Andrew Rice was a fantastic catcher. If you were to poll coaches and players in Linwood, his name would be on the top of everyone’s list as to who was the best catcher in town. Andrew was “The Catcher” for district all star teams since he was 9 years old. At 10 years old, he was selected to the 11U team. At 11 years old, he was named the 12U Linwood District All Star team starting catcher. On his travel team, he caught game after game in local and regional tournaments. So, going into his final year of Little League® competition as a league age 12 year old, and for drafting purposes, Andrew Rice was the highest ranked player available.
The first pick in the 2017 Linwood Youth Baseball League draft went to the Ben’s Deli Rangers and Coach Scooter Burns. Burns was a popular coach in the league because he knew the game of baseball inside and out, having played competitively in high school, college and current in a Senior Men’s Baseball League. Burns knew baseball talent when he saw it, coached with it or against it. He was all about developing a baseball player to the best of their ability and encouraged the concept of playing multiple positions. Although his team’s rarely won championships and league titles, his players consistently signed up year after year to play in the league, got better year after year, and most of his former players went on to play in middle school and beyond. Burns coached all 11 players alike on his teams, whether they were all stars like Andrew Rice or novices.
In the days leading up to the draft, Coach Scooter Burns received a text message from Andrew Rice’s father, Bryan. In the text, Bryan Rice informed Coach Burns that Andrew was not interested in playing other positions on the field and finished his text message with “He will be your catcher, period.” Burns replied by saying “Who says I am drafting a catcher first?” Bryan Rice offered no reply. Burns was not planning on taking Andrew Rice, mainly because Rice came with baggage – his overbearing, annoying, loud mouthed father Bryan. But, he couldn’t deny that Rice was an amazing baseball player. Scooter Burns was interested in building a team with players who wanted to be coached, wanted to learn and get better, and be supported by parents who cheered them on no matter what the score was or what position they played on the field.
On the night of the Draft, a buzz had started regarding Coach Scooter Burns, the first pick, and Bryan Rice. Rice was buddies with several of the other Linwood coaches and had messaged them about his back and forth with Burns. The other coaches laughed at the notion that Andrew Rice would be passed over by Burns. What a fool, they thought, to not pick Rice. Burns knew the league, who the talented players were, who could pitch, who could hit, the fastest kids, the ones with potential, the ones who would need additional coaching and support. As the coaches filed into the conference room and took their seats, several coaches began joking around with Burns about his pick. Burns just laughed and stayed quiet. After instructions were presented to the coaches about the draft format, the player agent called the room to be quiet and pointed to Coach Scooter Burns. “You are on the clock, Scooter, who is your pick?”
“My first pick will be my starting left fielder, Andrew Rice,” stated Burns proudly as he wrote Andrew Rice’s name down on his sheet. The player agent crossed off Rice’s name on the whiteboard facing the coaches and the draft had begun. A few of the coaches texted Rice’s father to inform him of Burns’ selection. Burns himself received a text message from Rice’s father stating that Andrew would not be playing for him if he wasn’t going to put his son in any other position other than catcher. Burns ignored the text and the draft continued into Round 2, 3, and so on until it finished in Round 12. After the draft, a few of the coaches surrounded Burns and asked him about playing Rice in left field. Burns replied simply with “I already know he can catch. I want to see what else he can do.” And with that, Burns exited the conference room and headed home to inform the parents of his players about the upcoming season.
April in Rhode Island is often a challenge weather wise and 2017 was no exception. Burns had scheduled a first practice on a Monday night, cancelled due to rain. He emailed the parents that they would try again on Thursday. Once again, rain happened. The weather looked good for Saturday and so yet again Coach Scooter Burns scheduled practice with the parents. Saturday came and the weather had finally cooperated. Of the 12 players chosen in the 2017 draft, 11 players showed up for that first Saturday practice. The week following that first practice had decent weather, for Spring in Rhode Island, and the Rangers were able to get 2 more practices in (Monday and Thursday). As with Saturday, 11 out of 12 players participated in the drills, skills competitions, hitting, pitching, and catching exercises for Coach Burns. The one noticeable exception was Andrew Rice.
