It was easy to get wrapped up in the Little League World Series this summer. Coverage was ubiquitous: for a solid month, every TV in every restaurant and bar in the city seemed to broadcast the most recent game or a review of the most recent game.
Commentators debated about the strengths and weaknesses of each team as vehemently as they had argued about the strengths and weaknesses of major league teams earlier in the year. The fans remained as rowdy as ever; followed these games with the same degree of dedication; responded with the same whoops of enthusiasms and groans of disgust; that they reserved for the big leagues.
Even I, an avowed baseball hater (I have a bad history with the sport; I still contend I might be the worst player ever to set foot on the mound), found myself casually following along when I went out to eat, tracing the fortunes of the team I was interested in, and even sometimes searching out the results of a missed game online.
Meanwhile, the Dixie Youth World Series came and ended without a tenth of the media coverage. Like most regional sports leagues, Dixie Youth seems to have been ignored by the rest of the world; in those rare cases it wasn’t ignored, it seemed to have been outright dismissed.
And that’s a shame, because it means that, despite their skill, their dedication, their success and, ultimately, their victory, the Moss Bluff All Stars, the champions of the 2013 Dixie Youth World Series, are being overlooked even in their own community when they should, in fact, be recognized on a much larger scale.
It’s easy enough to explain why they might be overlooked. After all, the Dixie Youth World Series only covers 11 southern states – Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama – while the Little League World Series encompasses, well, the world, as its name suggests.
The knee-jerk explanation might be that the Dixie Youth World Series teams aren’t quite on par with the teams in the Little League World Series, but that seems incorrect. Bub Duhon, one of the three coaches of the Moss Bluff All Stars, has “no doubts that our team could compete in the Little League World Series. The top four teams – Mexico, California, Japan and New England — would have been close; they could have gone either way; but against any of the other teams, I’m confident we would have won.”
Timothy Aguillard, a fellow coach and the team’s manager, assured me of the same thing — not that he had to do much convincing. A look at the team’s record this season dispels most doubts that regionalism is synonymous with a lack of skill. The team was undefeated through the 23 games of the All-Star League, during which time they scored over 285 runs while giving up only 32. That means, on average, every run the opponent managed to squeeze out came after the Moss Bluff All Stars had managed to make nine runs of their own.
The team also went undefeated throughout the entirety of the Dixie Youth World Series tournament, and though early games against North Carolina and Alabama were tense affairs, the All Stars managed to walk away from both games with a decisive victory.
Given sport’s singular fascination with the celebrity player — that quasi-mythical character whose team seems to win and lose based solely on his whims — and the kind of talent-search mentality that pervades the other youth World Series, it’s only reasonable to assume the Moss Bluff All Stars possess a bit of that star power.
But such an assumption would be a mistake. Both Bob Duhon and Timothy Aguillard were quick to point out that the victory of the team came from a variety of sources, and that, though each player had his specialty, all 12 — Qua Simien, Judson DeRouen, Silas Ardoin, Brock Dennis, Braden Duhon, Logan Gray, Will Aguillard, Tyler Hooper, Eann Gover, Bryce Buquet, Hunter Courvelle and Will Thompson – were absolutely integral.
“We’re not the kind of team with a major WOW factor,” Aguillard said. “We just have very, very solid fundamentals. We’re not a team known for power hitting or tricks. We’re just a solid team.”
Though Duhon disagrees in some minor ways (he claimed that the members of the team were all, in fact, hitters), he was likewise insistent on the importance of fundamentals; about having a balanced team in which “everyone knows their place and knows what to do.” Each member of the team has a developed understanding of how the game works and so can adapt to any obstacle presented them.
They are the kind of team that, as Duhon describes it “grinds down their opponent,” forcing them to make an opening or lose. “They’re not the kind of team that gives you a win. You have to take it from them,” Aguillard affirmed, his pride in the team evident in his voice and his smile.
To say the team is lacking in a “wow factor” is not to suggest that they’re boring to watch, of course. An earlier game at the state level found the right fielder catching a ball deep into the field and throwing it all the way from the fence to the third baseman, who promptly tagged the runner. It was the kind of thing Duhon described as “almost impossible.”
During the tournament, a rematch with North Carolina took a particularly nasty turn. With two outs at the bottom of the inning, it looked as though the All Stars were about to slip. Yet they managed to squeeze 14 runs in before that last out — something that Aguillard assures “does NOT happen.” The team went on to win that game 20 to 5.
