January not only ushers in a new year but its cold temperatures spur early thoughts of spring. For many, the countdown to baseball season has officially begun. Among those looking forward to spring ball are players and fans of last year’s local Little League team the Shambees. The anticipation is not so much due to their won-loss record, but the opportunities the team and the sport present.
For their coach, the team was an opportunity to not only remain involved in a sport he loved but to carry on a valuable lesson. Ezra Miller, currently a senior at Evanston Township High School, had played baseball for Coach Ross Freeland at the high school. Coach Freeland, before he passed away in March 2016, instilled in his players the motto, “I’m third. God first, others second.” When Ezra was subsequently cut from the ETHS team, he was devastated and looked for ways to not only continue his love of the game but to honor his coach. His father, Casey Miller, talked to Ezra about the idea of reinvigorating the Shambees.
The team wasn’t called the Shambees at first, Mr. Miller told the RoundTable. About 10 years ago, Scott Hunter, an active local parent who had played baseball at ETHS, approached Casey, who was then the president of the Evanston Baseball & Softball Association (EBSA), with concerns about the low number of boys of color playing baseball. Mr. Hunter proposed forming a team of kids from the after-school programs at Fleetwood-Jourdain and Family Focus, and EBSA supported the efforts. For four seasons, parents help and Mr. Hunter coached. Some of the teams played against Jackie Robinson squads from other programs. Several of his players went on to play at ETHS and in college. One of the kids in the program was Tristan Shambee. He died in August 2011 while swimming with friends in Lake Michigan just off Gilson Park in Wilmette. He was 14 years old and scheduled to be a freshman at ETHS. Tristan’s death had an enormous impact on the community.
Fast forward to 2016. Ezra and his father reconnected with Mr. Hunter and formed a new plan. JoAnn Avery at Family Focus helped recruit players to form the Middle League team. EBSA helped with logistics to form a schedule, and Play It Again Sports and others made donations of equipment. Three boys with previous baseball experience were also recruited to help anchor the team. Now they just needed a name. Mr. Miller suggested honoring Tristan Shambee as their mascot, and his idea was quickly adopted. Then the fun began.
“The kids would come roaring out to Foster Field for practice after they finished their homework at Family Focus,” recalled Mr. Miller, who helped coach the team with his son. He told the RoundTable about some of the struggles the team had at first. Since the boys had never played baseball before, there was a big learning curve, which led to some “struggles with failure.” The team lost early, often, and ugly, Mr. Miller said, but they kept at it and improved remarkably. They got their first win in about the 6th game of the season when they played a nearly flawless game against a pretty good team. They won a playoff game and lost to the eventual champion in a game they trailed 1-0 in the 5th inning. They were on their way to becoming a really good team according to Mr. Miller.
“Through the efforts of a lot of people, 11 boys who had never played baseball before had the chance to play, learn, succeed, fail, and come back for more,” he said. “The boys had varying levels of success and enjoyment, but every single one had at least one moment of pride and joy. And their families—most of whom also had no prior experience of any kind with baseball—also got involved, supported the team, and enjoyed watching their boys. It was very satisfying to be a part of it.”
Aside from just having the opportunity to learn a new sport, the boys also learned many lessons from the experience, according to Ms. Avery at Family Focus. “They developed confidence and learned to be good sports,” she told the RoundTable. They had to shake hands with the other team after every game, which reinforced what the teachers at Family Focus said, which is that winning isn’t everything, it’s how you play the game.
Both Ms. Avery and Mr. Miller have had kids approach them about having a team again this year. Plans are currently in the works and it seems they will again have community support if they proceed.
“EBSA is and has been over its history committed to making baseball and softball available to any child in Evanston who wants to learn and play the games,” said Bret Johnson, EBSA co-president along with Frank Barbaro. “In 2017, EBSA provided around $25,000 in scholarships to assist with registration fees. However, we realize that getting involved with sports is not always only a financial issue, and therefore we look forward to working with Casey Miller and others to create opportunities to give as many kids as possible the chance to play.”
For more information on EBSA, go to evanstonbaseball.com. Registration is now open for the spring season. An early-bird discount expires on Jan. 15.