It's July, so Randy Morris must be getting ready to take a Little League all-star team to the Georgia state tournament.
And he is, next weekend in Athens.
For 16 years, Morris, now 51, has been one of the most successful youth baseball coaches in the country. He's been to the state tournament a dozen times at various age levels, and he's won four titles that sent his 12-year-old team to the Southeast Regional. Twice, he's won that, earning a spot in the Little League World Series, which he won in 2006.
By his own admission, he's a big kid teaching little ones about life through baseball.
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Recently, the Northern Little League volunteer coach sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk a little baseball. He discussed the purity of the game at that level, the parents, travel ball, injuries and the politics of all-star selection.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
Why have your Little League all-star teams have been so successful?
I don't think there's any magic tricks and I don't wave the magic wand. And I get asked that question a lot. We just work hard. We stress fundamentals; we stress lots of reps and ground balls and batting practice; we work our kids hard.
You started volunteering as a Little League coach 16 years ago. Why?
Actually, I love sports in general. I'm a big baseball fan and a big football fan, all sports. My nephew started playing at American Little League and his team was not very successful their first year. So he comes to me one day and says, "Uncle Randy, is there any way that you would come coach our team?" His name is Shane and I told him, "Let me think about it," and I've been in it ever since.
What about coaching a group of 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds is attractive to you?
It's just what I like to do. It's my passion. And really, we try to teach our kids not only the game of baseball, but about life in general. I'm trying to get these kids ready for the next level, as far as playing-wise and just everyday life. I feel like if I can make a difference in just one of these kids' life, then my job is done -- I'm satisfied.
You don't get paid anything for this, right?
Not a penny. It's the purest form of baseball. It's not a job at this point. I think even when you get to the high school level you have career in mind. You're thinking, "What can I do impress somebody enough to get me first a college scholarship, or get drafted, and then can I make it in the big leagues? Little League, you're not at that point yet. You're out there playing because you want to play, you want to have fun, and you want to learn the game.
I'll never forget when your team won the 2006 World Series, y'all went up to Atlanta and visited the Braves in their clubhouse. One of the pro players, I can't remember which one, told me, "This is really cool for us too, because if you look at this room, they want to be us and we want to be them."
Because that's their job. They have a lot of pressure on them to perform. If not, they'll be released or whatever, where my kids are out there having the time of their lives. They want to get to that level, but right now they just want to have fun and get better.
Little League World Series games and most of the regional games are now televised? Is that good or bad?
That's awesome. I think it's great. I get asked a lot about if it's too much pressure for these kids, and my answer is absolutely not. After the first five minutes, they don't even realize they're on television. They're out there playing their hearts out, having fun, and just doing what they do. I think it's great. I think they should get all of the publicity and more.
Do you think there's more pressure to win on a nationally televised game or come back and beat your neighbors from Peach Little league twice?
Well, you know, probably coming back to beat Peach twice because there you're one of the best teams in the country and you're facing the best teams in the country. So, win or lose you're really good. So, I feel like it's more pressure trying to get out of Columbus.
Has it always been that much pressure to try and win basically the city championship?
It is because Northern in the last several years has kind of set the standards for winning, and believe me, we get everybody's best shot. It's hard. It's not easy to get out of the city of Columbus, Ga.
So, what did you tell your kids about going to the state tournament? You've been so many times and it's new for them.
I think most of these kids went last year as 11-year-olds, but it's different as 12-year-olds. I told them that if they would work hard and keep advancing, the rewards would be there in the end.
Let's talk a little about parents. How difficult is it for a coach to coach when you have "Little League parents"?
I get asked that question a lot and I get told by friends of mine they don't want to coach because of the parents. You know, I think it's different when you don't have a child involved. First of all, I have no hidden agenda of what I'm trying to do or who I'm trying to play or who plays when, where or how long.
And I think that's one reason why the league has blessed me with giving me all of these all-star teams is because I don't have a child involved. I've always been very fortunate to have great parents.
What do you tell them?
I tell them what they can expect of me, what I can expect of the kids, and what I kind of expect of the parents. There's no favorites for me, and we're going to do the best we can about playing. Everybody is here to watch their kid play all six innings, and mathematically that's impossible. And that is my hardest job. That is the only thing that I dislike about coaching is there's always three kids that have to be on the bench. I want all the kids to play the whole time, too. We have to sub kids in and out and it just has to happen. Some kids are going to play more than others. That's just the way it is.
