Taney Dragons: The parents speak

Manager Alex Rice and the team. A parent cites "his quiet, reassuring demeanor."
Manager Alex Rice and the team. A parent cites "his quiet, reassuring demeanor." (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2014

During a tournament game early in the Taney Dragons' rise to Little League fame, an umpire made a call that seemed egregiously unfair to everyone on the team.

The players reacted with restraint, knowing how strict Little League rules are: no tantrums, foul language, or throwing of equipment permitted, no matter how bone-headed a decision might be.

Over at second base, Jahli Hendricks slapped his hand against his thigh. His glove fell off. "He was thrown out of that game, and the next one too," said his father, Keith. "They said he had thrown the glove. He was not even allowed to be in the dugout."

The team's manager, Alex Rice, took a moment to speak to the boy. "Are you OK?" he asked, knowing the answer, then put his arm around him. "You're human," he said. "It's all right. The team will pick you up. There's no need to look backward. We'll keep moving forward."

Without this kind of fatherly, low-blood-pressured coaching, parents say, it is possible that their children might not have become the first Philadelphia team to make it to the Little League World Series. (Taney won its first game Friday and plays its second Sunday night.) But these 12 talented players would have lost out on the most valuable aspect of the game.

"The thing about Alex that I love, and wish I could emulate," said Keith Hendricks, "is his quiet, reassuring demeanor. That kind of guidance for young people is so important."

Rice and his two coaches, Leland Lott and Reggie Cummings, say they have tried to put as much effort into teaching their players respect, patience, perseverance, and cooperation as they have into honing their athletic skills.

"You're thrown into a role. It's like being a schoolteacher," said Rice, 44, an architect from Center City. He grew up in Concord, Mass., the son of a doctor and an elementary school teacher. Although he played baseball, he was never part of a Little League team. (He does not volunteer the information, but he is a skilled badminton player.)

'Self-taught'

Rice knew nothing about coaching and had never aspired to, he said, until he signed his son Jack up for the Taney program six years ago. Every parent who filled out an application was being recruited to coach. He allowed himself to be coaxed into the job.

"We're all self-taught," he said. Taney provides some training, but mostly, they have had to decide for themselves how they wanted to lead the team. Whether by happy accident or natural attraction, all three of the team's adults in charge are calm and cool-headed men.

"We push the kids, but want to make sure it's a positive experience," Rice said. "That they enjoy the game but understand that they're part of a team. This is not recess. There is structure. We are there with a purpose, but the goal is not to win." Rather, it is to play as well as possible and be a great teammate.

Much like his star pitcher, Mo'ne Davis, Rice is thoughtful and introspective.

"He loves baseball in a romantic kind of way," said Maren Gaughan, associate dean for development at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, who has been friends with Rice and his wife for more than 20 years. She said that when he started coaching Jack, "we thought it was cute, a father-son thing. But really, he has built a whole baseball family. This is going to sound corny, but I can honestly say they have almost made it a spiritual trek."

A sanctuary

This does not mean that Rice ignored athletic ability when he put together the all-star team.

"It's not either/or," explained Alison Sprague, whose husband Lott, Leland, is a coach. (Their son, Jared, hit a three-run home run Friday.) "Alex picked kids who are talented, who love the game and are willing to work hard."

The loyalty that has developed among the players and their parents was especially important to her family, she said. Five of her husband's siblings have died within the last few years, and she has been treated twice for breast cancer.

When she was too ill to cook, the families would make them dinner. And when she was in the hospital, they would go cheer for Jared at flag football games.

In the spring of 2013, during one of their lowest moments, Leland Lott had to go to Chicago to care for his sister, who was dying of esophageal cancer. He had not missed a game in the six years since Rice asked him to help coach, and, worse, Jared was pitching in an important tournament.

"It was hard for Jared for me not to be there, and knowing his aunt was dying," he said.

"We lost the game," Alison said.

"And I lost my sister," her husband said.

The benefits of coaching - and being part of the team - have worked both ways, said Lott, who often felt as if Taney was a sanctuary, where he could focus on the joy of working with children.

Easily overlooked in the voluminous, legalistic language of the Little League rule book, a 100-page tome printed in a microscopic font, are a few paragraphs dedicated to coaches and parents.

They explain that Little League is not a babysitting service and that participation requires as much dedication from adults as it does from their children.

The cost of participation can be stressful. As a self-employed contractor, Lott has had to leave work to get home at 4 p.m. in time to cook dinner for Jared and get to practices by 5:30. And the exacting requirements for documentation certifying a child's age, place of birth, and relationship to both parents often pose a challenge for less traditional families.

"There's a big push to shine a light on these urban programs," he said, "but having parents to support them is key." It requires an enormous amount of organization, synchronization, and communication among families to enable players to travel to games, he said.

And the parents have to share the same concern about academics. Outfielder Tai Shanahan has not missed a day of school since kindergarten.

Lott and Cummings came from large families, where sibling relationships were vitally important. Cummings' father died young, and Lott's was a union laborer who worked long hours. At times, both coaches said, they feel as if they are fathers to all the players. And they try to foster the same kind of tolerance and affection that they had growing up.

"They bicker sometimes," Lott said, "but not when they are playing."

Aside from the conscious directives they give the players during practice and games, the coaches serve as models of behavior, not only because of what they have achieved, but what they have overcome.

'The real beauty'

Lott, 58, said he stumbled when he was young. After earning a degree in political science from Muhlenberg College, where he played football, he worked as a manager at John Wanamaker, then in local promotion for Motown and Arista records, which brought him into the same sphere as Lionel Richie, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson. His first marriage ended in divorce and he has a son, Elliot, from another relationship.

Looking back, Lott said, holding back tears, he regrets the lost opportunity to coach Elliot's team.

"The real beauty in coaching is to see the progress of all the kids," he said. The key players, particularly, can be very hard on themselves. "They get in a slump, and you tell them, you know it's going to pass. You don't have to do it all. Somebody will pick you up."


mdribben@phillynews.com

215-854-2590

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