Tom Heller thought that when his son Griffith moved on from baseball, he too would leave the Fairfax Little League organization.
But as the little league season opened on Saturday, Heller stood behind the bench — as a coach of the single-A Thunder.
He is the only member of his family associated with the team.
“I guess I’m just a fan of the game,” said Heller, 47. “I really found Fairfax Little League to be a program that allows people to help form young adults across all ages. Little league baseball has a long history of teaching good citizenship.”
Heller is in his ninth season as a coach and, like many that are involved with little league across all organizations in Northern Virginia, the call of the sandlot was too hard to ignore.
As a new generation of players comes into the league each year, the older generation tends to hang around to pass on its wisdom.
Although a majority of the coaches and managers are parents with children on their teams, Fairfax Little League President Lisa Alecxih said there are managers who have remained long after their families have moved on.
“It’s a handful of coaches,” she said. “We have 80 teams total and about 10 teams [have older coaches]. They’re usually very good coaches who have been doing this a long time and sometimes it is better if they don’t have a kid on the team.”
Heller said he started in little league as a way to get involved with his son outside of the dinner table. But that soon evolved into a love of the game and wanting to help raise his neighbors.
Although his team doesn’t feature one of his own children on the roster, he feels as if some of the team members are like family because of their neighborhood ties.
“All the kids on my roster I see in the community,” he said. “I see them every day. A good half of the kids on my team are from my neighborhood; it’s kind of a cool thing. I can help impact kids in my community.”
One of the league’s oldest supporters is Eddie Camper — who at 75 still is sponsoring teams.
Camper helped found the Angels Little League team and, although he is no longer coaching, continues to oversee the team as a sponsor for both the challenger and majors Angels teams.
“It’s important to give kids the ability to go play baseball,” he said. “Baseball has always been in my life and it should be for these kids.”
A common theme among almost all of the league’s coaches is that winning isn’t everything — the true benefits of little league are the life lessons that aren’t always visible on the field.
Heller said it’s teaching children about respect and working together that brings him, and many, back every year.
“I really believe I’m making an impact on young lives [in the community] about how to treat each other,” Heller said. “It’s not about teaching kids to win,” “Winning is one thing, but there’s more to baseball that winning.”