Nothing says America more than baseball. No matter where you come from, something about the All-American game seems to break all barriers.
Last weekend, as a young Latino boy from Storm Lake stood with his hand over his heart and his shoulder against the leg of a Sioux City Explorers pro player, the emotion of the National Anthem and the moment was a powerful combination. He dropped his face and wept into his hand - happy tears.
This year the Storm Lake Police Association sponsored the first little league baseball team compiled of 9 and 10 year old Hispanic and Sudanese children. Storm Lake Police Captain Todd Erskine was determined to give all kids a chance to enjoy the game. "Not many minorities were playing ball. To insure the future of baseball, we have to get these kids playing," he said.
The results were as heartwarming for the adult volunteers as for the children, he said. "I like the game and I like the kids."
After recruiting a couple of interpreters to speak to parents of perspective players, a sign-up sheet revealed a dozen enthusiastic players. Practice soon began - a challenge for a team made up of players who in many cases had never seen a game.
"We could have had two teams," Erskine said. "For the first two weeks of practice kids kept showing up begging to play." Subsequently the team grew to fifteen.
Erskine admitted that the toughest aspect was not the language barrier as one would expect, but "getting to know the parents and the parents getting to know me, so we could gain their trust."
To the amazement of the entire coaching staff, the families of the players, right down to aunts and uncles, attended every game. Detective Lisa Kenny served as an assistant coach and was impressed by the family reaction. "They were always there and supportive, it was really admirable."
Imagine attempting to teach a group of elementary schoolers the basic fundamentals of the game, as they compete against youngsters who have grown up on the local ballfields.
Coach Erskine explained, "these kids knew nothing of baseball, where most kids that age had been playing since t-ball. They learned to show up for practice, where to stand at the plate. They made friends and hopefully learned some life lessons."
Assistant Coach Officer Patrick Diekman added, "It was harder because they didn't have the basis of knowledge. That was the challenge going into it which made it more rewarding. They learned that it is more than just a game, there are lessons that you can learn. Baseball is different; it is built more on team relationships as compared to any other sport which is why it is such a great sport."
Kenny did admit that there were some that were a bit resistant at first. In the early practices and the first games, it wasn't uncommon to hear a frustrated child wanting to quit.
"But they kept coming back."
Though the team's season record stood at 0-13, it didn't dampen the spirits of the players.
All of them said they plan on playing again next year. They will enter the regular youth league draft rather than being separated out. This will make it possible for a new group to be taught how to play ball.
Pitcher Steven Ramos said he can't wait for next season, and he said he will encourage others who may not have played to experience the game. Ramos proudly remembers pitching a nine strikeout game in the team's final appearance.
The big finale of the of the season came Saturday, however, with a trip to Lewis & Clark Park for the youngsters to enjoy a Sioux City Explorers minor league game. The day was made possible by donations from Hamilton Law, Sara Lee and Tyson Foods.
Erskine contacted the Explorers management, who invited the team to join the Explorers players on the field during the National Anthem. Coaching staff, players, families and friends of the players were admitted without cost to the game.
An anonymous couple from Sioux City had read a news piece written by Storm Lake native Tim Gallagher in the Sioux City Journal about the team, and subsequently attended the game early just to enjoy the team's triumph. They were so touched by the experience that they had purchased popcorn for the entire little league roster.
Prior to the big game, the team along with their families and friends enjoyed a picnic held at Riverside Park in Sioux City. Following the picnic the coaches gathered the team for a bit of "team talk" and presented the players with new baseball gloves and baseballs made possible by a generous donation by the Hy-Noon Kiwanis.
"They were excited - basically none of them had gloves or baseballs of their own," commented Coach Diekman.
The season ends with no wins, but many winners. Erskine admits that the biggest triumph for him personally are the friendships that he has built with the kids and their parents, brothers and sisters. Cultural and language barriers quickly proved to be no match for the universal appeal of the game.
"It had a big impact on me," Coach Kenny said. "To help with the sport and the kids means just as much to us as it did to them."