Tag Archives: Williamsport

Meet the Involuntary Workers of the Little League World Series

Some unpublished work from the 2015 Little League World Series. Reporting from South Williamsport, Pennsylvania:

Little League takes great pride in the thousands of volunteers that coach, umpire, sell nachos, and otherwise make its youth baseball programs happen worldwide. So much so that they named the secondary, 5,000-seat stadium at the South Williamsport grounds “Volunteer Stadium” when it opened in 2001.

During the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, though, one can find a crew of unpaid laborers who are not there for their children or love of the game. These folks are performing a Community Service, like the volunteers helping to instill the timeless American values of friendly competition and baseballing in the youth. But you won’t see them cheering on ESPN; they’re only here because the county probation office said so.

The probationers are easy to spot around the Series grounds. They wear faded yellow T-shirts that say simply “Little League World Series” and walk in zigs and zags with a broom and dustpan around the concourses, brushing up a bit of dust here, a Coke cup there. They are in the parking lots, waving their arms vaguely at incoming vehicles. And they line up near the end of games in the stadium entranceways or up the steps, waiting for the fans to leave so they can do a clean sweep of trash left behind. Between the games, the trash crews of 10 or 12 saunter about emptying cans and throwing the bags onto four-wheel Gators that are driven to out-of-sight dumpsters.

Workers take breaks in a fenced-in area under the stands shielded from easy viewing by green plastic. There are a few picnic tables, some leaf blowers, rolls of trash bags, and a pile of folded yellow T-shirts awaiting new recruits. Maybe 30 people are working at any one time during the day, with the numbers going up in the evening after people get off work and when clean-up is most needed.

Community Service workers relax at the Little League World Series. Photo: Josh Brokaw

Listen in as they work or wander and you catch snippets of regretful conversation: “So I got leaving the scene of an accident.” “They said my taillight was out. And then I blew a .09.”

A man with long stringy hair and gray stubble sweeping up had figured out how he will knock out his 68 hours of service time.

“If I work five doubles at 13, 14 hours a day, I can get it done.” Shifts start at 8 a.m. and go until 3, then the second shift works until 11 or so, depending on when the games end.

Assigned sweeping duty on a Friday night, a machine shop worker named C.J. was not shy about sharing his feeling on his assignment.

“This is all bullshit,” he said in a loud rasping voice, his scraggly beard titled toward the ground as he looked for more debris. “I punched a truck because they did fucking burnouts in front of my house and were throwing rocks at my nieces and nephews.”

A bypassing Little League staffer in a red shirt heard C.J. cursing and took him aside for a minute’s conversation.

“No, you didn’t get me in trouble,” he said, as he returned to his sweeping. “I got here at 7 after a 10-hour day. At my job, I sweep and pick up trash all day long. I mean, it’s my career. They said ‘You can come in at 7 and stay till its done. It might be 4 in the morning.’ I said you can keep fucking smoking what you’re smoking. That’s not happening.”

A lady in pink sweatpants who was waving pedestrians out of the buses’ way Friday afternoon said she found herself here after passing out at the wheel during an allergic reaction to her Ambien scrip. She was slapped with an under-the-influence charge.

“Here I am, 50 years old, and I don’t even drink,” Pink Sweats said. “There are people here who I guess have DUIs, and theft charges and stuff. Everyone who goes in front of a judge gets community service.”

Pink Sweats is right on a number of counts. Drunk driving charges provide plenty of labor for Little League. On last check, in early 2013, DUI charges were 40 percent of court filings, according to the local district attorney. In 2012 Lycoming County had more DUI charges than Philly, with a population of roughly 120,000 and a land area larger than Rhode Island. “Theft by unlawful taking” — i.e. shoplifting — at the local K-Mart or mall is another popular misdemeanor, along with plenty of drug charges in this heroin-hit region.

Everyone charged in Lycoming County gets community service hours – 50 hours is the standard, given with everything from six months probation to 20 year state sentences – and the unemployed can use service time to work off fines and costs. In 2011, the most recent numbers easily available in the “Best Jail Practices” report, 1,232 people did 130,604 hours of service – worth $946,879 in savings to government and nonprofits if paid at minimum wage.

