Baseball Men - The Little League Coach

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Russell Miller, 20-year veteran as a Little League organizer.

Every fan has heard it. Some people still say that baseball's future might be in trouble. Some people say that the game may be in some kind of long-term decline because kids, well, they just don't want to play ball anymore.


Some people don't know what they're talking about.


The fact is that Little League Baseball is thriving like never before in the new millennium. Today's organization welcomes a record three million members nowadays, with a healthy 13% membership increase coming in 1990's alone. One clue to the attraction of grass-roots, community-based ball games comes in the fact that the Williamsport, PA Little League World Series has attracted powerhouse network ratings (along with Major League broadcasters and advertising budgets) for years now.


Why has Little League has grown so, well, big, over the years? Well, its runaway success may have a lot to do with guys like Russell Miller.


You'd be tempted to call Miller a kind of ordinary guy. He works in local insurance sales in Stamford, CT, so he isn't likely to ever become a household name through blaring newspaper headlines or multiple television appearances.


Oh, you might be tempted to call Russ Miller ordinary, but you'd be wrong. The plain truth is, there's nothing ordinary about his dedication to Little League - not in the way that he takes time from his young family in order to recruit ballplayers, set club rosters, organize practices, arranges for fields and equipment, and guiding youngsters on and off the field. That takes hundreds of hours of extraordinary effort.


More than that, there's nothing at all ordinary about Miller's motivations for giving so much time and energy to baseball. In an arena utterly removed from the multi-millions and inflated egos of big-time sports, some important throwback qualities come into the equation. Youth baseball, like all youth sports, only survives and thrives through volunteers' genuine, abiding interest in teaching and mentoring impressionable young people.


The bottom line - if you're interested in the most sincere, selfless love of the game to be found anywhere, you should head out for a Little League field and shake the hand of one of the more than one million volunteers who make the whole thing happen. You should acquaint yourself with a Russ Miller.


I had a chance to do just that. Russ is as an excitable, friendly guy and, on September 24th, he sat down and talked about his 20 years in the ultimate kid's game.




How did you get started in baseball?


Playing. I loved playing.


I played since I was eight years old, starting in the Minors division and then, when I was 10, going on to the Majors. I graduated from Little League after three years and went on to the big league.


I always thought of myself as a good, solid player who knew the game. Even in those days, I remember being proud of my baseball IQ, in trying to think of when to pull a pitcher, why you might want to put a player here, why you might want to pull a delayed steal or something.


I knew I'd never be a Major Leaguer but, even so, I came back and kept involved in Little League. I umpired, kept score, helped organize the teams. I first started helping out in coaching when I was 15 and, from the minute I put on a whistle, it was enjoyable.


Was your father involved when you were playing in the League?


He really was.


My father always took an interest in what my brothers and me did as kids and always played ball with us. He was an real baseball guy - the Giants moved out, OK, he became a Mets fan. Dad took us to Mets games over at Shea.


And he always came to our Little League games. I remember, on Saturdays, he'd take us out for pizza afterwards and we'd talk over the games. He stayed on after me and my brothers graduated, and he's still involved, believe it or not, doing the registrations for the League.


Today, on Cain Avenue, there's a Larry Miller Field. They named it after him, due to his years of service.


What's your favorite part of coaching?


Watching the games themselves, the camaraderie among the kids, the camaraderie among the parents, the performances, the strategy, the skill sets, the development, the teaching, the motivation. The competitive spirit. It's all there. Baseball, it's everything you'd want to be a part of.


Well, you started when you were still basically a kid, but I understand that most adult Little League coaches get involved because their kids are on a team.  


Usually they volunteer because their son is involved. Not always, though. We have one old-timer, Jerry La Motta, who's been in the League almost 40 years now. He coached one of my brothers from way back and he's still around, bless him.


How do you and your fellow coaches relate to each other?


