After coaching Great Falls Little League baseball for the past six years, Neal Abravanel decided it was time to take a break. He made plans to spend the spring of 2006 doing work around his house and relaxing, but an argument between two coaches changed all of that, and put Abravanel on the road to one of the best seasons of his life.
"The night of the draft, which I was not a part of, one of the coaches had a disagreement with another coach, and one thing led to another, and one of the coaches walked out," said Abravanel.
The Little League draft went on with one coach missing, and the result was one coach-less "Team X" comprised of 12 boys that nobody picked.
"That night, I'm home relaxing, and the next thing I know, my phone is ringing off the hook," said Abravanel. "They said, 'we need somebody to come coach a team, because we've got 12 kids with no coach, and your son is one of those kids.'"
Abravanel finally relented and agreed to coach the team. He found an assistant coach, and on the first day of practice discovered that one third of the boys "had not even picked up a baseball since t-ball."
"We're thinking, 'oh my God, what are we going to do with this?'" said Abravanel.
But Abravanel did exactly what he had agreed to do — he coached his team to the best of his ability, proving that the best of his ability meant bringing out the best of their abilities.
"I told the guys that we were going to have a lot of extra practices, and that they were going to have to work extra hard," said Abravanel. "So we had multiple batting cages, multiple practices, and the next thing you know, this team is coming together."
ABRAVANEL'S extra practices and determined coaching made the unthinkable happen. His team — the team that nobody wanted — went on to win 10 out of 14 games in the regular season, and then went on to win the Starliper Tournament. It was the first time that a Great Falls Little League team won the tournament since 1999.
"It really, honestly is like a Walt Disney movie," said Joda Coolidge, whose son played on the team. "It's a 'Bad News Bears' story in Great Falls — it's so Norman Rockwell I can't believe it."
Coolidge's son Blake Coolidge, 11, had played basketball, flag football, and soccer, but this was the first year that he tried out for baseball. He decided to because his father had played baseball, and because he had "just never tried it before."
"He was a total unknown, so he was one of the leftover kids, and that's how we lived this whole experience," said Coolidge.
Blake Coolidge said that when the team first got together, "it didn't look too great, and none of the players knew each other."
"But we started off and we won that first game, and that really got the team going," he said. "Then we got to know each other and we became great friends."
He attributes the team's success to Abravanel's first rate coaching skills.
"He made everything fun and he gave everybody a chance and just encouraged everybody," said Blake Coolidge. "If we had had another coach, we wouldn't have done so well. I've never been on any team throughout any sport where we started off not doing well — it was awesome."
to qualify for the Starlipper Tournament, a team must win its regular season title. Abravanel's team won on the last day of the season and qualified for Starlipper. However, four of the players could not participate in the tournament because they had to leave for summer vacation.
"These boys weren't anticipating playing baseball any longer than June," said Abravanel. "So this meant that we had to bring up four kids from the lower level, and they performed incredibly well. Starlipper is such a nice tournament because it's just a bunch of kids put together — in this case with no rhyme or reason — and they get to feel like stars, and they are all treated like stars."
Abravanel said the team did not do well in the Great Falls playoff series, so no one was really expecting a lot. However, his team ended up winning all five games and subsequently winning the tournament.
"We played Vienna, and Vienna in baseball is a powerhouse," said Abravanel. "They have three times the number of teams per division than we did."
HAVING his son on the team made the experience even more rewarding for Abravanel.
"We had such a great experience together," said Abravanel. "He's the kind of kid who likes to play a lot of sports and hang out with his friends, but he worked harder than I've ever seen him work — the hours we spent talking — as a parent it was just so great."
For Abravanel, a season that he planned to take off ended up being the best season of his life. He laughs when he thinks about his long list of household chores that never got done, but said that when he thinks about the success of the team, he does not mind that his garage is a mess.
"This season was the most satisfying to me," said Abravanel. "It's just baseball. It's just kids getting together with no coaches with laptops scouting out players and calling up neighbors to see if Johnny is better than the other. Unfortunately, that's a lot of what kids sports has become — find the best players and forget about the rest of the players."
Joda Coolidge said that she thinks Abravanel is "the most genuine person you're going to run across."
"A coach like this can make such a difference in a child's life," she said. "There were some kids on the team that honestly, this is probably the only time in their life that they are ever going to play a sport, and for him to make them feel like a superstar is just a gift for life."