Little League manager reflects on long road to tournament
When Chaz Gagne’s Little League All-Stars played their first postseason game in June, no one could have anticipated how far those 14 boys would carry the team.
Ten weeks and 20 games of baseball later, the Encinitas boys came within a few runs of advancing to the Little League World Series, which culminates this weekend in Williamsport, Penn.
As a father of one of the players and the team’s manager, Gagne had unique insight behind the scenes, and he told me last week that the experience became especially challenging once Encinitas had qualified for the West Regional tournament.
It was late July, and the boys had just rolled a Long Beach team 9-3 to clench the Southern California title.
“I had no idea any of this was coming — I thought it was just another tournament you drive to,” Gagne recalled. “We won the state tournament on Sunday; on Wednesday, we had to report to San Bernardino, and you couldn’t leave. You can sign kids out, like to go out to dinner with their parents, but you have to get permission even for something that simple.”
He used the word “sequestered” to describe what it was like sleeping in a dormitory at the Little League complex, which was the team’s home for 10 days.
“A lot of these kids haven’t been away from mom and dad, and they’re under my lock and key, basically,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges behind the scenes in keeping the kids organized, having them take care of their own stuff. You know, mom’s not going to show up and bring you your glove, your cleats and your water bottle. You’ve got to train them.
“You also have a lot of perils with social media — they’re all on Instagram, and they’re all being followed, so anything you say that’s inflammatory is going to get out,” he added. “I do this to teach kids, and that’s an opportunity to teach kids how you manage your cell phone, and your social media, and your time.”
When we met at the Encinitas Little League complex, which is part of the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA, Gagne looked and spoke like every baseball coach I’ve ever met.
By day, he works in sales for Fed-Ex, and he confessed that he hasn’t always been this passionate — or knowledgeable — about America’s pastime.
“I played two Division I sports, and neither of them was baseball,” he said. “Soccer and lacrosse. But I committed myself not to force my kids into soccer or lacrosse, and they liked baseball early.”
As a young dad and rookie coach, he said, “I always found someone to help me at each level: ‘Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you run the team. Here’s how you run a practice.’ All the way along.”
Even during this summer’s foray into national-level competition — after 10-plus years in the league — Gagne gave most of the coaching credit to his two partners, Brian Mazone and Joe Pimentel, a long-time local coach who steered his own Rancho Buena Vista team to Williamsport in 2005.
“Frankly, I recognize that I’m not a baseball genius,” said Gagne. “I’m a dad who has kind of taught himself how to run a Little League team, but I’m not going to succeed with an All-Star team without more baseball knowledge.”
The Encinitas “Majors” weren’t the only All-Star squad to succeed in this summer’s tournaments; in all, Encinitas Little League fielded four postseason teams, which played a combined 52 games.
But it was the 12- and 13-year-olds under Gagne’s management who rallied the community to show up at the local sports bar for televised Little League games, and whose success prompted Mayor Kristin Gaspar to proclaim Aug. 10 “Encinitas Little League All-Stars Day.”
Friday, Aug. 8 brought the fateful 5-1 loss — the end of the road for Gagne and his team.
“We out-hit them, but made some errors,” he said of that final outing, against Mountain Ridge of Nevada. “I’m killin’ myself. They’re in the Little League World Series now, so we were that close. The kids bounced back quickly. We lost on Friday evening, and on Saturday they woke up happy, jumped in the pool. It’s the parents who were torn up. The kids are good.”
It was a long road for Gagne and his players: Four years ago, he recognized the collective talent in his son’s age group and began training the top players together.
“Last year, we did not do well, but we should have, so at that point I committed myself to changing the way I was thinking about this All-Star team,” he told me. “We hit every Friday night over in Vista in a cage — 25 Friday nights we spent hitting, in preparation for this.”
Contrary to what you might imagine, Gagne is not a sports fanatic.
He told me that youth sports, at their best, are about friendship and community — and he drove his point home with a story about his grandfather, a Dutch soccer player named Carl ter Weele.
“He played soccer and had a family, then World War II broke out. He lived within driving distance of Berlin, so he had an assassination plot on Hitler, which was found out,” Gagne said. “So there was a reverse assassination plot against him, and a friend of his who he played soccer with — he was in the German army — called him up and said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen.’ For me, that’s what sports is. That’s what I hope these kids get out of it.
“There’s some battles in there, and I think that’s where you forge real friendships.”
Know anyone with an interesting job, history or outlook on life? Contact Tom Pfingsten at firstname.lastname@example.org.