They have nicknames like Socko, Bear and Shorty. Their caps are cocked at a perfect pitch. And when they slide into second base, it is with spikes high.
You expect no less of major leagues, even if they are only 12 years old. By the time ballplayers in Vienna graduate to the top of little League ranks, they know all the grown-up moves, recite the time-worn infield chatter, do everything the pros do except get paid and chew tobacco.
"I'm swinging in perfect timing, Coach," 12-year-old Wally Johnson announced at the season opener last week for the Vienna Pirates. "I'm right in the groove."
Last week's opening ceremonies, which featured one prayer, two anthems and the national president of Little League Inc., marked the 26th year of Little League baseball in Vienna. It also provided another opportunity for people in this suburban Virginia town to brag about their well-kept corner in the grand old game.
"We think we're the best organization on the East Coast," said Jim Keifer, president of Vienna's Little League, which has 950 kids on 72 teams, four zillion parent volunteers and three playing fields that most college teams would envy.
In the last 10 years, Vienna All-Star teams have won the state championship three times.In 1972, the All-Stars made it through the first round of the Little League World Series. This year, plans are to win it all.
While Vienna has never lost its baseball fever, times have been tougher for teams in the rest of Northern Virginia and the nation. During the same decade Vienna was establishing itself as a regional power, most of Little Leaguedom was being besieged by girls who wanted to play hardball, Taiwanese teams that refused to lose and, most dread of all, the foreign menace of soccer.
A Washington Post survey last spring indicated that 50,000 boys and girls in the metropolitan area between the ages 5 and 19 were playing soccer.That was only 6,000 fewer than were playing baseball and softball. Nationally, there are 2.5 million Little League players.
"One problem in this area is the absence of a major league team," said Andy Cassells, the Little League administrator for one of two districts in Northern Virginia, which includes Vienna, McLean, Falls Church and Reston. "When you live in Philadelphia, kids pattern themselves after Pete Rose. In this area, they don't really have a local hero."
A Little League official in Falls Church says the number of Little League players is almost half what it was five years ago, partly because of soccer and partly because of declining school-age populations.
But there have been some benefits to baseball as a result of the competition from soccer, say parents and Little League officials. In an attempt to adapt the game for younger players and keep them in Little League ranks, officials developed T-Ball. That game, which allows players to hit a stationary baseball on a plastic support, has opened the game up to 7-years-old, who no longer have to fear being beaned by an errant pitch.
In Vienna, a rule change two years ago mandated that every Little League play in the field and be sent to bat at least once a game. Die-hards complain that the rule has lowered the overall quality of the leagues. But most parents, and all benchwarmers, are delighted.
"There's no doubt that kids don't like to sit on the bench," says Cassells. "To a certain degree, the popularity of soccer may have caused a lot of people who were reluctant to do this type of thing to see the necessity for it."
Except for those few innovations, baseball in Vienna remains today much as it was 26 years ago when Fred Crabtree, Chuck Rhodes and a few other locals got together and built the organization and the playing fields.
"This was nothing but woods and a big dirt hill," Rhodes said last week, standing on a field that after five days of rain was as springy as the felt cover of pool table.
Rhodes has been coaching in Vienna for a quarter of a century. As head coach of the Pirates for the last 15 years, he has won half a dozen league championships and a reputation unmatched in Vienna.
Rhodes has the keen-eyed, leather-skinned look of a baseball coach. He also has the Voice: a deep, resonant force that can whisper caution to a runner on first or knock the cap off a dozing center fielder.
"I started with my own boys," said Rhodes before last week's season opener for the Pirates. "And everytime I think about quitting I look at some of the 9 and 10 year olds coming up through the ranks and say to myself, 'I got to stick around and see how they turn out.'"
Rhodes, who works a construction contractor, says a quarter of a century hasn't fundamentally changed Little Leaguers. The uniforms are nicer, there is now night ball under the lights and some new topics in dugout discussions.
"It used to be that players didn't have much to say. Now they would just as soon . . . talk about their sex education courses and hogwash like that," said Rhodes with a bemused squint of his tanned forehead.
There has been one undeniable change during Rhodes' tenure. Girls, after much national and some local resistance, are finally permanent fixtures on Little League diamonds. On Rhodes' team, 12-year-old Missy Leget is the regular first baseperson.
"She plays heads up ball," Rhodes said, bestowing the ultimate baseball compliment on Leget, who is the only girl playing at the major league level in Vienna.
In the Pirates game against the Vienna Yankees last week, Leget got a chance to prove that she is nobody's token player. After watching Leget play five innings of errorless play at first, Rhodes took advantage of an 11-1 lead in the sixth and final inning to put Leget on the mound.
With two outs and the bases loaded, Leget threw a major league junk ball to strike out Yankee slugger Chris Feezle.
While Leget and her teammates celebrated, Feezle admitted that modern times or no, there is still some discomfort in being struck out by a girl.
"She'll give me a hard time about that."