How do you deal with parent's expectations? Every parent, particularly at the all-star level, thinks their kid is going to be a pro baseball player.
Exactly. You're right. You just handle it the best you can. There's not an easy solution to that. We try to play our kids the most we can. They know up front they have to earn their playing time. It's earned on the practice field. So, that's what we base on when we put kids out to play and how long they play.
How do you get a parent to have realistic expectations for their child?
That's hard. There's two sets of parents. There's the parent, like you said, thinks their kid is going straight to the pros, and then you have the parents who are really hard on their kids -- too hard.
So, to me that's why it's kind of hard to coach your own kid. You're either going to be too easy and give him what he wants, or you're going to be too hard and he's not going to live up to your expectations.
When parents are too hard on their kid, will you pull them aside and say quit riding him?
I have talked with parents before, absolutely. I call it putting too much pressure on them, and they're not going to perform as good if I'm getting on to them for not doing good and their parents are riding them about not doing good.
So, it's just going to make things worse. I try and ask our parents to let us do the coaching with their kids. And I know when they get home they're going to get talked to and that's just natural. We try to make the parents understand to let us coach them.
It's easier said than done, isn't it?
Yes, very much.
Another issue that has come to light is Dr. (James) Andrews. ... I don't know if you knew Dr. Andrews when he was here?
Yes. He and Dr. Hughston had to fix my arm one time.
So, Dr. Andrews cut on you?
No. He didn't have to cut. My growth plate had separated in my shoulder when I was 11, so he and Dr. Andrews had to kind of put me in a sling and tape it to my body. I was out for over half of the season.
What year was that?
That was in 1974.
What Little League were you playing in?
He says right now that there is an epidemic in this country involving youth sports and over-extension of these kids and their bodies. Do you agree with him?
What can be done about it?
Playing other sports, less throws in a year's time. Now, travel ball is so big, and Little League, and nowadays you've got kids trying to do both and it's just too much, especially if you're going to pitch in both.
Are any of your all-star players this year playing travel ball?
They don't get to play travel ball when they play all-stars. They have to give that up.
But, during regular season, they can play travel ball?
My kids normally do not play. We ask them not to play even during regular season. I know some of the other teams they do both, but like we just talked about, health-wise, that is just not good.
When you look at a 12-year-old kid, he could have conceivably already been throwing since he was 8, pitching from the mound, right?
You're right. That's a lot of pitches. I think the pitch count in Little League is one of the best things they've ever done. It has made managing a whole lot harder, but I think it's one of the best things that they've ever done is to put in pitch count and limit these kids as to how many pitches they can throw.
You were doing a pitch count in effect before there was a pitch count, weren't you?
Absolutely. We always charted our kids' pitches.
Would you take a kid out to protect him before there was a pitch count?
Absolutely. That goes back to I'm not a win-at-all-cost type coach. I would never jeopardize a kid's health. There's no doubt in my mind that if we're in the World Series and we're in the sixth inning, we're tied and it's a 3-2 count, and my guy is out there holding his arm, he's not going to throw the next pitch. There's no doubt in my mind. I would sign a paper saying that he would not throw the next pitch.
So, you agree with what Dr. Andrews is saying?
How do you enforce it?
I don't know that you can. I wish they would have some kind of seminar and make it mandatory for the parents to go to and listen to all of this. I think pitching is fine but I don't think you can pitch 10 months out of the year.
I've heard Tim Hudson didn't start really pitching until he was 15. He threw some in Little League but he was not really a pitcher until he was playing Babe Ruth. Look at him now. He's almost 40 and still throwing.
Right. That's got everything to do with it.
Do you think if Tim Hudson was coming up today, would he be where he is now?
I think he would be retired by now. There's no doubt in my mind that Tim would not still be pitching had he been pitching since he was 7-8 years old. I think your arm is just like anything else in your body. Your arm has so many throws in it, and when it's done it's done.
How do you tell a parent that?
That is a hard thing to do because most of these parents want them to be stars and want them to be the great players. Obviously, pitching is very big. You're going to be in the limelight. I think parents have just got to be smarter in realizing to take care of their kids' arms.
Do you think part of the issue with parents is the financial investment in these kids at such an early age? They're taking pitching lessons, they're taking hitting lessons, they're paying hundreds of dollars a month playing travel ball. That's a lot of money?
