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In cheering Taylor North’s baseball success, a town celebrates its own

Taylor North Little League players throw candy
Taylor North Little League players throw candy at a parade Thursday to honor their World Series win. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

TAYLOR—Earlier this week, as the Taylor North baseball team was at Comerica Park accepting congratulations for winning the Little League World Series, Jennifer Ainscough was unloading a stroller and backpack at one of Taylor’s plentiful ball diamonds.

Wearing a soft gray T-shirt that read, “Loud and Proud Baseball Mama,” Ainscough, 39, had her 4-year-old son Joshua at her feet, his hands wrapped tightly around a grape Powerade. His big brother Joe, 11, had already headed to the field for practice in the city’s Major division.

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Though it is late August — with school just a week away — the fields were filled with young ballplayers. In this baseball-mad Downriver city, the game doesn’t end with the summer. Taylor’s youth leagues expect to field 60 teams with some 700 players for games this fall.

“Everyone comes and cheers the kids, whether it’s your kid on the team or not,” Ainscough said. “There’s a history here for all of us.”

Kala Kelly, 31, watches her son Brock, 9, practice at a ball field in Taylor earlier this week
Kala Kelly, 31, watches her son Brock, 9, practice at a ball field in Taylor earlier this week. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

Her brothers played on these fields. Her uncle, too. And just last week, Joe and his best friend Brodii, like so many in this city of 60,000, watched the Taylor North team win the championship — the boys fueled by pizza and barbecue ribs, riveted to the TV screen.

It’s not that baseball brings family together, Ainscough said. In Taylor, she said, baseball is the family.

‘Friends for life’

The win Taylor celebrated Thursday with a parade was a victory for generations of Taylor boys and girls and moms and dads who spent countless days on these fields, according to parents, coaches, city officials and business owners interviewed this week.

Consider the unlikely scene at Big League Brews, a Taylor sports tavern, where customers cheered on the boys over $5 smashburgers and buckets of LaBatt Blue Light, and where the win left men tearing up at the bar.

parade
Taylor residents celebrate a World Series win by their Little League team, a program that has long been a source of community pride. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

Maybe it’s something that’s hard to understand if you’ve never played, said a T-ball mom, Ashley Nester.

On Tuesday, she kept watch over four-year-old son, Kenny, who wore a bright red, oversized batting helmet and scrunched his face when he swung, the bat skirting the wiffle ball that wobbled off the tee. 

Nester said she had played for Taylor North. As did Kenny’s grandfather. The boy’s dad played for Taylor South.

“You grow up playing here, and then your parents and your kids are growing up playing here,” she said. “And then one day you're sitting on the bleachers against your old opponents and their kids are the opponents to your kids, but you have these things in common that you both want to win, and you both have this heart for the game and you respect the history of the game.”

“These teammates out here,” she said, nodding to Kenny, “they will be his friends for years.” 

Taylor has long dominated in Little League. Matt Taylor, owner of Big League Brews, said he used to play for the team in Lincoln Park, but nearly always got knocked out of tournaments by Taylor teams. “There was just something about them.”

This week, local social media feeds were filled with old pictures of grinning players who had once played youth baseball in Taylor — a building of community history in realtime.

“There’s this community identity here that’s wrapped up in these kids and baseball,” Taylor said. “I think some of the older guys (watching the World Series last week) kind of felt like they were on the field again themselves.”

Joy and homesickness

Taylor’s championship summer began in June when it captured the state title with a 9-2 win over Roosevelt Park of Muskegon.

The team was hot — with a deep stable of pitchers, an aggressive approach at the plate, and a flexible and fast outfield, said Josh Hopkins, who coaches in Taylor’s Minor division, where his daughter plays.

The team advanced to the national regionals in Indiana where the players entered a COVID-induced bubble, separated from family members, unless they were coaches.

With moms and dads now a Zoom’s length away, it fell to Manager Rick  Thorning and Coach Guido Ulin to assume parental roles beyond their own sons, from reminding the boys to shower and brush their teeth to putting an end to bickering over who used the last clean towel or drank someone’s Mountain Dew.

After winning the regionals, the boys didn’t go home. They climbed aboard a coach bus for a nine-hour drive straight to Williamsport, Pa., where they played ping-pong and hide-and-seek to pass the time and blunt any homesickness.

Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t. One player, Kale Harris, who enters seventh grade next week, said Thursday the COVID bubble and players’ separation from family threw off routines.

After a typical game, he said, “usually I go home and get food and chill out.”

But that wasn’t possible in Williamsport. So he called his parents. 

“I told them I missed them,” he said.

