COLUMBIA — As chants of “Lets go, Dennis, let’s go” ring from the first-base dugout, Dennis Love hits a slow grounder to second base. As the play unfolds, it’s apparent there’s going to be a close play at first.
“Slide, Dennis, slide,” Dennis’ mother, Mary Love, yells from the stands.
With an awkward feet first slide into first base, Dennis is safe.
This is Douglass Youth Baseball.
With the more competitive Daniel Boone Little League ending in June, Douglass Youth Baseball is winding down its own season three weeks later. The league, put on by Columbia Parks and Recreation, promotes a fun, non-competitive environment for boys and girls ages 5-14, while teaching them basic baseball skills. This was the league's 15th season.
"When concerned citizens and the city government get together, we can really do great things," said Rod Kelly, president of the Douglass Athletic Association.
Dennis plays for the Cubans, a team in the 9- to 10-year-old age division. At this age, the batters face pitchers from the opposing team for the first time. In previous years, the pitchers were coaches from the batters’ team. Throwing strikes can be difficult for players at this age, so a coach steps in to pitch after four pitches if the batter hasn’t struck out or put the ball in play. There are no walks.
In Dennis’ next at-bat, he hits a line drive into left field. The opposing team only has six players and one outfielder, so Dennis is able to circle the bases for a home run.
“Yes, I finally made it all the way home” Dennis said with a huge smile as he came back to the dugout.
Home runs are not uncommon in this game. The Cubans have eight kids on their roster and seven at the game. Most teams have about nine players on their roster, but on any given day, a player or two won’t be able to make it to the game, resulting in few outfielders. Anything hit to the outfield usually results in a triple or home run, unless, of course, the player only has one shoe.
The Cubans caught a break when an opposing player hit what appeared to be a sure home run deep onto the outfield grass. But shortly after leaving the batters box, he lost his shoe. He jogged around the bases, smiling, unsure of what to do. He ended up with a triple.
Although the game is much different than a typical baseball game, every player on the Cubans seems to have a lot of fun. This is a reflection of their coach, Kena Flores. As a little league coach, she feels that it’s important to be positive, no matter what the situation.
“It’s important for me to be a good role model,” Flores said. “I don’t want to use foul language. I don’t want to come down on them too hard. I don’t want to yell at them. I just want them to know that they can do it.”
Assistant coach Larry Adkins agreed and added that coaching children this age isn’t always easy.
“Trying to teach them fundamental skills and just being patient with them can be challenging at times,” he said.
Flores is an active coach, always interacting with the kids. Before the game, she sat with the team and put eye black on their faces. There was no danger of the sun getting in their eyes, but the eye black helped them look like baseball players.
In the last inning, Dennis came up with the bases loaded. There is no official score, but the Cubans know they trail by three runs. Dennis strokes a double, plating two runs and pulling the team within a run. But those two runs gave the Cubans five for the inning, which is the limit a team can score in an inning. The game is over.
The Cubans are upset but only for a moment.
“Where are we going after the game?” Halley Stevens asked her coach.
“We’re going for ice cream,” Flores said.
The team cheered, showing their approval.