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COURSEY: How to become a baseball fan

I haven't been able to generate much enthusiasm for the Giants this year, even though they're in first place. The A's, once my favorite team, have become a bunch of faceless visitors stopping by the Bay Area on their way to richer clubs.

But those Petaluma Little Leaguers have made a baseball fan out of me once again.

In the words of the unforgettable Phil Rizzuto: Holy cow! Baseball is fun again. And exciting. And surprisingly well-played.

As a former Little League player, and father of a former Little League player, I can tell you that these kids from Petaluma don't play your typical sandlot variety of Little League ball. The Petaluma Nationals, who will participate in the Little League World Series starting on Thursday as the United States team representing the "West," are a compilation of all-stars who field, hit, throw and run with skill that belies their tender ages of 12 and 13.

My high school team could have learned some lessons from this group.

The announcers who called the western region championship game on ESPN on Saturday focused on the fielding skills of Petaluma shortstop Hance Smith, who made several slick plays with his glove, arm and head. But talent was on display all over the field, with players from Petaluma and the Hawaii team providing a well-played and entertaining game. (Six innings, the Little League standard, is just the right length, too.)

As a former catcher, I was really impressed by the skills and smarts of both teams' backstops. Petaluma's James O'Hanlon and Hawaii's Kyler Stephens (one of two girls on the team from Waianae) blocked pitches in the dirt, snatched pitches headed for the screen, framed pitches to help the umpire see them as strikes and showed an attention to coaching as they kept their bodies and their gloves in the proper position behind the plate. They also debunked the idea that a catcher's gear represents "the tools of ignorance," relaying signals and handling their pitchers as the game went back and forth at a breakneck pace. At one point, when Petaluma Coach Eric Smith caught Hawaii's coaches stealing pitch signs, O'Hanlon was going through a sign routine more complicated than most big-leaguers ever employ.

It was too bad that the game had to be interrupted at that point as the umpire warned the Hawaii coach that stealing signs is "unsportsmanlike." Just as it was too bad that a thrilling game ended on a rare out call made by an umpire during a time-out. But that's what happens when you have adults meddling in the mix.

So forget those parts and focus on the perfection of what those middle-school boys and girls were doing between the baselines. Not "perfect" as in "perfect game" — there were dropped balls, booted grounders and flubbed plays. But it was perfect in that those kids were playing their hardest, doing their best and enjoying their success in a moment that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

For Petaluma, the moment continues at noon on Thursday, as the team begins World Series play in South Williamsport, Penn. You can see it yourself on ESPN, or at Boulevard Cinemas in Petaluma, where the proceeds from your $15 ticket will help defray travel expenses for the players' families.

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