We have a lot of respect for each other. Yeah, there's a rivalry, there's competitiveness, everyone wants to be the best coach, but we pretty much all get along. We're basically all jokesters; there are no bad guys.


I have to think we're fairly typical. For the most part, Little Leagues are neighborhood leagues and everyone knows each other beforehand, and certainly by the end of the season.


I mean, the media has really sensationalized a lot of stuff. I've heard about a coach throwing something or a parent fighting a coach . . . think of how many millions of games are played, and none of the good stuff is covered. There are three or four incidents that are remembered.


Have any of you ever been ejected from a game?


Once, on a clearly blown call, I tossed my hat down to the ground and waved my arms around a bit, but it was really just for show. I didn't lose my temper, but I wanted the kids to know I was behind him.


But, no, I've never been ejected. Has there ever been an ejection in the league? No. I've never been thrown out and I've never seen anyone else thrown out.


Like I said, though, there's a camaraderie among the coaches. Knock on wood, the police have never been called to a Stamford American field in the 20 years I've been involved, not for any reason. I'm not aware of any incident anywhere in the district in all that time.


Are coaches screened to make sure that no bad guys get involved?


Coaches have to be screened every year with a background check. I'd say it was added about five years ago. That would be the very worst thing, and it's taken very seriously.


Do a lot of your fellow coaches know the game well?


There are some coaches that don't know the game as well as others, but they make the time to go to the games. What are you going to do? As long as they're positive, good people, you live with it.


The funny thing is, you don't really have to know about the in-game strategy to win in Little League. To me, so much of coaching is about good drills and teaching fundamentals. As long as you care enough to make the drills fun, by varying them a bit and making them into games in themselves, you'll have kids who know the game and put up a competitive effort.


Well, one thing that might discourage volunteer coaches is the time commitment.


True. It's tough. I do pre-season, four days a week, then five days a week during the four-month season. I consider it a program. I figure, if you do it, do it right.


It's a unique teaching situation, it seems to me. Little League might be the only time a father is teaching his son directly, or a non-teacher is teaching a young kid how to go out and do what it takes to win.


That's a very good point. It's such a positive when there's a father, or a total stranger, even, teaching a kid how to do something. A kid can get the direct sense that someone wants him to do well, to do the best they can.


Nobody's getting paid - it's a love of the game that leads a lot of coaches to take ownership. They look at the kids on the field as quote ‘their kids' unquote.


You know the guy who isn't doing a good job as a Little League coach? It's the guy who isn't doing enough to take ownership in some way. He might put down his players or emphasize what the kids can't do instead of what they can't do. Even if he knows the rule book from cover to cover, that guy's not going to do well by the kids.


Do you have trouble encouraging parental involvement nowadays?


Not at all. The parents today are more involved than ever before.


I guess we're going back to the old school, where everybody goes to the Little League game to keep an eye on what little Johnny's doing. That's when you can have a special year, when parents add energy.


Is it hard to relate to ‘Little League parents'?


You have to coach the parents, too, is what I've said all along. 


We have a meeting with parents at the beginning of the year and set out the rules: show up on time, have fun, play together, and listen to the coaches. As long as we're on the same page, things usually turn out alright.


Have you ever had a problem with over-involved parents?


Not really. There has to be a balance. You can't have apathetic people or over-involved parents.


The problem basically is when the parents might think ‘my kid is the best', so he should play here or there and he should be playing all the time, but they don't show up enough to know why that's not always a good idea. Then we have to talk it over and work it out.


Have you ever had instances where a kid's home situation prevented him from having success on the field?


Unfortunately, yeah.


Sometimes there are things at home that are issues, and kids might not be able to come to ball games, or they might be in a fog by the time they hit the field. You'd like to believe that baseball can break through. Sometimes it can't.


Critics still seem to issue dire warnings about losing the next generation because kids don't play ball nowadays. Do you find that's the case?


