White Sox thrill Little Leaguers again

Forking out $250 for your child to spend three days at a George Town Little League camp may not sound like good value for money but judging by the significant numbers that turned up over the weekend when the Chicago White Sox coaching elite rolled into town, it was worth every cent.

Coopers pep talk

Coopers pep talk inspired the youngsters
Photos: Ron Shillingford

Fabled pitching maestro Don Cooper headed a squad of White Sox coaches who were at the Field of Dreams from Friday to Sunday and there was not one parent or child glad to see them go after another series of master classes. It was the third consecutive year that local coach Stuart Knox organised their visit and it was another resounding success.

Cooper, 51, was a Major League Baseball player in the Eighties who evolved into a top coach and famously led the White Sox to the World Series in 2005. He blessed Cayman’s aspiring champs with pearls of wisdom that left many enchanted, especially after his motivational speech at the Dreams to Destiny dinner and awards ceremony at Cayman Prep on Saturday night. New Yorker Cooper was joined for the speeches by fellow American Jennifer McFalls, the 2000 Olympics softball gold medallist and Cayman’s own swimmer Andrew Smilley, double gold medallist at last year’s Special Olympics.

At 9am on Saturday, Cooper held court for the first time, giving a pep talk to kids and adults alike. ‘We love coming down here and teaching the kids what we know about baseball, the information they need to get better, improve and have more fun,’ he says as the kids limber up. ‘It’s all about the kids, not the coaches. Our motto is: Have kids will travel. We do a lot of this in the States and we wanted to branch out and we have a wonderful relationship with Stuart Knox and he got us down here a few years ago. We have a blast down here in Cayman.

‘It’s too early to tell whether there is sufficient talent here to go all the way to the Major League, there are so many things that have to happen. But they have the same advantages and chances as anybody in the world. This is my second year here and what I’ve learnt is that Cayman Island kids are like any others in the world. Kids are kids. They have the same thoughts, goals and dreams. We’re here to help them achieve those dreams – maybe.

‘The first thought is to get them to enjoy Little League and have fun. The thought of being in a team, being a good team-mate and learning how to interact with each other in a team setting. Then maybe they go on to high school level or possibly on to college. These are attainable goals for them if they take care of their schoolwork and continue to work hard. The parents are the ones we really want to thank, because if they don’t bring the kids here, we don’t have a camp. I have to praise Stuart because he’s the one that loves baseball and loves kids and he brought us down here. The people in Cayman have been wonderful to us. Everywhere we go, whether at the camp, at the beach, pool, restaurant or anywhere around town, it’s a win-win situation for everyone but the main thing is the kids.’

Knox seemed to enjoy himself as much as a 10-year-old. ‘The kids have always been very receptive to learning,’ he beams. ‘We have some great athletes here and as far as our kids wanting to excel and be challenged, so I turned round and challenged the White Sox to step it up for them and change the program each year. So every time they come they bring a different twist, a little more training, a little more endurance or specialised techniques to help our kids better themselves.

‘To look at it this way; three years ago if you were an 11-year-old here and this is your third camp, we see a huge difference in your ability than a new person who has just arrived on the island who maybe has not had these type of opportunities. I see our athletes improving every year from this camp and their dedication to baseball.’

Robbie Cribb furthering his baseball development is an example of Cayman’s high standards. He is at high school in Tampa. ‘We have some great individual athletes here,’ adds Knox. ‘Whether it’s baseball, swimming or rugby, when they learn the need for dedication to be an athlete, Cayman kids go to the States and perform well against Americans.’

Initially, Knox pulled off something of a coup getting the White Sox team here. It originated from two local teenagers going for trials in Chicago three years ago. Knox went along to appraise the facilities and to him ‘it was a no-brainer in getting these people down here to help our kids, it was that obvious’. A Canadian from Hamilton, Ontario, he has been involved in baseball all his life. His father – who is in his seventies – still plays and instilled the enthusiasm. ‘I’ve never played professional nor got a scholarship.’ An office furniture salesman he boils down his love for baseball to one word: passion.

‘The kids absolutely love it because they’re getting trained by professionals. And the same thing that us as coaches have been telling them for years, they’re hearing from the pros. And these guys love coming down here too and coaching our kids.’

Kathy Young is on the White Sox coaching team teaching fast-pitch softball. ‘The White Sox have really supported women’s fast-pitch softball,’ she says. ‘I’m here teaching that with Jennifer McFalls. She’s teaching the girls, I’m with the boys. I’ve played fast-pitch all my life and got to collegiate level before starting coaching. Today we’ll be working with the hitting and then doing T-drills. The kids are very energetic, keep us coaches rolling and they’re very attentive and willing to learn. And each time, each day they improve and that’s what we’re all about. They’re also learning some of the terms and language and how to get their bodies in position to hit consistently.’

Susan Cummer’s son, Andrew, is eight. This is his first year at the camp. ‘I think he loves the routines and the activity,’ she says. ‘A lot of things they did yesterday, they’re building upon today and I think he likes being with all these athletic men who are very successful at what they do. At this point he has signed up for the local league which starts next month and after this camp, who knows?

‘I’ve always envisioned baseball players as being incredible role models for young men and that was one thing about Andrew being here. But this morning listening to the pep talk by Don Cooper and he was talking about his successes in his life were not about luck but blessings from God, that was an awesome message.’

Robbie Cribb, president of Little League, claims his main duty at the camp is chef, serving hungry children. His son Robbie Jnr, is enjoying fitting his two sporting loves of baseball and rugby around studies. ‘My son is actually playing baseball this year after injury. Ironically, he hurt his arm playing rugby. He’s in the Under-19 rugby team for the University of South Florida. He’s just got accepted to the University of Tampa so hopefully the coaches will start taking notice on his application forms what sports he plays. The USF has a very strong baseball program and also a strong rugby program. My two daughters are in college in the US and one of them, Jessica, played two years of fast-pitch softball on a scholarship. This camp is mostly organised by Stuart. He’s put a lot of planning and work into making it happen.’