Only a game?
For David Klein, manager of the Menlo Park Legends, baseball is a way of life
Tom Hanks, in the 1992 film "A League of Their Own," playing the manager of a World War II-era women's baseball team, put it succinctly, definitively and memorably: "There's no crying in baseball."
Somebody forgot to tell David Klein, an inductee in the Menlo-Atherton High School Sports Hall of Fame, a veteran of college baseball, and the founder, general manager and back-up catcher, pinch-hitter and pinch-runner for the semi-pro Menlo Park Legends.
The Legends, a summer team for college players who have major league aspirations, recently completed the 2011 season, its third, with a win-loss record of 26-17.
After a 13-7 victory over Sacramento's Pro Player Baseball on July 28 at Menlo College in Atherton, the Legends, dressed in home-field pin-stripes, gathered in a tight scrum behind first base to say their goodbyes. "You guys came out here and rallied behind me," said Klein, his eyes welling and his voice breaking repeatedly. "Wow. I appreciate this summer. I really do. It was a pleasure coaching all of you."
"Every single one of you guys got better," he added. "I'll be following all of you guys. I will. I'm heartbroken that it's over. I love you all."
The next morning found Klein on another Atherton baseball diamond, this time sitting on an overturned plastic bucket on a pitcher's mound tossing T-Ball baseballs to less advanced players and regular baseballs to the others.
The occasion was the last of five week-long summer baseball camps for ages 6-12 at Las Lomitas Elementary School. Each of the two teams included two Legends players who set the tone with continuous and encouraging on-field banter.
"By playing alongside the campers we get the chance to lead by example and show them how the game is supposed to be played," Klein said in an email. "The kids absolutely love playing with college baseball players."
The kids pounded ball after ball into the outfield, and ran the bases. Of those fly balls that weren't caught, the throws to the infield were often on target and often arrived before the runner.
During a break, the kids gathered on the bleachers beneath the shade of a beach umbrella to talk about the program. "It's awesome," said Laine Miller, 10, of Atherton. "You get to play with a team and have fun and learn how to catch the ball and throw it better than usual."
"It's the best," Drake Corrigan, 9, of Atherton said, noting that at the end of the day, there is a trivia contest where they can earn and trade baseball cards and candy.
It's also informative. This reporter, whose batting stance as a kid was regularly criticized, finally learned what to do with his rear foot. It's supposed to rise up and rotate at the toe during the swing, as if squashing a bug, Laine said. "You rotate your foot to make sure it's dead," she added. "You don't want it to suffer."
As for suffering, the kids said they have less of it at a Legends camp. "You can go to the bathroom any time," said Drake. The other kids nodded in agreement. Asked to elaborate, he said that at other baseball camps, requests for bathroom breaks can be met with, "You should have gone at recess."
Asked to explain the difference between his camps and Little League, Klein said that dads-as-coaches, while well-intentioned, "haven't been around the game too much. They don't know how to coach kids."
"We really show them the fun of baseball," he added.
The Legends had a schedule of 43 games this summer, 12 of which were played at home at either Menlo College in Atherton or Canada College in Woodside. The 31 away games, usually traveled to in two 15-person vans, took them to Merced, San Francisco, Sacramento, Arcata (near the Oregon border), San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
That's some long-distance van time.
"Barnstorming is fun," Klein said when asked to comment on the road trips. "We get to play anyone wherever we want and when we want. It's fun to go and quiet a crowd in a ballpark far away. To put together a few victories is an absolute blast."
But why so many away games? Demand for Peninsula baseball fields is "very competitive," he said. As an alternative, he looked for experienced teams and offered to meet them at their home fields. "I wanted to play the most competitive schedule I could play," he added.
Traveling is also expensive. The Legends have had commercial sponsors — a sporting goods store, real estate agents, pizza places — but substantial funding comes from the baseball camps, which run about $300 per week per student, he said.
When the camps started three years ago, attendance was 15 kids per week for five weeks. This year, attendance has sometimes exceeded 40, he said.
Living and breathing baseball
Many people with an interest in baseball have read "Moneyball," Michael Lewis's 2003 bestselling paean to the use of statistical analysis in finding skilled players, including overlooked skilled players.
David Klein, 24, is deep into the sport. What does he read? Baseball books "have become the only thing I can really read," he said. He recommended "The Mental Game of Baseball," by Harvey A. Dorfman.
As for Mr. Lewis' book, Klein said he did not finish it. Statistics are not always the best predictors of talent, he said. Giving a good effort and hitting the ball hard are also good indicators.
He has had his innings with a bat in his hand, having played through high school and being recruited to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Management there cut him from the team in January 2009.
"I was heartbroken," Klein said, "but it may have been a blessing in disguise as the very next day I took out a loan and started working on the team. Within three months, I had the Legends name, logo and website assembled and immediately started recruiting players and campers."
"It's amazing," he said when asked to comment on the team's first three years. "You get all these giddy feelings." The team had just returned from a series with the Santa Barbara Foresters, one of Klein's former teams — and one of the best semi-pro teams in the nation, he said.
"I'm very proud of the way (the Legends) have come along," he said. "I've really fallen in love with the coaching gig. It's been a blast."
It's a summer league and the players are in their prime and playing heads-up baseball in a very competitive league. What could be better?
"All these guys have aspirations of making it to the major leagues," Klein said. "Every single one of them."
As manager and coach, Klein has put himself in the position of go-to guy for players with very high ambitions. "There's definitely a balance between the fun and the learning component," he said. "They're expected to put baseball first in the summer."