For the Mariners, baseball is both symbol and sport

Teresa Mathew
The coaching philosophy espoused by Whitman Shenk elevates fun, but baseball also "teaches you lessons of life, about patience, about failure, about teamwork," he said. His AAA team opened the season last Saturday in Point Reyes Station.  
03/20/2019

It was a bright and blue opening day, and a promising young player was being reminded that it would be okay if she got hit in the head with a stray ball—that was why she was wearing a helmet. Worries thus assuaged, and bats and mitts in hand, the third, fourth and fifth graders of the Point Reyes Mariners trooped onto the field to play the Royals in a game that lasted seven innings and ultimately resulted in a hometown victory. 

Many of the players on the 12-person team have been playing together for years, starting with tee-ball at the tender ages of 5 and 6. They have worked their way through the minor league to arrive at the AAA level, and last year won the league’s AA championship. 

Most other teams in the West Marin league comply with a draft; players go to assessments and are then spread across teams to even out the playing field. The Mariners, on the other hand, do not deal with the draft and is comprised of locals only. Although the restricted composition can lead to either a positive or a negative makeup, said coach Whitman Shenk, “this is a really good squad.” 

Saturday’s game unrolled to a familiar soundtrack: the low chatter of parents, the soft thump of a ball finding a mitt, the metallic trots of an Australian Shepard moving along the bleachers. On the grass next to the snack shack, Dakota Whitney was grilling burgers, hotdogs and buns. She grew up playing for the Mariners, and her sons Edison and Malloy are now on the team. 

Ms. Whitney explained that the frequent calls of “Good eye!” from the bleachers were meant to congratulate players for making judicious batting decisions. It meant that the players were “watching the ball go past but not swinging at it, because they don’t want to get a strike by hitting at a bad pitch,” she said. “The idea is to get a nice hit, but if you get to a base by walking, that’s fine.” 

A sign on the dugout plastered with sportsmanship reminders such as “I’m just a kid” and “It’s just a game” might be necessary at other youth-sporting events, but not out on the West Marin School ballfield. Parents of both teams cheered for a player’s daring slide or split-second catch. 

Before the game began, Coach Shenk told the players he had added a new team rule: a fourth, in addition to the previous rules of being respectful, having fun and hustling. 

“Is it ‘Do your best’?’” one player asked. 

“No,” he responded. “It’s ‘Be a team.’ We’re all going to make mistakes.” 

Coach Shenk, a business developer who had never coached a team or even played baseball when he began coaching three years ago at another parent’s behest, said his philosophy is about having fun. He leads the team alongside coaches Christian Anthony and David Leslie. 

“As long as we’re having fun, and putting our best effort in, everything else is fine,” Coach Shenk said. “The way we nurture more baseball in the community is that the kids are excited to come to practice. Baseball teaches you lessons of life, about patience, about failure, about teamwork. If you can make that fun, and kids continue to want to play, I think they take with them things they’ve learned in baseball that translate into other ways of being successful.” 

Coach Shenk’s philosophy resonates with many of the parents. Carolyn Placente of Inverness, whose son, Dylan, is on the team, said the coaches have “a sense of caring that’s really palpable.” “I’m so grateful for my son to have positive role models,” she added. “He has his dad, of course, but the more the better in this day and age.”

Gordon Hull, whose Heidrun Meadery sponsors the team, said he was grateful that the coaches “are mindful of the ethics of sportsmanship—more so than on other teams. Kids get to play all positions and have equal playing time, so everyone gets to learn together—and that’s more important than winning.” 

Mr. Hull’s daughter, Matilda, started in tee-ball six years ago. “It’s her favorite sport,” Mr. Hull said. “She can never wait for the season to start—she’s totally pumped up.” 

Throughout the game, Coach Shenk had his cell phone at the ready, updating an app called Game Changer with scores and stats in real time, enabling those off the field to keep up. Ms. Placente said she uses the app when work makes her miss evening games, and Dylan’s out-of-state grandparents use it to keep abreast of the team’s progress. 

The Mariners have regular practices on Fridays, optional pitching practices on Wednesdays, and games twice a week: every Saturday at 3 p.m. at West Marin School and Tuesday evenings in Nicasio. This season they have 15 games, and the coaches work on a lineup the night before to ensure that each player has equal time on the field and in various positions. 

The Royals had scored four runs by the third inning, but by the fourth the Mariners had managed to even the playing field at 7-7. Little League games usually have six innings to Major League Baseball’s nine, but when the game was tied at the bottom of the sixth, the coaches added a seventh inning. 

Coach Shenk’s son Huckleberry hit a single at the bottom of the seventh, bringing in the winning run. 

By age 8, the Point Reyes players have already begun to embrace the game’s choreography: the pitcher’s acute-angle knee rise right before the ball is thrown, the wide squat of an outfielder, a catcher’s tiptoe crouch. 

Jason Horick, who coached last year’s AAA team, which also won a championship, said one of the big differences between AA and AAA teams is that the latter is allowed to steal bases. “The kids love that,” he said. In total, the Mariners stole 14 bases during Saturday’s game. 

Anne Halley Harper, a fourth-grade teacher at West Marin School, stood on the sidelines on Saturday. She has taught many of the players in her classroom at one point or another, and she tries to make it to as many games as she can. “Baseball is a metaphor for life,” she said. “They have to work together as a team, and if you fail you still succeed. With a batting average, one out of three is a big success!” 

Matilda, a fifth grader, said she was initially drawn to the sport to be with her friends, but once she started playing, she “just felt in love with it.” After her team won the championship last year, it furthered her desire to keep playing. The hardest thing about baseball, she said, is “being patient with yourself and other teammates and other teams” in the face of mistakes. 

Huckleberry, a third grader, agreed that the most challenging aspect of the game “is not hitting or anything, but keeping it together—don’t break apart when you don’t pitch strikes.” 

Coach Shenk said he was proud of the way Huckleberry handled pitching challenges during the game. “For a lot of the kids it’s sort of an individual sport at times—batting and pitching and stuff—and they can take it pretty hard,” he said. But as the players grow, individually and together, “these guys are all getting more mature, they’re handling the stress of it all better.”

The fence line dividing the baseball field from the rest of the school’s grassy expanse is lined with posters for West Marin businesses, but parents and coaches hope to see faces in the stands. “It’s all about watching your kids play and to be right here in the sunshine, having a hot dog and watching a ballgame,” Mr. Hull said. “What could be better?” 

The idea of baseball as a kind of symbol—for grit, for community, for growth—is certainly dear to the Mariners’ supporters. “I never thought I’d be a sports mom, but it’s so joyful to see these kids playing their hearts out,” Ms. Placente said. “It’s big for them. I think it’s a metaphor for life on so many levels: the ups and downs in a given game and having to rise up no matter what happens.” 

 

The Light is posting the Point Reyes Mariners’ scheduled in the community calendar, along with the schedule for Point Reyes Fireflies, the area’s tee-ball team.