My young band of Dukes ballers fit this description to a tee. After two riveting victories the kids, parents and coaching staff were on an emotional high. I was pleased, but I knew tougher opponents were in the cut and we couldn’t continue to fall behind to these teams because some of them don’t make mistakes and don’t let you back off the ledge.
We played the Tigers (a team of Mexican kids from Florida) in our third game and my kids learned a lesson about shutting down a team with your glove. The Dukes hit the ball, but the Tigers caught everything. The Duke’s defense couldn’t match the Tigers’ 17 putouts. We only struck out once, but it didn’t matter. We weren’t reaching base unless we earned it with a clean hit. The Dukes fell to the Tigers 11-3 and that started a spiral that saw us slowly fade in spirit, output, drive and mental toughness.
The kids had hit that wall that many first-time travel teams hit. The go carts and Grand Prix raceways, the huge water slides and strawberry ice cream was calling. Three more terrible losses followed: (15-3 to the Banditos of Texas), (15-3 in a rematch with the Wahoos) and then the home team Rawlings finished us off in the quarterfinals 15-4. To say we got spanked in those games is an understatement, but true to the “Cardiac Kids” label, there was only one place to go after coming out of the shoot in the scintillating manner we did.
Despite the emotional sting of an elimination loss, the mothers on the team cooked a feast for everyone that was shared on a huge balcony outside of my hotel room. We reflected on our glorious moments and vowed to improve on our mistakes - which were numerous at times.
We still left a mark as evidenced by four Dukes players making the tournament all-star squad: shortstop J.C. Gamble (.727 BA.), first baseman Kelvin Rodriguez (.428 BA.), outfielder KJ Ware and second baseman Mathew Jackson (.667 BA.).
Winning the tournament would have been great, but there is a deeper silver lining in The Dukes appearance at The Youth Baseball Nationals. Whenever my team travels to a tournament in any area of the United States, we are almost guaranteed to be the most ethnically-diverse team in attendance. We represent the true diversity of America. On my roster for this tournament I had six African-American kids (you were lucky to find two others playing on any of the tournaments 9u to 15u teams) two kids of Dominican descent, two Indian/Asian Pacific players and a Cuban player and an Italian player. The Dukes are truly a melting pot, and as much as any sport, that’s what baseball’s traditionally been about. The composition of my Dukes squad totally bucks the theory and statistical data suggesting that people of color don’t embrace, play baseball or have MLB dreams.
Upstart organizations like The Dukes are committed and indebted to traveling to all bastions of the earth to spread our brand of baseball and connect with other diamond-miners, even if we are told to “go back to where you came from,” like when we played in a Grand Slam America youth tournament in Harleysville, Pennsylvania in May.
Every tournament is a learning experience and the Dukes are like pioneers of a new generation of baseball players. The Tigers were the eventual champions. But we sent a reminder that Brooklyn’s more than a basketball town. The Dukes Baseball Club took the Youth Baseball Nationals by storm. Next year, as our organization and name continues to grow, we’re bringing two teams down. We proved that we’re going to be a problem, while on the road to becoming part of the solution.