Gallagher column: Little League is a tough job – on and off the field
By Ronnie Gallagher
Being president of a little league can be a tough job. Jeff Bernhardt will attest to that. He and wife Lynn help oversee 470 kids and 45 teams in the Rowan Little League.
As hectic as that may sound, it’s even tougher for a president when he steps on the playing field.
Bernhardt will attest to that, too. He was walking around Salisbury Community Park last week, showcasing a shiner under his left eye. Seems he was on the mound in a Coach-Pitch game when he was dealt a thump to the face that felt like a Mike Tyson haymaker. It was a thrown ball toward his face when he wasn’t looking.
Bernhardt had blurred vision for a few minutes but in the realm of little league baseball, there’s no rest for the weary. He’s a quick healer, and was right back out there.
That didn’t surprise Dan Wales.
“It takes special people to keep this thing running,” Wales said.
Bernhardt knows if he or his wife miss any time, he has a capable sidekick in Wales, who has been working with the little league for 20 years.
“This goes back to my buddy, Scott Maddox, who dragged me out here in 1987,” Wales laughed. “I coached four or five years and joined the board. I’ve played all the roles.”
Wales and Bernhardt figured the little league would increase in size but they’re incredulous of today’s rising numbers. Wales remembers working at the old Food Lion complex where two fields took care of 14-16 teams. Now, Rowan Little League has baseball players from 5 to 12 years old. Girls softball is playing here. It is a monstrous undertaking.
“A couple more fields would be nice,” Wales understated.
There are currently six fields being used. There is plenty of room for expansion but, as Wales points out, “Money is tight everywhere. In the original design, there’s seven more softball fields down behind the trees. There’s a lot of acreage here.”
Rain is not a friend of youth leagues like Rowan, Spencer, Franklin-Ellis, East Rowan and China Grove, just to name a few. There were so many games washed out during the first three weeks of the season that Bernhardt and Wales found themselves scrambling.
“We were 76 games behind,” Wales said. “Believe it or not, we’ve made up all but seven or eight.”
And then, there’s that money thing. Rowan might bring in $50,000 but spend $50,000.
“If you make a couple (thousand), you’re good,” Wales said.
He spends $30,000 on equipment, uniforms and the normal weekly expenses. Jr. Mowery has been booking officials for some time, and as Wales points out, “Umpires aren’t free. We spend $12,000 on umpires.”
But just when you think it’s too stressful to deal with, you realize the Bernhardts and Wales are out there laughing and having the time of their lives with the hundreds of parents who visit the fields each night.
On a recent evening, an umpire (we’ll call him Tommy) approached Wales and asked, “Now, where’s that strike zone again?”
He was referring to the parents who were berating him. But he was joking. And Wales joked back. This is little league sports and the kids’ enthusiasm makes you smile each and every night you’re at the park.
Wales is seen in the concesison stand. Wales is seen umpiring games when there are a shortage of officials. Wales is seen hobnobbing with whomever wants to talk.
Most cajole him about his favorite college football team ó Ohio State.
Get this. At the bottom of Wales’ toilet, he has a highway with a sign that says something like, “Next flush, Ann Arbor.”
The Buckeyes haven’t won the national title enough lately to suit him.
“I’ve been rode hard the last couple of years,” he sighed.
For Wales ó as well as others who run leagues across the county ó his season begins before Christmas when he starts organizing. Practice starts in March. He gets a month off in July and fall league begins.
“We go home in October,” Wales said.
He estimates he and the Bernhardts spend as much as 40 hours a week at the complex.
While the Bernhardts have kids playing, Wales doesn’t.
“I just like being out here,” he said. “My wife would probably like to see me at home more often. I don’t have anything to gain by being out here. It’s just a matter of doing what’s right for these kids.”
Bernhardt will echo those sentiments. He’ll do whatever the league needs, even if it means throwing a few baseballs toward home plate from the mound in Coach-Pitch.
Bernhardt, like all the others who run little leagues, is a special person.
And he has a shiner under that left eye to prove it.
Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.