Gabe Kleiman about to connect on the tournament-winning hit.
Scrappy Dogs upset top teams in baseball tourney
By Caitlin Eichelberger
Never disregard the underdog.
The Downtown Little Leagues Downtown Dogs, the leagues first-ever fall traveling team organized only two months ago, defeated elite teams from across the New York area last weekend in the Diamond Pros Tournament on Ft. Tilden at Breezy Point in Rockaway.
Competing against longstanding teams of players up to 10 years old, the Dogs entered the tournament as a long shot. They left, however, with first place medals, following a close series ending in a game-winning, extra-base hit in extra innings. After their first game, a loss to Garden Citys Nighthawks 4-0, the team needed to defeat the Syosset Braves by at least 10 runs to advance. They did by 11. The 13-2 win over Syosset Saturday landed the dogs in the finals on Sunday against the Bellerose Yankees. Bellerose advanced after eliminating Stuyvesants Diamond Pros and Greenwich Villages New Yorkers.
The game we lost was four nothing, if it was eight nothing we would not have continued, said manager Mark Hatton, stressing the importance of every play leading up to the final.
In the final game against Bellerose, the Dogs were down 4-0 after the second inning and came back to take the lead 6-4 in the fourth. Bellerose tied things up in the fifth, 6-6. In the first extra inning, the bottom of the seventh, Gabe Kleiman sealed the deal for the Dogs hitting the ball over the outfielders head in the right field with two runners on base. His hit sent in the winning run. I dont know that he ever made it to home, said parent Mark Costello, describing the teams storm onto the field. I think they split his batting helmet jumping up and down on him. The final score was 7-6.
Kleiman did score on the play, but since the first run ended the game, he was not credited with a three-run homer.
Gabe Smith, a third baseman and shortstop for the Dogs, explained the reaction. We were just excited because we didnt know that we were that good, he said.
Hatton said seven Dogs had clean hits in the game. We played much tighter defense this time especially given how we performed eight weeks ago.
Prior to the tournament, the Dogs had lost twice as many games as they had won. Their record (6-12), however, was not the force driving the team. Hatton was eager to place players in new positions to gain a greater understanding of the game. During the 19-game season, for example, 12 pitchers tested their arms on the mound.
Tyler Brandon, a third baseman and shortstop for the Dogs, said his experience playing Fall Ball improved his game and his pitching because he was given more opportunities. I got to pitch more, and my hitting really improved, and I learned a lot more, he said.
The Dogs philosophy paid off last weekend. Tournament rules do not allow any one pitcher to be used for more than six innings. Hatton credited the teams tournament success in part to their flexibility. We used five pitchers in the three-game tournament win and had more tested arms in reserve, Hatton said. It would be wrong to mention any one Dog among the pack for this truly was a team effort.
Working as a team, both on or off the field, was one of the greatest lessons of the season, said parent Natalie Kuchel. All of these kids are kind of superstars on their league teams, and once you put the superstars together some realize they have to do some bench time, she said.
The new team was without a name until Hatton brought his Labrador retriever to practice to demonstrate a proper catch. A dog, Hatton said, sticks his nose directly under the ball. And so, because a dog is pretty good with a baseball the name stuck. A few elite teams in Brooklyn are named the Bulldogs, Hatton added, the name is a panache in Little League lexicon. But were just any old Downtown dog, there is a spirit of socialism in that any dog will do.
After spending the summer researching competitive leagues, Hatton developed the Fall Ball Program to offer standout players in the Downtown Little League more competitive play. Downtown Little League is truly a recreational league, Hatton said. And while that may suit a majority, at least 10-12 players every season capable of pursuing baseball in high school and maybe college are not well served and usually leave for elite teams outside of the Downtown area. Our desire was to make the team better from the bottom up. So we have something to keep them here.
Since its like the best out of the league, its really good because everyone already knows how to play, Smith said. They come knowing how to catch, to hit. He also tried out two new positions, third base and right field, that he had never tried during the Downtown Little League regular season.
For many of the 19 Dogs, extending their baseball season and participating in Fall Ball meant giving up their soccer season. Nonetheless, there was huge interest according to Hatton, in the inaugural season. A full roster was drawn-up for both the 10 and under team and the 12 and under team.
The baseball difference for the kids that participated is that they played many more games than they do in the regular Little League season and by the end of the season we were playing at a much higher level than a Minors level player is accustomed to playing, Hatton said. They were backing up bases, hitting cut off men, bunting, working with signs and playing aggressive defense with set plays to inhibit base running. All beyond what is done in the Minors.
It is unusual to compete at that level, much less win, Costello said of the tournament. It was a whole new level of play for us.