“One kid, six dads.”
That’s Scott Walton’s enduring memory of his son’s first T-ball game.
As the batter knocked the ball into play, the first base coach, third base coach, batting coach and three other fathers in the dugout got into their high-volume act. As Walton recalls it, “Here was this four-year-old kid with a crowd of guys five times his size yelling at him to do different things.”
A seventh dad was busy heckling the umpire.
The harried kid started running toward third base.
“This was not the nurturing, supportive, teaching approach we believe in,” Walton says. “So we went to Southside instead.”
Founded in 1953, the Southside Ball Association now offers leagues on each of historic Avondale Park’s three baseball diamonds—T-ball for children 4 to 6, a coach-pitch Farm League (7- 8), and a Minor League (9-10). In the association’s inaugural season, one of its teams traveled to Williamsport, PA, recording a 1-0 defeat of the nine from Schenectady, NY, to become the first and only Little League World Series champion in Alabama history. Yet Southside Ball is best known for its philosophy, summed up by its motto “Where baseball is fun.”
“Some parents travel from as far away as Roebuck and Liberty Park to play at our fields,” says outgoing league president Kevin Catechis. “These families are attracted to our low-pressure program, where they can have a good time.”
“In our old T-ball league, my four-year-old son had practice two nights a week beginning at seven p.m.,” recalls Drew Langloh. “There were kids lying in the dirt, asleep.” When his son narrowly missed making the all-star team, Langloh was disappointed as well as relieved: “It would have meant five practices a week.”
Now at Avondale, “Coach Drew” teaches solid baseball fundamentals—in drills lasting three minutes tops, not only keeping children on their toes, but also engaged. One parent noted, “They have so much fun, they sometimes forget to have their snacks.”
Like the vast majority of Southside coaches, Langloh feels that the players’ most important lesson is not hitting or fielding but rather, good sportsmanship. As the new league president Bakari Miller puts it, “Southside is the ‘liberal arts’ of baseball. We want to compete, but ultimately we want the kids to be better human beings, not just better baseball players.”
Miller ought to know. He’s been involved in Southside Ball for 12 of his 30 years. As a player in 1991, in his first Southside at-bat, he hit an inside-thepark grand slam, one of a slew of his fond Avondale memories. In 2003, he began giving back to the league as a coach, even though he and his wife had yet to have their first child. Along with batting and fielding, he and his all-volunteer staff strive to imbue players with “the importance of being to practice on time, not yelling at the umpires, not yelling in general.”
The players’ greatest learning experience, he believes, comes from one another. “You don’t usually see this sort of diversity,” he says of the wide range of Birmingham’s socioeconomic spectrum represented by the league. “The players are able to get a different frame of reference.” One Southside parent contrasted that with another T-ball league, where players felt peer pressure to own $250 composite Louisville Sluggers. Several Southside players are on scholarship, with sponsors including the Birmingham Barons.
“Recognizing the extraordinary diversity and history of Southside Ball, we are pleased to underwrite three scholarships this season,” says Barons managing general partner Stan Logan.
Miller notes that, “The families also have a way of chipping in for kids that need something.” The result, ironically, has been more parent involvement.
“We as a family enjoyed the league, especially what we call ‘tailgating’ after practices,” Walton says, referring to players’ families’ custom of pot-luck dinners and beer. “After practice at our old league, parents were running to get their kids to ballet.”
Registration for Southside Ball’s 2011 season takes place at the Avondale Public Library Saturday, February 19 (9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) and Saturday, February 26 (1-4 p.m.). Sign up is also available online at the league’s Web site, www. southsideball.com.
On April 2, Birmingham Mayor William Bell will throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season. And if Southside Ball history is any indication, he’ll want to stay longer.
Keith Thomson is a Birmingham-based author and Huffington Post contributor. His latest novel, Twice a Spy (Doubleday), will be released on March 8. Please send your comments to email@example.com.