Mom in eighth year of coaching sons in baseball
As a baseball coach of teenage boys, Sue Berg is pretty much in a league of her own.
She has been for about eight years -- since the mother of three and real-estate agent first stepped up to manage 7- and 8-year-olds in the North Columbus Sports recreational league.
She has progressed through the ranks while coaching her sons -- who have become teenagers: Nick, 15; and twins Brett and Scott, 13.
Last month, Berg led her first Pony League team (for ages 13 to 15) into a new season on fields north of Riverside Methodist Hospital.
"It is a very unusual situation," said Mark Navarre, board member and past president of the league for boys and girls 5 and older. "I can't recall when we've had another mom coaching boys."
Female coaches of boys baseball teams are rare, agreed officials with other baseball leagues in central Ohio.
Berg, assisted by husband Dan, first took over Nick's youth team - the level above T-ball - after suffering through a season with an ill-tempered coach.
"He berated kids," recalled Mrs. Berg, 46, of the Northwest Side. "He'd throw his hat and kick dirt when someone made a mistake. He was rough with his own kid.
"I would just sit there and grit my teeth because the kids could have gotten better with a little direction. That's when I said, 'I can do better.'"
She hadn't coached before, but she could draw upon a lifetime of playing experience.
Growing up in sports-crazed Massillon, in northeastern Ohio, she played outside -- whatever sport was in season -- with her two brothers and six boys who lived across the street.
Berg excelled in softball and tennis during high school; at the University of Akron, she played on the varsity tennis team.
Though a fierce competitor, she approached recreational baseball from a different perspective: All team members should have fun, all should get playing time -- and proper instruction trumps winning. "The kids took to her right
away," Navarre said.
Adults were another story.
Even at the lowest rungs of youth baseball, Berg said, some parents and other coaches were leery of a woman in the dugout.
"Dads would stay to watch practice just to make sure, and some moms would shake their heads and shrug their shoulders," she said. "Two years ago, one parent actually called me at dinnertime to confirm that I was going to coach a boys team."
After two league championships and a runner-up title, Berg has won over most skeptics. "She showed them (the men) right away that she was as competitive as they were," Navarre said. "She stood her ground, and, as a result, she's still doing it seven years later."
Her assistant coach, Randy Burt of Upper Arlington, acknowledged being "very skeptical" about his partner when they were paired by the league. "I just wondered if she really knew about baseball," said Burt, whose son, Collin, plays on the team. "But she actually knows her stuff."
At a recent practice, Berg took charge: She organized hitting and fielding drills, and ran the bases.
"Stuart, remember: Your first step is always backward on a pop-up," she instructed player Stuart Sprigler of Upper Arlington. "Open the glove all the way up and bring the trapping hand in front.
"You gotta reach!" she told the lanky boy, who towered a foot above her. "You should have the reach of a spider out there."
Players seem to like what they hear.
"She's a huge improvement to our previous coach," said Sprigler, 15. "She comes off as very driven and positive and supportive."
"She keeps spirits high," added player Aram Hosenfeld, 14, also of Upper Arlington. "It's not too serious - a happy medium between learning a game and playing a game."
Berg hopes to coach as long as the boys want her to.
"Every year, my mom tells me, 'It's about time for you to be done with this now,' " she said. "But, every year, it gets to be more fun. Seeing these kids grow up is really awesome.
"They're all taller than me, and they're becoming men, but I think it's going to be fine."