However many of those hours go to Little League is unclear, but it’s a fair chunk. At 30 people for 15 hours a day, a conservative estimate, that’s 450 hours a day in people power for the two weeks of the World Series. Sit in the Lycoming County probation office every week for an hour, and the first offer you hear PO’s always make is “You can work at Little League.” It’s the easiest to schedule for both sides, with so much work available there during the Series and also during 9-5 business hours six days a week for most of the remaining year. It’s also got a bus stop — important if your driver’s license is suspended or taken away.

None of this is illegal, of course; nonprofits have always benefited from community service programs and Little League is a nonprofit, albeit one with a newly inked, eight-year, $60 million TV deal, and a CEO who takes down over $450,000 a year in total compensation. And according to (another) C.J., who was parking cars off Route 15 on Saturday, working in small crews of four or five during the offseason isn’t awful: they can drive the carts, then, and they get a lunch made in the dormitory kitchen “which isn’t too bad.”

Would you volunteer for this gig, though?

“Well, no.” C.J. laughed. “I guess we’re the volun-TOLDS.”

A lone man named Rod drinking at Riepstine’s brewery on the rained-out first day of this year’s World Series was less kind. His first and only DUI in 2011 led to him getting assigned World Series work. “They tell you you have to go to Little League. It’s a scam.”

The yellow T-shirt was presented him upon arrival.

“I went in and said I’m not wearing that yellow shirt, like a work release convict. I went home.”

The next spring, he was given extra time, 75 hours, and was sent to work it off at the World Series grounds in May.

“I power-washed the whole damn stadium myself,” Rod said. He got up and grabbed his growler to go.

“Volun-teer Stadium, my ass.”

Josh Brokaw is a writer currently based in Ithaca, N.Y. Direct critiques, communiques, and cash to jaydbrokaw at gmail.com

Time To Buy Some Frying Pans

Originally published in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 11, 2013.
Another local family-owned restaurant succumbed to the pressures of the market this past week.
Patrons and long-time employees of Fox’s Family Restaurant, in Halls, hugged and laughed and cried and told each other they’d becomes friends on Facebook on Saturday evening, as the last night of meals were served at a restaurant that began in the early ’50s as a grocery store and ice cream shop on the corner of Jordan Avenue and Montour Street in Montoursville.
“You don’t know where we’re going to pop up,” waitress Kenna Snyder told a long-time customer as she was leaving. “You’ll find us working in a restaurant and you’ll see us around.”
“I’m really upset about this,” said Betty Jo Soohy, of Hughesville. “They’re family. I’ve been going to a Fox’s since I was 16. It’s just like home cooking, and I got to know all the waitresses’ life stories. Every time I think about it I cry. I never thought there’d be a time when I was going to be alive when there wouldn’t be a Fox’s.”
Long-time regulars don’t know where they’ll eat out now.
“I knew the Foxs since I was a little kid, I was 10 or 11. I went to Canada with Jack and Mary,” said Bill Boyles, of Pennsdale. “We’ve gone here every week — we like to support the hometown people versus the chain.”
“I’ll miss the jokes,” his wife Christine said. “You got to be in on the in-crowd here.”
“These people are like family. They sent flowers to my aunt when she was in the hospital last December,” said Linda Kibbe, of Williamsport. “When my mother was living we’d come two or three times a week. The chains are nice for a change now and then, but it’s so unfortunate to see family businesses struggle.”
Fox’s baked goods and bread were highly regarded in the area. On Saturday some half-price loaves of their Italian, raisin and English muffin breads were all that was left, with only crumbs remaining on trays where their last batches of delicacies were displayed, and their home-style menu bore headings like Serious Salads, Gram’s Cupboard, and I Want a Burger.
Tim Fox, who co-owned the restaurant with his brother Dennis and sister Susie, said that competitive pressure from chain restaurants was one of the reasons they decided to close.
“When Mr. Gleason, who owned the property we have now, decided to sell off some of his farm, the agreement was there would never be an off-ramp to the mall other than this one.”
The last Fox’s opened on June 23, 1976, after time spent in the current Johnson’s Cafe and a location in Muncy opened in 1972 that flooded three times in four years.
“Gleason came over to the restaurant one day, and we were mudding out,” Fox said. “Mom asked, ‘Mr. Gleason, do you have some land for sale?’ He said yes, and Mom put down her shovel and said ‘We’re moving.”
“Our employees, other than a few hostesses and dishwashers, were the same employees for 30-plus years,” Fox continued. “I grew up around these people and now I’m their boss. It’s bittersweet … though Dad built the building himself, it’s just a building. The memories we take forever.”
Holly Baker waited tables at Fox’s for 30 years.
“I’ve been with the family now through thick and thin. The people are so wonderful. Mrs. Fox, when she was alive, everyone got the gospel preached to them. To have to leave and walk out is so hard. I’ll spend a lot of time with my grandchildren this summer, and hopefully by fall find myself another job.”
For the last 23 years, Glen Zarr bussed tables at Fox’s.
“The girls in the bakery made me everything,” he said. “I’ve got to cook myself now. I’ll have to buy myself some frying pans.”