Well, kids are playing more, the enrollment is up to where it should be. We even added Fall Ball, for September and through Halloween. We actually have winter clinics now, too. It's almost year-round.


It's great to see, and the volunteers have stepped up, too. It used to be a four-month thing, but our League board meets every month to go over everything - how are we going to do the draft, how are we going to do the schedule, what fields are we going to use. It's become that important to the community, that big and that special.


In Connecticut, of course, it's not Arizona or Texas. We can't play year-round. I think plenty of players and coaches, if they could, they would.


I get that sense, too. I get the feeling that kids are playing just as much ball, except they're more likely to do it in Little League rather than pickup games in sandlots.


Well, I think part of the problem is that you just don't see any kids playing out on the streets like they used to. That goes for baseball, football, badminton, what have you. I can't blame them. ‘Who's out on the streets?' ‘Who's keeping an eye on my son or daughter?', parents are saying.


[Little League] is organized and it has the most rules, true, but I think they're good rules for the most part. They make sense. For instance, we have a ‘must play' rule where everyone has to bat at least once and play in the field for two innings. That's a good thing.


Have you ever coached any girls over the years?


Well, they have their own separate softball league, so it's rare for them to play in the Little League.


I did coach a young lady for the first time in 20 years, though, and she was well-suited for it. She was had a good attitude, played hard, she was into it, she was coachable. Sometimes girls can be more mature, especially at that age, 10, 11, 12.


What, in your opinion, makes for a winning Little League team?


Youth baseball's all about talent. A coach's job is to evaluate it, developing it, nurturing it, channeling it with discipline and enjoyment.


That being said, I've come across all kinds of kids with all kinds of talent. You'd look at a 10-year-old and guess that they don't know first base from third base, but when they get out on the diamond, they work hard, they learn, and, at the end of the day, they develop. Almost any young man can become a nifty player if he really wants to be, that's my experience. They can come a long way.


Does anyone come to mind in the way he grew up in the game during his time on your team?


Many. I thought a kid I coached recently, Jack Sullivan, would be a good player. He turned out to be MVP of the League. He went all the way from good to very good to excellent to MVP.




The process was, he took the mound at 10 and took his lumps as a young pitcher. By 11, we put him in spots where he could succeed and he got more and more confident. By his last year, at 12, he got physically better, he did some work on his own, and he was dominating. He's only going to get better still. Jack's a good kid, too.


Do you allow your pitchers to throw curveballs?


Well, I don't teach curveballs. Why take any chances? You'll see those hooks on ESPN, when they broadcast the Williamsport [Little League World Series] Tournament, but you can have a great game with just fastballs and changeups. A 10, 11-year-old's hands and arms just aren't fully developed.


What was your most challenging season as a coach?


Probably the year we lost our best pitcher. We were 5-2 at the time and he was covering home at a play at the plate. He broke his arm and had to be carried off in a stretcher. It was the only time an ambulance has to come onto the field, by the way.


It was terrible for the kid and for us, too. He was our leader, a quiet leader, but the heart of the team with his pitching, hitting, and fielding. We lost the one player we couldn't afford to lose and, after that, we were more or less done. After that game, it was really tough to get the kids to believe in themselves and get their hearts into the ball games.


What was one of your best seasons?


I have to go the team we had back in '99. I had a group of kids, we called them ‘the fab five', who would show up early. I mean, they'd show up before I did. They lived and breathed baseball.


We would have gone undefeated except for the fact we lost one game on purpose, to show that nothing is perfect, and we ended up winning the city. What a great group. They were great kids, great parents.


Have your teams won often?


We've always had a winning season, with the exception of one season when we lost our best pitcher. Other than that, our program on Vine Road has always finished in the top half of the Stamford American League. Last year was a great year, we finished 16-4.


Still, whether we win the championship or not is, to me, irrelevant. It's all about taking the field with a chance to do well.


For all the winning, it's still the prototypical game of failure.


