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Small town with big league dreams
08/20/2008 1:13 PM ET
Mark Kreidler made his name in sports journalism by writing for a big-city newspaper, but now that he's writing books, it seems he's most attracted to small towns.

Such is the case in his latest book, "Six Good Innings: How One Small Town Became a Little League Giant," (HarperCollins, 247 pages), which centers on the seaside hamlet of Toms River, N.J., known for being a Jersey Shore tourist spot and a Little League baseball powerhouse.

Toms River made it to three Little League World Series championships in five years in the 1990s, winning the whole thing in 1998. That run of success has made Toms River a Little League mecca of sorts, a town seemingly built around the expectations that boys will be baseball players as soon as they can put spikes on their feet.

Kreidler, whose last book, "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," was optioned for film and television development, wasn't looking to write a Little League book when he came up with the idea for "Six Good Innings." He was trying to get a little R&R.

"I'm a dad and I'm a Little League coach, and my two boys are 14 and 10," Kreidler says. "A few years ago, we're at the Sea Ranch in a remote part of Northern California on vacation, and I'm just staring out at the ocean and the trees and this really peaceful, idyllic community, not really doing much of anything but relaxing. Of course my kids are ignoring all of this and watching the Little League World Series on TV.

"But as the days went on, I realized that every afternoon was appointment TV for them. They were so intrigued. And in overhearing their conversations, Toms River kept coming up. So my first curiosity was, 'Why is it that they know who Toms River is when they've never seen them play?' But every year, the town comes up in some conversation. Toms River is sort of the industry standard."

From his own experiences coaching Little League All-Stars and travel-ball teams, Kreidler knew how difficult it is to make it to the Little League World Series even once.

"Three times in five years is a freak," Kreidler says. "There's no way that should have happened. And I wondered, what does this do to kids of Toms River today when they have this legacy to live up to? What are the expectations like, and what does that do to the kids and the adults that are involved?"

Soon enough, Kreidler had a publishing deal for the story and was on his way to Toms River to investigate for himself. He ended up spending blocks of time in the town, staying in a hotel and getting to know the people behind the story.

Baseball Bookshelf

The result is an in-depth, real-time accounting of the 2007 Toms River team's attempt to get back to Williamsport, Pa., the site of the Little League World Series.

And through injuries, a brutally tough schedule, the team's lofty reputation and the already-enormous expectations the kids must endure, you find out a lot about the town and the people who live in it.

"Certainly the families ultimately tell the story," Kreidler says. "And one thing I found is that Toms River is a place where these kids seem older. Off the field, they're in sixth grade. There's nothing older about them. When they're not playing baseball, they're playing Guitar Hero. They don't seem like older souls. They seem like kids to me.

"But on the field, the winning, experience and level of expectation forces them into this mode of operation. It makes them look older on the field than they really are. You're conditioned in Little League to seeing kids kicking balls all over the place and dropping flies. It's age-appropriate and normal. But they don't do that in Toms River."

Kreidler says one reason he went to the town was because his own curiosity as a Little League coach led him there. Were there any secrets he could bring back to his hometown outside Sacramento? Are they doing anything differently in Toms River that hasn't been discovered elsewhere?

"The funny thing is that the answer is no," Kreidler says. "They coach the same way I do. But baseball's what they do. If you're an athlete where my kids are growing up, you might play baseball and you will play soccer. In Toms River, they have good high school football and good wrestling, but you will play baseball. That was the thing that struck me the most. "

As the reader chronicles the 2007 season along with Kreidler, many issues common to Little League pop up.

Kreidler brings up the questions of how hard to push kids when they have talent, and whether pressuring them and motivating them for high-profile competition helps or hinders their development. He says he entered Toms River "thinking this could be really ugly," but was ultimately struck by "how human it was."

"It didn't strike me as damaging," Kreidler says. "The book is about middle-class Americans whose kids happen to like baseball in a town where the tradition says the bar is set extremely high," Kreidler says.

"It turns out that if the bar is way up there, they'll reach for it. And they have fun while they're doing it."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.