It’s no surprise, then, that both coaches assured me they never doubted the team’s chance of success. It seems unlikely that they would have, given the team’s story. Two years ago, when the Moss Bluff All Stars traveled to the Dixie Youth World Series’ minor division (for players 10 years of age), they were thrilled just to be there. Playing in the Series seemed honor enough.
But a loss to North Carolina changed their perspective. After a particularly grueling ceremony that signaled their run was over — a ceremony that found the team pulling down the Louisiana state flag from its place on the field and presenting it to the Dixie Youth officials – they vowed that they would not lose the tournament when they returned in two years; that they would leave the tournament with the trophy, not a folded flag.
Though six of those players left the team, six remained — eager for a chance to correct history. If the first time around had been a bit of a vacation — an exciting but almost fantastical escape from reality — this time, their run in the tournament would be a business trip.
To that end, the team’s training regimen became tougher; their focus narrowed. “During the summer we’d give the kids a few days off of practice each week. Since we were always practicing five times a week, we figured it might be nice to give the kids a break. But they got upset with me when they found that out. [They said,] ‘We want to practice, coach!’” recalls Aguillard.
They faltered briefly after an ugly loss in February, at a time when conditions were miserable, with temperatures as low as 20 degrees. It was a loss Duhon used to motivate them. As he recalls, “they were telling me it was too cold; that they weren’t ready to play. I just told them, ‘No excuses.’ You can’t do that in the real world: you don’t say I was too sick or I was too tired. You’ve got a job to do, you do it — no excuses.”
It was a rallying moment for the team, who quickly adopted the motto “4A” (the four A’s being anybody, anytime, anywhere, any conditions). If they lost, it would be because the other team was better, not because they sabotaged themselves. It was an attitude that could be traced back to Duhon’s time in the military; in fact, it was the motto of his army squadron.
Unlike Aguillard, who had experience playing college baseball, and Danny Ardoin, the third coach and a former major league player (who wasn’t available for interviews), Duhon admits his coaching abilities are, in many ways, less about his knowledge of baseball and more about heart. He’s no less valuable for it. As Aguillard says, he’s “military, a West Point graduate, and [the players] really respect [that].”
Duhon emphasizes that Aguillard and Ardoin are every bit as essential as he is to the team; that the team couldn’t work the way it does if they replaced even one player or lost one of the coaches.
It may be the team’s biggest attribute that despite their formidable skill and their discipline, which is stone solid, the team is, at the end of the day, a family — a word Duhon and Aguillard don’t hesitate to use. Winning, as desirable as it is, seemed for both coaches to be second to the idea of creating a close-knit group; a surrogate family that no one seems to be eager to leave.
“It’s hard … When you volunteer for something like this, and really get invested in it, you find it’s hard to let it go,” said Aguillard, his voice tinged with melancholy. “The boys are all incredibly unselfish,” Duhon says. “It may sound crazy, but you really come to view them almost like your own family.”
Nowhere was this emotion more evident than at the team’s victory celebration. Elated, ecstatic, they rushed up to the mound and rushed to pose for their pictures with all the joy you could expect of them. It was what you might expect of anyone who’s devoted himself wholly to a goal and found himself rewarded for his effort.
Only seconds after their pictures had been taken, some of the team members broke into tears; “I asked them why,” Duhon recalls, his own voice growing choked, the memory still vivid. “I said, ‘Boys, why are you crying? We just won.’ And they told me, ‘Coach, we finally did it but … but it’s over now. What do we do?’”
It’s the kind of melancholy that anyone who’s achieved anything of significance comes to know — a bittersweet and perplexing mixture of simultaneous pride, joy and disappointment; the sense that this is a defining moment in your life and the certainty that it will soon be over.
According to Duhon, because most of the boys are still in middle school, Moss Bluff will be able to keep the majority of the team together for one more year before most of the players head off to high school. In that case, they’ll graduate to Dixie Boys and continue with another shot at the Dixie Youth World Series.
Regardless of whether they win next year, Duhon and Aguillard and Ardoin are proud of what they’ve accomplished. “They’re special kids,” says Duhon; “You won’t find a better group of kids anywhere else,” affirms Aguillard.