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Play Ball! Little League Season Begins

West Springfield Little League starts season of family, friendship at Byron Park.

After 60 years as an umpire, Tony Musco still remembers the one bad call he made.

"I did it on purpose," said Musco, 81. The Burke resident was refereeing a Little League game in Spain and the young player at bat was about to strike out. Instead of calling a third strike, however, Musco called a ball and gave the boy another chance.

"He turned around and said, 'Thank you, Mr. Musco,'" he said.

Musco, donned his baseball gear once again Saturday, April 8 to call the first pitch of West Springfield Little League's 2006 season. Although the cold and rainy weather canceled the opening day game, it did not discourage parents, coaches, and players from gathering at the Byron Avenue ball field for a parade.

"It keeps me young," said Musco of his umpire duties. "It’s a way to contribute."

West Springfield Little League, formed 35 years ago when it broke off from Central Springfield Little League, uses ball fields at Burke School, West Springfield High School, and Keene Mill School. The main field is at Byron Park, a football field refurbished each spring into a baseball diamond. The vast areas of Burke and Springfield do not have a formal town center, said Gillingham, so in the summer, Byron Avenue becomes Burke's center of activity.

"For many people, this is downtown," said Gillingham, a Fairfax Station resident. "You see kids you knew as 5-year-olds." On weekend days during baseball season, he said, Byron Park becomes the gathering place for families, community members and young people, whether they play in West Springfield Little League or not.

"On any given day, you can see Tony behind the plate and Nancee behind the snack bar," he said.

Nancee Driscoll, a member of the Board of Directors who began working the snack bar three seasons ago, agreed. "Families gather here," she said.

WEST SPRINGFIELD Little League’s Board of Directors works 10 months out of the year preparing for the 10-week season, said Gillingham.

This season, he said, the league will focus on positive training and working with younger players to develop skills. The league invited members of the West Springfield High School baseball team to come back for a two-hour session to teach T-ball players the right skills. Baseball is a hard sport to learn, said Gillingham, and teaching the correct techniques the first time is a great advantage to young players.

"It’s really neat to see kids this big who you remember from when they were that big, teaching kids who are that big," said Gillingham, making tall and short motions with his hands.

Also, over the next season West Springfield Little League will begin looking at ways to build a "smarter" training facility for practices. Like other Little League organizations, West Springfield Little League is a Virginia nonprofit, so public funds are not part of the league’s $250,000 budget. Teams must find ways to use smaller spaces more efficiently, he said.

The league also received a grant from Fairfax County to support a positive coaching program, Gillingham said. With advice such as talking to players at their eye level and keeping a six-to-one ratio of praise and criticism, he said, the program is meant to develop double-goal coaches who concentrate both on teaching the game and on having a good time.

Coach Gary Engel, whose 11-12 All-Star team earned the state championship title last year, agreed with the idea of positive coaching.

"Your success as a coach or manager is determined by [two] things," said Engel during the opening day ceremonies. "Your approach to the game, and the friendships you form with the kids and parents. It is not determined by your win or loss record."

"It’s all about being an effective coach," said Gillingham. "Shouting never gets anything done."

FOR PLAYERS such as Andrew Koenig and Jeremy Smith, who both play shortstop and pitcher in the 11-12 bracket, the best part of the season never changes: playing the game. They both began playing when they were 5, seven years ago.

"My favorite thing is hitting," said Jeremy, 12. "Maybe hitting a home run." In his years in Little League, Jeremy’s most memorable play was a diving catch he made in the outfield.

According to Andrew, who was particularly proud of a double play he once made, teamwork is important to a good season. "If someone does something wrong, don’t yell at them," he said.

Gillingham, who began playing baseball when he was 8, became involved in Little League because of his father, who signed him up for the sport, and for his son, Kevin, now 17.

"I loved it so much I couldn’t leave it behind," he said.