Yeah, but here's the good thing - with young players, there's plenty of room for improvement. Something as basic as learning to throw with a follow-through can be a big deal. Concentrate on keeping the ball up front. You might not get them to execute a perfect swing, but you can help them level out their swing.


When teammates encourage the lagging players, that's when you know when you have a great team. That's when they're sold on the idea that they're in it together and things can get better.


Can you have a good team without them having a lot of fun?


No way. Little League Baseball is a great sport, and it's got to be fun, first and foremost, both the practices and the games. You've got to get the kids wanting to come back.


Heh, it's all about fun for me, too. It's a challenge to teach them and see results, and to try to make it work even when I don't have the best players. If a kid can't hit, let him bunt. If he can't bunt, you know, let him pitch. If he can't pitch, let him field. If he can't do the infield, work on the outfield. There's always something.


Is humor a part of your coaching style?


Oh, very much so. Keep ‘em laughing, and they'll want to keep it going. I wish I could give you an example - it just feels like a natural part of it.


What do you think of ‘The Bad News Bears'?


It was cute. Nice satire, but in real life, it's got to be fun and serious at the same time. I'm glad my team doesn't play like that!


Do you encourage your players to become friends?


I'd love to see it but it's not always possible. A lot of them go to different schools, public or private. I try to make sure they have respect for each other, and I'd always hope a good number translate that good ‘family/team' atmosphere off the field.


We do have get-together's for some good bonding. Every year, for instance, I take the kids to Pat's Hubba-Hubba. Have you ever heard of that place? It's a great chili place down by the [Stamford] Cove. We always pick the day before we a tough opponent and, hand to God, whenever I tell the kid's we're going to Pat's, we win, for whatever reason.


At the end of the year, we also have a pizza party at a parent's house where we'd give out a certificate of award to each kid. So, we do that. Keep ‘em laughing, keep it light.


Are you still learning about how to coach?


Sure. Every year, the League conducts coaches' clinics, where I always learn something new, whether they be new drills, new techniques, whatever. How to hold the bat on a bunt, how to assign a cutoff man to home or third base. It's still baseball - that's why I'm still waiting for the Mets to call me.


I'm competing out there - I want to be a great coach, too. That's part of the drive, absolutely.


Have you ever given any thought to trying to catch on as a coach in the Minors?


Back in '96, we had a party for the parents at a nice restaurant on Bridge Street and I got up and said, ‘I haven't got any offers for the Mets yet . . .' The place burst out laughing. I think a couple of ‘em didn't realize I was joking around for a couple of seconds.


You know what it is? My wife won't let me. I'd love to be a pro coach, but I love my wife and two kids even more, so where am I gonna go?


Talk about humor, that was a pretty fun time, when we took the kids to a Minor League game one time. (laughs) We took a picture with the guys, so our pitcher was standing next to their pitcher, our catcher was standing next to their catcher, so on. And there I was standing next to Willie Upshaw, who was the manager at the time. I said to him, ‘hey, you got a spot on the bench for me, Will? Can we talk a little strategy?' He said ‘c'mon, have a seat'. It's all in good fun.


Even so, has coaching made you a more avid observer of Major League managers?


No question. Baseball's baseball. It's universal.


How do you mean?


Put it this way - going out and coaching helps me realize why Joe Torre is the epitome of class. There are other guys - Bobby Cox - but to me, Torre's the epitome. He's always relaxed but always intense and he's always thinking. I try to do the same thing in Little League. Obviously, he's better than me, but it's pretty much the same process.


After 20 years coaching in Little League, are you a bigger fan of the game, a lesser fan, or do you have mixed emotions about it?


Ha. I'm more of a fan of Little League, I'm more of a fan of baseball in general.


I'm just hoping that, within a few years, my young son, Daniel, gets to play t-ball on the field that's named after my dad. He's just two, but he never leaves home without his little toy bat and ball.


Know why? ‘Cause ‘he's the best' (laughs). Just kidding.


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