By Paul Lonardo
Baseball is arguably America’s national pastime, and especially children play it all around the world. For 9 to 12 year-olds, Little League, which has spread across the globe, is a big reason why. The Little League World Series, the popular international tournament held in South Williamsport, PA every summer, always garners a lot of media attention, and as a result some people place a big emphasis on how far a team gets in the tournament.
John Sharkey, the President of Lincoln Little League, is proud of the town’s reputation for its competitiveness in the tournament each year and the success they have enjoyed, including being a 14-time RI state tournament qualifier and earning 8 state championships in the major baseball division since he took over the league in 1995 season. He stresses that youth baseball in Lincoln is meant for every level of play, for boys and girls to enjoy the game and experience the valuable life lessons that can be taught on the baseball diamond.
A father of four, John got into volunteering his time at the Lincoln Little League when his kids were young and playing the sport. At the time, he didn’t know how much the organization would become a part of his life.
“It so happened that our house was next door to Bob Witherspoon, the then-president of the league,” John says. “Being neighbors, he initially pulled me in as a coach, and the following year I became the equipment manager. Next thing I knew, he stepped down and I took over for him as president.”
At the beginning of John’s tenure, it was not a very big operation, requiring minimal administrative assistance; his wife ran the concessions. But the league quickly grew in leaps and bounds with the infusion of more families and children into the town during the mid and late 1990’s. Along with this growth, the league expanded and a board of directors was created, peopled by all volunteers who had specific roles. And that is what John believes drove the success that Lincoln Little League began to enjoy in all-star tournament play around that time.
“The kids were competitive with the other towns in the state right from the get-go,” John says about the time he took the helm in 1995. “We eventually broke through in 1999. That was the year we won our first state championship, and I’ll never forget it because my youngest son, Rob, was on the team.”
John doesn’t believe any real secrets can be credited for Lincoln’s success, at least not anymore, with all the towns essentially doing the same things.
“In the early years we introduced things like fall baseball,” he says. “We had never done that before, but that was something we got into heavily. We would stress to all the kids, but especially to the 11 and 12 year-olds who were coming back for their last year, or thought they had a chance of making the all-star team the next year. We would try to convince them to play baseball in the fall. It was a good way to get a group of kids ready, knowing that we would have to pick twelve or fourteen of them for the team in the summer.”
After all John’s children graduated from the league, he continued on as league president, finding that it was something he really enjoyed. Now, entering his 23rd year in the position, John doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“It’s not something you would keep doing it if you didn’t love it,” John says. “There’s good and bad. The best part is the interaction with the kids, although I didn’t get to do as much coaching as I would have liked to.”
For a long time, league presidents were restricted from coaching a team, although that official Little League rule has been recently changed.
Baseball is a tradition that is often passed down from father to son, and it is no different in the Sharkey family. John’s dad was a Little League coach and a board member, including a stint as president in Johnston, when John was a kid. His father also umpired for many years, in youth as well as schoolboy and adult baseball leagues around the state.
John followed in his father’s footsteps, including umpiring beginning at the age of 16. Now John’s son, Rob, whom he coached in 1999, the year Lincoln won its first state championship, is coaching his own team in the Lincoln Little League.
Baseball isn’t just a game for the young, it’s for the young at heart, and that’s why this summer you are likely to find John at the various baseball parks around Lincoln, interacting with the kids, working on the fields and coaching, from early spring through the fall.