Right. Especially around here. These kids are going to the Columbus Highs, Shaws, Northsides and Brookstones. It's very competitive, so what these parents are trying to do is to give their kid every advantage they can to have the upper hand to get that playing time. There's no doubt. I think that's one reason that some of the high school football programs are not as successful, because some of the better athletes don't want to get behind in baseball. If they're out there playing football, somebody else is working out in baseball, I just don't think they want to get behind.
When did baseball become a 12-month sport? It wasn't that way when you were a kid.
No. There was no such thing as travel ball. We played whatever season it was -- baseball, basketball, football. We played all three sports. Soon as the last game of baseball was over, you swapped and got the football. I think probably within the last eight to 10 years it has really gotten competitive as far as travel ball.
And that's detrimental?
I think so, yes.
Do you think in some ways that keeps kids from being kids?
Yeah. I think it's just too much on them. I mean, they don't realize it and I don't think their parents realize it. I think these kids should venture out and do other things and play other sports. I have a lot of parents ask what would I like for their kid to do in the off season. And I tell them to let him play football.
Do they look at you like you're crazy?
Some of them do. But I think football makes you mentally tough, and I think football helps your baseball.
If somebody were to make you commissioner of Little League baseball, what's the first thing you'd do?
That's a good question. Nobody has ever asked me that. I would probably put a rule in that you could either play travel ball or Little League, not both. You could not be on two rosters at all the whole year.
Are you a fan of travel ball?
I don't have a problem with travel ball. I have actually coached travel ball a couple of times and I think travel ball is good. I think the kids like it because it's more like real baseball as far as pitching from the stretch and playing off base and getting to steal right when the pitcher starts to throw and that type stuff. And I think that's one reason Little League has done a few little things to try to inject a little travel ball, like calling third strike (and) being able to run to first base, and things like that.
But if you look, 7-year-olds are playing travel ball.
I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don't think there's a place for any kid in my opinion less than 10 years old. That's just my opinion. So many of them do it and that's fine if that's what they want to do. But in my opinion, you should be at least 10 years old.
Let's talk about your teams that have been successful. 2006 is almost 10 years ago. Do you think about that?
Almost every day. Something will pop in my mind about that season and how special it was.
When did you realize you had the best team in all of Little League baseball?
When we beat that Japan team. I had no idea that we could even compete with them, and my guys just stepped up to the plate and accepted the challenge and I was just floored.
Y'all won the city championship that year and that American team y'all beat could have done well in the state tournament or regional.
Absolutely. They gave us fits in the district.
And that's what you're talking about ...
Getting out of the city of Columbus.
When you look back on 2006, is that a once in a lifetime deal?
You know, Chuck, I think so. I can't even fathom winning the World Series two times in a coaching career. I told people after that season that to me it was almost like hitting the lottery. I mean, all the stars have to line up, you've got to have luck. There's so much to even getting to that place much, less winning.
Williamsport is Little League heaven, right?
There's no better place.
Do you wish you could take every Little League player in America to Williamsport?
Yes. I think every Little League player, if he's a true Little League player and he has a passion for baseball, I think every parent should find some way try to take their kid to Williamsport.
Are you a big kid?
I am a big kid. When it comes to that, there's no bigger kid than me.
I was up there in 2010 when y'all went back. One of the things you heard is how well-behaved your kids were. What do you tell the kids about that?
We talk to the kids several days before we leave and tell them what we expect, manners, be gentlemen, and I think that's part of the experience. They don't understand how lucky and how fortunate they are first of all find to be able to play this game -- to have the God-given talent to play and the physicality to play. They are blessed and they need to be appreciative of that.
You're about to go to Athens to play in the state tournament. Are you telling these kids Williamsport is a possibility?
No. I don't actually bring that up, Chuck. We talk about our goals and from getting from level to level. I'm such -- I don't know -- a traditional coach that it's one pitch at a time. And that is really to me, having experienced all of the tournaments I've been in, the only way to win. You cannot look ahead.
When you look back at that 2006 team, you had great players: J.T. Phillips, Kyle Carter. What would you have said if while walking out of Williamsport someone put their arm around your shoulder and said the first one to sign a pro contract was going to be Josh Lester?
You know, I would have been surprised, but again I wouldn't be surprised. Josh was certainly not the most talented player on that team. Josh was probably one of the hardest workers on that team that had the best attitude and was a stickler for the little things that make you a good baseball player.
And he had a baseball pedigree with his dad, Jimmy Lester (Pirates' director of scouting)?
I know Kyle Carter's and J.T. Phillips' issues have been well-publicized. Have you talked to those kids in recent years?