Little League 2014 Drips To An End

The 2014 Little League World Series is over. The soft-serve ice cream machines, unplugged and rolled outside the concession stands, leaked defrost onto the walkways on Monday morning. Cablemen who worked here for ESPN the past two weeks roll up the network’s tentacles. The Worldwide Leader’s thousand eyes are already packed away, ready for shipment to whatever college town they’ll be focused on next week – football is coming and Full Coverage must be provided of kickoffs from Dublin to Spokane.

The Little League grounds, now with players, coaches, and families departed, will yield no more storylines, no more shots of tearful, fresh-faced youth glorying in victory and crushed in defeat until next year. Then, a new group of 16 teams will arrive in mid-August and provide the material for the ESPN and media machine to make a fresh batch of sentimental sausage, in the usual flavors of Tear-Jerker and Smile-Maker.

If one isn’t prone to eating up the Youthful Joy and Pure Sportsmanship angles whole, it’s easy to dismiss the World Series spectacle as one of the most TV-friendly events ever conceived. Don’t blame the hype all on ESPN; there’s always been an advertising angle. When U.S. Rubber came on as a Little League sponsor in 1947 by giving founder Carl Stotz $8,000 to put on the second World Series, it was a sponsorship like any other – for profit. When the company, maker of Keds shoes, effectively took over the organization in the mid-1950s, it pushed for more organizational growth, and the dollars have followed ever since.

It’s an icky business, these players getting nothing, other than a free trip and some equipment they’ll quickly outgrow, while offering their faces for national endorsements. The feeling is made worse when watching at home: ads for laundry detergent follow shots of kids sliding into third.

On the ground in Williamsport, there’s less noise interfering with reminders that the World Series participants are Just Folks who come here with whole lives behind them that have led to this point. Without real people reacting to life, preferably within the emotional context of a ballgame, the World Series sponsors would have no heart-warming or -wrenching pictures alongside which to sell their wares.

Now, some of the adults aren’t the nicest; perhaps they are part of the Adult Problem with Little League that’s been worried about since the Fifties. One of this year’s managers talked frankly in the conference room about the postgame “butt-chewing” he gave his team after a loss. He then spent most of the week’s evenings at the nearby Mountaineer Lounge, drinking Tuaca and muttering about should-have-beens.

New England’s Dave Belisle was the managerial star of the World Series after the speech he gave his Rhode Island team when they were knocked out by Chicago. Some of the New England families showed up at the Mountaineer later that night for dinner, a big enough crowd that the staff kept the kitchen open well after its 11 o’clock close to feed them all.

There, the Rhode Island people talked about Belisle and how he’s been an assistant coach for his father for decades, since leaving Providence College, at Mount St. Charles Academy, a hockey powerhouse that has won like 30 state championships since 1978. He doesn’t have a win to his name, but coaching is something the man knows.

The next day, on the concourses, Belisle was taking congratulations from strangers on his speech: “What you said was so great!,” that sort of thing. Few, if any, knew him from Adam; sometimes it takes national TV exposure for people to be reminded others might have something worthwhile to say.

