Hike up your stirrups, throw on your fitted jersey, and stroll down memory lane to a carefree time when the distance from home plate to the center-field fence was 200 feet and the pressure wasn’t nearly as mounting as it is now.
It’s time to talk Little League, an appropriate topic since the Little League World Series opened for business on Thursday and this year’s New England regional entry hails from Coventry, R.I.
For the majority of the Pawtucket Red Sox players and coaches, their formative years spent playing baseball revolved around fun and postgame trips to get ice cream. There were no scouts in the stands chronicling their every move. Sure, there was probably a parent or two who expressed dismay with the umpire’s call. For the most part, the days of outfielders looking down at the daisies and up when everyone screamed that a fly ball was heading their way were as innocent as they come.
With 16 Little League teams from around the world descending upon Williamsport, Pa., the following PawSox shared what made their Little League experience so memorable and how those impressionable days played a major hand in furthering their love for a sport that nowadays serves as their livelihood.
Josh Ockimey, first base
“It started with tee ball. The next year, the coaches started pitching to us. I played shortstop, which was probably the last time I saw the left side of the infield. I did pitch and was a fastball/curveball kind of guy,” said Ockimey, who hails from Philadelphia. “When the field got bigger, I moved to center field. The arm speed needed to be a successful pitcher was no longer there so I played more second base.
“I’ll tell you this: when you’re young, you’re not thinking about mechanics or anything along those lines. That’s the key. If I ever coach Little League, I would make sure to make the practices fun. Keep saying the word ‘fun’ when you talk about the game,” Ockimey added. “I never came close to playing in the Little League World Series. I wish I did because it looks to be a blast. When I played Little League, I always watched the Little World Series. That was the goal.”
Tony Renda, infielder
“I’m sure a lot of Little Leagues across the country do this, but the one I played for [growing up in Hillsborough, CA] featured teams named after actual major league teams. I played for the Rockies and we also had a Giants team, a Dodgers team, and a Padres team. You’re eight years old and you feel like a big leaguer,” Renda said. “I actually caught and pitched, but I also remember my dad being tough on me because he wanted me to be good and never settle. Obviously, it was a fun time because you truly didn’t have to deal with the pressure of the game. You played for yourself.”
Justin Haley, pitcher
“I played just about every position in Little League. Usually my dad was the coach. I was six when I started playing … minors followed by majors,” said Haley, who like Renda is a California native. “It was great. We had a bunch of guys in the neighborhood and lived close to each other. We weren’t on the same Little League team. In fact, we were kind of spread out amongst all the teams in the league. That made the competition even better, but we’d always have fun … backyard barbecues after the games.”
Chandler Shepherd, pitcher
“I started playing Little League when I was five years old. I was pretty much a pitcher and a shortstop all the way through until I got to high school. I come from really small town [in Kentucky] and the Little League there is such a great program. I had to play travel ball just to get some exposure, but Little League … once you’re done with school for the day, we’d run to the field and get after it. You’re with your buddies and it’s just super fun. There was definitely no outside pressure,” Shepherd said. “It was a great experience playing with the guys I grew up with back home.
“My [12-year-old Major Division All-Star team] team made it to the states. If we had won, we would have gone to the regionals [that would have determined the Great Lakes representative at the LLWS]. We actually lost to the team from Pleasure Ridge Park that went on to win the  Little League Series. There were a few tears at the end because at the time, you don’t know if it’s the last time you’ll ever play baseball with your friends,” Shepherd said. “Watching it on TV now, it’s nice to see kids be part of something that’s big.”
Kevin Boles, manager
“The Little League field I played at was directly across the street from the Ed Smith Complex [the Florida spring training home for the Baltimore Orioles]. When I started playing when I was nine, I was an outfielder. Eventually, I switched to catcher. I wanted to do it and loved the position. I thought that was the way to go because you’re in the midst of the action the whole time,” Boles said. “I remember when I was 11 and didn’t make the All-Star team. I was bummed but came back the next year and made the All-Star team as a 12-year-old. I was a filler but ended up having a pretty good time.
“Some of the guys I played in Little League, they ended up being high draft picks,” Boles added. “The setup we had … concrete walls that were covered in banners. It felt like you were playing at a big-time stadium.”
DON’T MISS THE NEXT PAWSOX GAME ON YURVIEW – FRIDAY, AUGUST 17TH – AT 7 P.M. YURVIEW IS COX CHANNELS 4 AND 1004 HD.