WILLIAMSPORT — There’s nothing like a barbecue to put a family at ease.
And that’s exactly what the Jackie Robinson West team and their parents did on Saturday as they prepared for the biggest game of their lives.
The past 10 days have been all about baseball and family, and that tradition continued as the team prepared to face the Mountain Ridge Little League from Las Vegas, NV.
Representing the West Region, Mountain Ridge has been undefeated in the tournament, and knocked off Jackie Robinson West a week ago in four innings, scoring 13 runs to JRW’s two.
Despite the smack-down, the players got up and roared back to put away three teams, including pitching sensation Mo’Ne’s Mid-Atlantic team.
Thursday night’s 6-5 victory over the home state favorite earned Chicago’s team a shot at the U.S. championship.
Throughout the tournament, the marching orders from the team’s coaches and parents have been for the players to stay focused.
On Friday, they simply had a good time.
“They rested all morning. Then we had a little barbecue over here for the parents and the kids,” said Donita Butler, the mother of player DJ Butler, and the wife of manager, Darold Butler.
When I drove up, the parking lot at the hotel where most of the Jackie Robinson West families have been staying was teeming with the familiar gold shirts and caps.
Instead of their serious game faces, the players were laughing, and running around, well, like kids.
“Today was an off day and we let them be kids today,” Darold Butler told me.
“They had three tough games after losing to Nevada and they have worked hard. We let them be kids today and we will hit it hard in the morning to be ready for [Saturday’s] game,” he said.
Butler described the mood of his players as “calm” and “relaxed.”
But you don’t get to the Little League World Series by taking it easy.
Despite their off day, the players couldn’t keep their hands off the ball.
“They pretty much found a vacant lot next door and played Wiffle ball,” Butler said, laughing.
Wiffle ball is played using a perforated, lightweight plastic ball. The construction of the ball allows pitchers to practice throwing a variety of pitches, including curveballs.
Pitching is obviously a big concern for the players and coaches going into Saturday’s game.
Mountain Ridge’s stellar pitching effectively shut down the Jackie Robinson West team in their first contest. Additionally, Marquis Jackson, the team’s most powerful thrower, is ineligible to pitch for the rest of the tournament.
But as my son advised me, baseball is often a game of will and determination.
As night crept across the parking lot, the boys ended their play and sprinted back to a white van that would take them to the Little League complex.
“They’re going to relax the rest of the night,” Donita Butler said.
Boys being boys, I’m not so sure about that. One thing I am sure about though is, as Darold Butler, puts it: “they’re focused on the task at hand,”