Washington’s manager, Robley Corsi Jr., had plenty to say during the week. He felt good about his team’s chances of getting to Williamsport when they showed up at the Northwest Regional. Their competition included Wyoming – “I think they’ve got a one-team regional, you show up and you win,” Corsi said, and Alaska: “They’ve had snow off the ground for like four days, and they’re playing in the All-Star tournament.” Compared to the Hawaii and California teams, who played in a different group at the same site, his team “looked like midgets.”

Corsi, who beat melanoma while coaching his team over the past couple years, also had the best response to the generic “How do you think your chances are?” question: “We’re going to beat everyone, because we’re better than them. If someone is better, we’re going to lose.”

When professionals savvy in the ways of cameras and microphones speak these days, they lack that sort of forthrightness. Someday, perhaps, all of us will be experts in saying nothing that doesn’t advance our Brand. Then, the thin slice of life that a Big TV Production can replicate will be an honest depiction of reality. Until then, so long as most kids continue not to give a damn until they’re 13 or so, and some people keep that sense all their life, the Little League World Series will be something that’s worth watching. Because it’s all about the kids.

Those Who Toil On The Day For Laborers

Last Labor Day, 2013, I was scheduled to work at the newspaper that shall not be named. As I had absolutely no assignments, instead of doing what was expected – going into the office and staring at the computer in case who knows what happened besides a police thing (to which I was not assigned) – I kicked around the local mall and talked to people who were working on Labor Day.

Since it’s a federal holiday, no one expects to get mail, do any banking, or go to court on Labor Day.

When it comes to shopping and eating out on a day that some have off work, it’s a more hit-and-miss proposition.

Many of the national chains and car dealers call the holiday their second biggest shopping weekend of the year, behind Thanksgiving. The holiday was instituted by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 as an alternative to the May 1 holiday many countries have adopted to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, which occurred during a strike for the eight-hour workday.

Around Hughesville, the locally owned businesses were mostly misses for those looking to shop or eat.

Freezer’s Auto Parts, Mark’s Shoes, the Spartan Pub, and Springman’s Country Store were just some of the businesses taking the day off. Only the beer distributor, the tobacco store, and the gas station were open.

Neal Babb and his ladyfriend Wendy pulled into the TJ’s Market lot in Hughesville for some hoagies in early afternoon and found nothing but disappointment.

“It’s Labor Day and nothing is open,” Babb said. “People should be laboring. I worked today, I just got off.”

Around the mall, the chains were open for consumption.

“It’s a perfect time to pick up items you need for fall family get-togethers,” the Big Lots public address told shoppers. “Take advantage of great deals now.”

Michelle Parker was stocking the Halloween shelves with such necessities as $10 Teardrop Petticoats and Haunted Mirror Ghouls that sell for $17.50.

“It’s fun, fun,” Parker said as she shelved a bin full of Venetian Raven Masks. “You just can’t pay attention to the dates. It’s just another day.”

On an oppressive, humid day that never got around to raining, sales were quickest in the morning.

“It was crazy” at Macy’s to begin the day, Misses clothing associate Rita Koch said as she chattered with her comrades. “You think ‘where are they coming from? Did it start raining?’ There are a lot of people getting ready for fall. Kids getting things to wear to the football games, college kids home getting things to take back. You have to make it fun for Labor Day.”

The weather has a strong correlation with how busy stores get, according to several retail workers: the nicer it is outside, the more people stay out of the mall.

The rain holding off and keeping business down isn’t necessarily a good thing for Sears salesmen who are paid on commission.
“We were pretty busy earlier,” one salesman said, who asked not to be named. “If it rains on a holiday, in retail, forget about it. Today, everyone’s out eating, drinking, having fun.”

Jamie Homnick was stocking romance novels at BAM!, where Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is still holding down the number one spot in paperback sales despite the bookstore recently replacing 10 feet of its upfront book display with racks of T-shirts bearing mottoes like “Make Bacon Not War” and “Zombie Attack Survival Kit.”

“It’s been terrible,” Homnick said. “Terribly busy. All I’m thinking about is food.”

“A long day” was the general sentiment among employees folding Levi’s at Sears, inventorying Disney backpacks at Target, and selling Nikes at the Finish Line.

