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Northridge Little League National Champions : Making a Run at Glory and Fun : Coaches: Spirit of volunteerism--as exemplified by Frank Polito--has been a hallmark of Little League baseball.

August 29, 1994|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 55 years Little League has endured. And for 40 of them, Frank Polito has been there. Polito, 79, is among the tens of thousands of volunteer coaches in Little League, an organization that last year attracted 2.7 million children in 79 countries, including 2.5 million in the United States.

They are insurance agents and lawyers, plumbers and business executives--hard-working, blue-collar and middle-class parents who give up countless hours of their time for the pure, simple pleasure of teaching kids to play ball.

For Polito, it has been a passion for 40 seasons. Get to know him and you see why Little League carries on. In an era in which major league baseball strikes seem inevitable, Little League remains a summer certainty, as comfortable as a favorite glove.

Polito has been a fixture of Little League baseball in Alhambra, a gruff former truck driver who has coached hundreds of kids, a hard-nosed taskmaster who players unfailingly address as "Mister Polito."

Not Coach. Not Frank. Mister Polito .

Over the years, he coached both of his sons--now in their 50s--and all four of his grandsons. He won so many Alhambra National Little League championships he doesn't remember the exact number.

Former players recall Polito bellowing commands so loud they were audible two playing fields away.

But his players also talk of him patiently teaching the fundamentals not only of baseball but of life: the perils of showboating, the rewards of teamwork, how to win with humility and lose with grace.

"If you didn't play on the Giants, you were intimidated by him," said his son Vince, 51, who himself coached Little League for 18 years. "But if you played on the Giants, you loved him."

Many Little League coaches volunteer in hopes of forging a special bond with their sons or daughters through sports. But others, like George Saul, assistant coach of this year's Northridge Little League, have no children.

"We have several people like that, who dedicate their time to the kids," said Denise Aronson, a former longtime board member and volunteer for the Northridge league. "They honestly care about kids and the game of baseball."

For many coaches, Little League represents a chance to instill in their children the virtues of hard work, loyalty and self-sacrifice, small-town American values encouraged by the league since it was founded in 1939 by a Williamsport, Pa., lumber-yard clerk, Carl E. Stotz.

But over the years coaches often have been at the center of controversies that have smudged Little League's squeaky-clean image. Among them: cheating scandals and even on-the-field violence.

Last year, the Little League international division disqualified teams from Taiwan and the Dominican Republic from the Little League World Series after coaches fielded ineligible players.

In June, 1992, the Little League season in Albuquerque, N.M., was cut short because of hostility and fighting among adults. A postgame fight that sent one person to the hospital included a group of parents, a league director, a coach and even the coach's mother.

That same year, a coach in Whiteville, N.C., used a pocketknife to slash the throat of another coach in front of 100 Little Leaguers, spattering blood on one boy's jersey.

Moreover, gung-ho coaches are perennial targets of critics who say they push kids too hard to win, fail to let less-talented kids play and set bad examples by arguing and swearing.

"We have all seen managers who exerted a wonderful influence upon their boys--an influence which was as fine an educational experience as any lad might undergo," wrote the late Dr. Arthur A. Esslinger in the official Little League rules handbook. "Unfortunately, we have also observed a few managers who were a menace to children."

Despite the excesses of some adults, Little League is more popular than ever. From 1 million players in 1982, its player rolls burgeoned to 1.8 million five years ago and 2.7 million today.

And they are led through seasons both good and bad by coaches such as Polito, whose hard-guy exterior and foghorn voice disguise a fundamental affection for kids that was never lost on them.

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Polito for many years drove a trailer truck for the Vons supermarket chain.

After work on game days, he showed on the field dressed in his gray work uniform, his arms sternly crossed over his chest, his eyes squinting from beneath the lid of a black Giants cap as his young charges played their regulation six innings.

Over the years, he has watched as changing demographics and social mores have altered Little League, pushing it inexorably out of the innocent, Leave-It-to-Beaver years of the 1940s and '50s into the more contentious, and more democratic 1990s.

He saw the forced admission of girls into Little League baseball in 1974 (when Congress revised the Little League charter over league officials' objections).

He has seen the effects on kids of a rising divorce rate.

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