Jason Surma, who had been separated three weeks from his 12-year-old son, Jackson, said Thursday that he found it difficult to describe the elation of finally having his son home.

“It was hard. You’re used to hugs after a game, and now we’re talking to them by Zoom or waving at them on the field,” he said of watching from the stands.

Who can be mad at 12 year olds?

Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Ohio team was, in itself, enough to celebrate.

But residents, coaches and parents said it was all the more dazzling that it was achieved against the backdrop of a pandemic — lingering grief, anger and fear over COVID, the loss of normalcy and divisive protests. Over the past two years, Taylor has also been riven by federal bribery and wire fraud charges against its mayor.

Cutting through the noise was this summer’s march by 11 boys, some in braces and some not even 100 pounds, to a championship. It marked the first Little League World Series win by a Michigan team since 1959.

Players and coaches from Taylor North wait for the parade
Players and coaches from Taylor North wait for the parade to start Thursday to celebrate their victory in the Little League World Series. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

“It’s refreshing to have everybody just shut up and get behind something like this,” Karl Ziomek, a long-time newspaperman, former sports editor and now communication director for the city, said of the team.

“Who can get mad at a bunch of 12-year-olds who have done something that hasn’t been done in 62 years?”

62 years

In 1959, the Hamtramck Little League team — a “14-player steamroller” — won 13 consecutive games to win the Little League World Series, including a record 11 wins by shutout.

William Heald played right field on that fabled squad. He would later maneuver landing crafts in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, marry his wife Sue, help raise a son and, over time, run a steel company, trucking company, lawn sprinkler company and a bar.

He said this week he had followed Taylor’s team this summer through media reports, and watched the championship game on television.

So many years after his own team’s triumph, he said the visceral feel of top competition returned; the edge that adrenaline gives the body when a game can still go either way. It connects you to your buddies in ways that can seem eternal — whether the game is in 1959 or 2021, doesn’t matter. “You’ve got to dig down inside you and dig it out,” he said.

Heald said he worked with the city of Taylor these past few days to round up some surviving members of Hamtramck’s 1959 championship team, so they could join the Taylor boys at the parade Thursday.

He said it wasn’t important that COVID precluded international teams from playing in the World Series this year. Taylor’s win, Heald said, was “well deserved.”

Heart and soul 

Taylor is well familiar with high-stakes tournament play. It has hosted the Junior League World Series — a weeklong, international tourney for kids ages 13 to 14 — since 1981. Top players from the city’s various leagues merged into the combined Taylor North team that won in Williamsport.

On Tuesday, as late afternoon shadows stretched as dusk fell, several dozen players, parents and coaches turned out for baseball practice on the city’s diamonds. The thwack of a baseball into leather punctuated the hum of late summer locusts.

There are some life lessons in the daily routine developed on these fields, the team’s coaches said. Taylor North players had talent and drive, for sure, but also the humility to listen and learn, adapt and pivot.

Coach Josh Hudson said the coaches taught players to respect the game by, for instance, not getting in the umpire’s way as they dusted home plate. Thorning, whose son Cameron was one of the team’s stars, reminded the boys that each person who asks for an autograph or a selfie deserved both eye contact and a thank you.

Parents, as much as the kids, were scouted by the coaches selecting the team, said Ulin, whose son Gavin was the closing pitcher against Ohio. They wanted parents who “get out of the way and let us coach,” and who taught their children to put their “heart and soul in the game.”

On Thursday, the boys waited in a staging area at the Taylor Recreation Center for the parade in their honor. Representatives from Hungry Howie’s, the pizza chain founded in Taylor, were there to honor the team, and so was the city’s imperiled mayor, Rick Sollars, who played in Taylor Little League years ago.

Outside, the high school band and cheerleaders formed into parade bunches. A fire engine awaited. Local police had shut off a one-mile route.

Residents documented the celebration on cell phones, as Bridget Thorning, the manager’s wife and a mortgage loan officer, collected the boys to autograph a jersey for a Little League player with cancer.

Soon, the parade wound down Pardee Road as the sun began to dip low in the sky.

The players perched on the back of pickup trucks, some popping bubbles with their gum. They threw Starbursts and Smarties and Skittles towards little ones along the streets and then at each other.

Patty Lennon, 65, stood with friends holding a bright blue poster board decorated with the names of each boy.

She lived just a few houses away, she explained, but even if she didn't, she wouldn’t have missed this. For 20 years, her husband, Pat, had coached little leaguers.

She said her late husband would have loved the support of the throngs of people lining the parade route Thursday in lawn chairs, on bikes and on foot.

"This is Taylor,” the woman said. “And I'm proud as punch."

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