“I heard there was some sort of concert here,” said a Finish Line saleswoman. “I didn’t hear it. Sometimes it’s quiet, and then sometimes everyone comes in all at once.”

Of the workers surveyed, some were getting time and a half for their holiday work, some were getting a couple dollars more an hour, some weren’t getting paid anything extra, and some weren’t sure.

“It depends who you are,” one Target employee said.

The Big Band, T-Bone Sound Returns To Williamsport

As a former brassy band nerd, writing this preview for a Williamsport horn group gave me pleasure and an excuse to editorialize on the State of Modern Music a bit.

The contemporary airwaves are dominated by music made in bedrooms and on laptops — modern technology has made it possible for a one-man band to churn out hit singles without even breaking a sweat, or learning to play both the banjo and accordion. In a time of such sparse pop, when even twin lead guitars are scarce, a group no longer needs the traditional 17 musicians to qualify as a “big band.”

“Spencer and the T-Bones,” who come together this August 24 for the second year in a row at the Community Theatre League, 100 W. Third St., put out a serious modern big band sound, with some heavy rock ‘n roll low end.

Vocalist and Williamsport pastor Spencer Sweeting provides vocals for the group, and the rest of the 9-piece is made up of veteran area musicians and educators. A third of the group is trombones – the “T-Bones” in the group’s name refers to the slide brass instrument, not a beefsteak.

Founder Kevin Henry (a Williamsport Area middle school band director), Bill Grose (Mifflinburg schools), and Brett Rynhart make up the ‘bone section, a concept that had its inspiration in a Don Henley-arranged 2000 tour version of “Hotel California” that used four trombones.

The group began with a four trombone line fronting a rhythm section. The T-Bones’ instrumentation evolved over the years, adding Sweeting in 2009, as well as swapping in Sunbury reedman Larry Fisher (Pine Mountain schools) on baritone saxophone for one trombone and adding Loyalsock teacher Lee Saville-Andree on keys and the Hammond B-3. Tim Breon of Lycoming College and the Uptown Music Collective plays guitar, Williamsport Area High School orchestra director Matt Radspinner lays down the bass line, and Bob Leidhecker, a Loyalsock educator and Williamsport Symphony Orchestra percussionist, plays the drums.

Those who think that mix sounds anything but fresh should take a trip online and check out Spencer and the T-Bones on YouTube, and then take a listen to Bonerama, out of New Orleans, another three-bone group out of New Orleans who serve as something of a model for the T-Bones’ approach. Playing through a bunch of effects, Bonerama’s repertoire leans more towards Jimmy Page than Glenn Miller.

At this year’s CTL show, The T-Bones will have plenty of fresh material, drawn from both old and new sources.

“There will be some Stevie Wonder, some Otis Redding,” Henry says. “After last year, everyone said ‘you gotta do Chicago,’ so we’ve got a Chicago set for this year.”

New original work by area composer Rob Byham will be played, as well as arrangements of new hits by Fitz and the Tantrums and Cee Lo Green, artists whose fusion of rock, soul, funk and pop inform The T-Bones’ sound.

“’Fitz’ is a little retro-feeling, but it’s new — they fit our style well,” Henry says. “We’ll even be doing some Dave Matthews, and the White Stripes, but in our own style.”

That style incorporates guitar effects on the trombones, like distortion, an octave pedal, loops and the venerable wah-wah pedal, giving The T-Bones a new-school edge that polishes up the trombone’s staid image.

“From my standpoint as a band director, we’d like to see more trombone players in the schools,” Henry says. “This is a little bit of a way to promote the trombone, with three in the group.”

Spencer and the T-Bones have had a quiet summer, due to graduate studies and an onslaught of weddings. Their return to the CTL for the second straight year will give audiences a chance to see how they’ve developed in the time they have had to play together.

“I had never played with a group in there (before last year),” Henry says. “It’s got great acoustics, it’s a place where you can see everybody’s face in the audience and really connect. We hope to get some people out of their seats and moving.”

Spencer and the T-Bones perform at The Community Theatre, 100 W. Third St., Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at ctlnet.org: $25 buys two seats, or they are $15 for adults and $8 for students.