The two events couldn’t be more different, yet they are held by the same organization and take place just twenty-four hours apart.
The frenetic pace of Little League Opening Day, replete with uniformed youngsters dashing this way and that, at Huntington Middle School on Saturday morning, balanced by the Little League Past Presidents brunch at San Gabriel Country Club a day later, which is, shall we say “staid” by comparison.
Both took place last weekend under ideal conditions though it’s difficult to guess when the environs at SGCC could be considered anything other than “ideal.”
Though the current year’s leader was chosen months ago, the Past President’s Brunch includes a literal and metaphorical passing of the torch, or—more appropriately in this case—the transfer of an old, wooden Hank Aaron baseball bat that for some reason has a broom attached to the business end.
“That’s to gently sweep away the problems,” one SMNLL president said years ago, as he handed it to his successor.
Jim Ukropina, the 1979 president who was in attendance last Sunday, believes the tradition began in 1973 during the presidency of Paul Crowley, that great beginner of local traditions. For decades, even long after Crowley was involved in the league, the annual draft was held in Crowley’s basement as a matter of tradition. Whenever its genesis, the handing over of the ceremonial bat survives to this very day.
“Whatever you do, don’t lose that,” said 2018 President Jay Fuerst as he handed the stick to Dan Giddings, the current head man. “That was the biggest worry of my term.” In handing the reins to Giddings, Fuerst also mentioned that he felt the main job of the president of San Marino National Little League was to serve as its chief ambassador.
Giddings, believed to be just the third in the town’s history to be a player in and later president of San Marino National Little League, harkened back to his days as a player and told a story about his experience as a ten-year-old.
“We didn’t have enough coaches, so the league just drafted another team,” Giddings said, as the room erupted in laughter. “They eventually found a dad to serve as our manager, but he didn’t know much about baseball, so I essentially served as player-coach. I made all the substitutions and changed all the pitchers.”
Giddings then acknowledged many in the room who he looked up to as a mentor including Ukropina and Dr. Bill Dietrick, who was president while Giddings played on a championship-winning team with Dietrick’s son, Todd.
If Fuerst served under the banner of ambassador, Giddings preached the theme of friendship.
“That is what it is all about,” Giddings said. “The friendships that are made through Little League are what make it so special in this community.”
He spoke of the “fraternity” among past presidents and the many changes that have transpired over the years, including a recent switch to electronic scorekeeping and custom made uniforms, which elicited many headshakes from the wives in the audience. Anne Hogeboom, wife of Bob, who was president in 1991, said that the scorekeeping duties occupied three people during those days. Dietrick recalled his wife, Joan, dutifully mending uniforms at the end of a season so they could be handed over to the next team. No more.
Giddings was proud of his focus on rebuilding the Little League softball program and his founding of a local baseball team called the Isotopes, which was created to keep local kids together and discourage them from leaving to travel ball squads. Isotopes is currently on its seventh rendition, by the way. Giddings has worked on recruiting young adults to coach the older Little Leaguers in the High School Prep league and has cut a deal with San Marino High School that allows Little League to hold Saturday games on those fields when the Titans and Lady Titans are not scheduled. He also resurrected what he called “an old-school all-star game” for the Majors that allows the players to vote for the teams.
He then thanked his wife, Cathy—herself an accomplished athlete and high school softball player—for her support and dedication to the league. Al three Giddings children play in San Marino National Little League and participated in the ceremonial first pitch.
“I couldn’t believe that that I was giving a speech and these guys were listening to me,” Giddings said a few days later of the past presidents event. “As a kid I looked up to so many of them.”
Giddings said that the entire Opening Day experience “was like Christmas morning.’
“Looking at all of the kids in their colorful uniforms was like looking at gifts,” Giddings said. “They are like presents under the tree and you don’t know what you are going to get with each team. So many of my friends are coaching and my own kids are playing and I just can’t wait to see how it all unfolds. Like Christmas, there is drama, some family drama, and you have to roll with it. For Christmas, you know it is going to be a great day and for Little League, you know it is going to be a great three months.”
There was one more appropriate comparison to the holiday.
“I was exhausted,” Giddings said of the morning after. “Exhausted, but with a smile on my face.”
Let’s hope it stays there. We’re confident it will.