I have. I especially talked to Kyle. Kyle always makes it a point when he's home to see me. When my mom passed away this past November, Kyle came to the house and that meant more to me than anything. He shed tears with me and we talked. When he left out of my dad's driveway, the last thing I told him was, "Hey Kyle, make good decisions."
Do you think Kyle is going to find his way to pro ball?
I hope so. I think one day there's going to be a lot of people really sorry that they didn't give this kid a chance. I really do. He's a special talent and I still think he is.
You talked about your mom's passing (on Nov. 24, 2014). I knew Miss Jean, worked with her for many years. This will be the first year she hasn't been ...
Yeah. I've thought about that, and it's very emotional for me. Me and my mom were very close, and I don't think she has ever, ever missed a tournament of mine.
She was always in the stands?
Always there. Always my No. 1 fan.
Did you kind of look for her last week?
I knew she was with me. I was telling my dad and my family that when we were down and that could have been the last game -- we were down one -- I walked to third base and I kind of looked up and said, "OK, Mom, need a little help here." And I really did.
Did you get some of your baseball passion from your mom?
There's no doubt in my mind. She would often ask me some questions after the game about certain things, why I did this and why I did that, but she's such a special person and there are many baseball people that miss her.
You talk about trying to teach kids about life. What does baseball teach you about life?
The main thing is it's a structured environment, it keeps you off the streets. It's easy to be a winner. It's how you're going to be when you lose. And I do go back to Jimmy Lester; we talk sometimes. He told me one time, "You know, Randy, when I go scout these kids I like to stay for two games if I can because it's easy to see how this kid is when he goes four for four, two home runs, but how is this kid going to be when he goes 0 for four and four strikeouts." Jimmy taught me a lot about teaching my kids about body language. We talk daily about body language.
Body language is a dead giveaway, right?
Yes, very much. We stay on our kids about body language, which there's not a day that goes by, practice or game, that those words don't come out of my mouth.
Can you look over and see when the other team is in trouble?
Sure. You can see when a pitcher is in trouble. You can see when a hitter is done with an at bat even though it's not strike three yet. So, we try to teach our kids, and it's hard -- we all want to win, nobody wants to lose. I guess I'm trying to help them build character.
You've been around a lot of coaches. What coach was the most influential to you?
Coach Frank Matthews (at Columbus High from 1978-81), without a doubt -- and my dad. My dad coached me in Little League and I wouldn't trade those memories for anything in this world.
How was Coach Matthews instrumental?
He was very tough. Everybody talks about Coach (Bobby) Howard, the firmness, and believe me, Coach Matthews was just like that if not worse. So he taught me how to become a better man.
You were going to coach at Northside. Why did you back off from that?
First of all, I love David (Smart) and those guys. They are great guys, and I love the kids. There was never anything to do with that. But at that level, I found out to me there wasn't much teaching and coaching as just keeping them polished.
By that time they pretty much know the game and I guess I just missed the part where when this kid gets to me, "Coach, I don't know how to bunt," or "I need some help with my swing." To me I just missed the teaching of the game.
Does that go back to the purity you were talking about?
Let's talk about the politics of the "purity." One of the most political things that can happen is the selection of an all-star team.
How have you been able to select teams and rise above the politics of all-star selection?
What we try to do, Chuck, is to look at the players. It is about being the best of the best in all-stars. We try to take kids with good attitudes that are good players. It's just like anything -- there's always going to be kids left off. You're never going to stop that.
Does it become obvious in an all-star selection process when an adult in the room has an agenda?
Absolutely. And we try to steer from that, and most of the time we're able to not have that.
So, is this team going to Williamsport?
(Laughter) I have no idea. Would I love to, absolutely. Like we talked about, it's baseball heaven. I want it for every single kid. Obviously, that's impossible, but this team can be good. I think we got challenged.
If we were riding a little too high, I think we definitely got brought down to earth. I'm not saying that we were, but I think this was an awakening for our team. You can tell them only so many times that it's not going to be easy. I think they found that out in the city.
Job: Independent distributor for Little Debbie Cakes for Columbus-Phenix City area for 26 years.
Volunteer job: Volunteer Little League baseball coach for 16 years; first two years at American Little League, last 14 years at Northern Little League.
Education: Columbus High School, 1981; attended Chattahoochee Valley Community College.
Family: Leslie, wife of 29 years; daughters Blaire, 26, and Natalie, 20.