Behind the scenes, Bryan Rice had petitioned the league’s president, the Major’s Commissioner to remove his son from the Rangers and be placed on another team. Several days and several messages later, the league president officially denied Bryan Rice’s complaint and request to move his son, stating simply that he could find no evidence that prompt such a drastic move. The first game of the season was scheduled to be played on April 26th, just 2 weeks after the draft. Andrew had yet to practice with the Rangers, having been barred from practicing because of his father. If Andrew were to be eligible for post season play, District All Stars, and potentially a trip to Regional and National Tournaments, he would need to participate in at least 12 league games.
Friday night before the first game of the season, Coach Scooter Burns emailed all 12 player’s parents about the first game of the season. Burns reiterated his approach to fair play, playing multiple positions, rotating players, having fun, being safe, good sportsmanship, and playing the game of baseball the right way. He asked all 12 sets of parents that if a player could not make the game, to please email him no later than 2 hours before game time. Game time was 12 noon, pre-game practice was 11am sharp – uniforms on, cleats tied tight, eye black on, hat on, baseball ready mentally. Burns waited up until about 11pm for any emails from parents stating their child could not play. He received no emails. The following morning, at 10am, Burns checked his email again and once again, no emails. Opening Day was just a few hours away and it appeared that the Rangers would be at full strength.
Andrew Rice did in fact show up for the pre-game practice, on time and ready to go. His baseball bag was oversized, filled with his catcher’s gear, and he plopped in down right in front of Coach Burns as he entered the dugout. “Andrew Rice, Coach, nice to meet you. Do you want me to get the catcher’s gear on?” asked a confident 12 years old Andrew Rice. “Nope,” stated Coach Burns, “just grab your fielder’s glove and head out to the field.” Rice looked back at his father, who was now draped over the short fence next to the entrance to the dugout and shook his head “No.” Bryan Rice slammed his hands down on the yellow plastic guard covering the top of the fence, and then stormed back to the bleacher area. Andrew, as instructed, fished his fielder’s glove out of his bag and ran out to the left field foul line to join his teammates.
Pre-game practice went smoothly. The Rangers were hustled in and out of the batting cage area. Players took fly balls, then rotated to the infield area to take ground balls. About 20 minutes before game time, Coach Burns yelled out for his starting pitcher, Danny Edwards, and his Game 1 catcher, Lincoln Shaw, to go warm up in the bullpen. Andrew watched the two run out of the practice drill group, over to the dugout so Lincoln could grab his gear, and then out to the bullpen area. Simultaneously, Bryan Rice got his face right up to the backstop and hawked Lincoln and Danny into the dugout and down to the bullpen. Bryan then turned around, disgusted and fast walked back to his car in the parking lot. He got into his car, turn the key, revved the engine like a teenager, and sped off out of the parking lot.
With 12 players present and only 9 positions defensively, 3 players would need to sit out an inning. Before Saturday’s Opening Day game, Andrew Rice had never once, not in 4 years of Linwood Youth Baseball, sat out an inning. He was an all-star. He was an all-star’s all-star. For several seasons running, coaches would pencil his name into the starting lineup, batting leadoff to clean up, starting behind the plate – it was just about an automatic that Andrew Rice was going to be your starting catcher. Automatic to most coaches, but not to Scooter Burns. Burns believed in fair play, equitable playing time no matter what skill level you were, moving guys around the infield and outfield, trying different positions. He remained true to his earlier statement “I already know he can (catch, pitch, play 3rd, play centerfield). I want to see what else he can do.” And along with that, Burns believed in sportsmanship, showing up and participating in practice, being a good teammate. On that Saturday, Opening Day, 2017, Andrew Rice found himself sitting on the bench for the first inning, batting 12th in the batting order.
To be continued…