For local Eric Saunders, baseball is about more than the final box score. A longtime little league coach, Saunders recalls the days of his youth growing up in North Carolina, where he played on a baseball team coached by his dad.
Now, years later here in Telluride, Saunders is on the other side of the bench coaching his two young sons Cash, 8, and Dylan, 12.
“Baseball was ‘it’ for me, and the memories of playing with my dad, the diamond, the friendships, the competition,” he explained. “I dreamed of coaching my sons one day, and when my first son Dylan was born in 2009, my first call was to my dad and the first words were about him helping me coach my son in baseball and wouldn't it be cool for us to play catch one day.”
The Saunders, who completed a “special” little league season Wednesday evening, had a blast this year, the elder Saunders said, though it was tough at times to field a team of nine, especially at the beginning of the season after a year without baseball.
“The season was a ton of fun, but challenging. Our numbers were low. In the beginning of the year, not knowing how the season would play out and if we would really have one, I began by inviting all the age groups to my practice. The 13-15-year-old numbers were down, and the coaches for them were either out of town or not available, so the first two or three weeks we just did a bunch of sandlot with some coaching sprinkled in there,” he said. “It was important to me to keep the kids playing, catching, hitting and just having fun, which is what it’s about, and since I only had five or six kids signed up, it made sense to invite the older and the younger groups to my practices to make it fun.”
Saunders coached the 9-10 and 11-12 teams this season, which often blended together out of necessity, as he explained a scenario reminiscent of the “Bad News Bears” in playing with eight kids most of the year.
“I started the season with six kids in our group and had to pull kids up from the 9-10-year-old group just to field a team of eight. One of those kids was my younger son Cash and his buddy Antonio, who is 9. My older son Dylan is also on the team,” he said. “We played virtually all of our games with eight kids, and each week it felt like a different lineup and teaching kids new positions and developing multiple pitchers is one of the most challenging aspects of baseball. Kids started the season and only played a few games. Some kids didn't start until half way through the season. Some kids started, left for a few weeks and came back to finish the season, and as a coach, it was a different lineup and position groups each week.”
But it all worked out, he explained, as the Telluride squad beat several teams from the region that hold tryouts, field multiple teams and travel with a deep bench.
“Our team also for the first time in my history as a coach beat Montrose, and we beat them twice, which was extremely satisfying,” Saunders said. “… We are barely fielding a team and playing really great ball. It feels like the kids and I have really appreciated this season and just grateful to be playing again. Winning also helps that as well.”
While participation may have been down this year, Saunders said he’s experienced it before, chalking it up to “spurts of interest” over the years. Most kids are involved in multiple activities throughout the year, too, including overlapping lacrosse and baseball schedules. The league has worked with the Telluride Parks & Recreation Department to schedule each sport in a way that doesn’t overlap with the other, so the youth athletes can play both if they’d like.
“Awareness is probably one of the challenges for baseball. I've had multiple families come ask and some join that didn't even realize we played baseball here, or that they could do both lacrosse and baseball,” Saunders said. “Also, a lot of families go on vacation or back to see family once the kids get out of school, which is right in the middle of our season go. Burnout for the parents is another concern, and I speak from experience as a hockey coach in the winter and the travel that goes with hockey, right into lacrosse travel and into baseball and travel for that. There was a point that our family had not spent a weekend at home in over two months between hockey, spring break, lax and baseball.”
Baseball is a game of failure. A player with a .300 batting average is considered a star, though that means they get a hit three out of 10 plate appearances. Saunders said it’s that type of adversity that teaches participants invaluable life lessons.
“You will fail more than you succeed in baseball, and how do you teach a kid to deal with adversity? Keep his head up, stay positive and get back in there and keep playing hard,” Saunders said. “Baseball teaches kids about team and the importance of everyone doing their best and picking each other up when down.”
While it may have been a different, and at times challenging, season with a seemingly ever-changing lineup and call-ups, Saunders said it was one he won’t soon forget. From the first-time players who flourished to having both of his sons on the same team, the bond of baseball is something that must be experienced.
“The most rewarding part is the smile on one my players’ faces when they get their first hit or score their first run. I had a few kids this year who were not new to baseball but they haven't come out in a few years and returned tentative and timid, and by the end of the season, they were hitting the heck out of the ball, making double plays and grinning from ear to ear,” he said. “This year was special for me personally as I got to coach both of my sons on the same team.”