Dream has become a reality for Smith and Coeur d’Alene

The Seattle Mariners’ usher just witnessed a first. He never met Jeff Smith before, but this news must be shared.

Smith’s 5-year-old son Cooper had just watched the entire game and never took his eyes off the field. He had his pregame popcorn and soda, but it was all baseball after that. At 5, baseball already had Cooper gripped.

“The usher came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’ve never seen a kid that age watch a game for all nine innings and not blink,'” Jeff said. “He just soaks in the game and absolutely loves it.”

That love, mixed with a boyhood dream, brought father and son to South Williamsport last year. Cooper was 11 and he and Jeff were in the middle of an eight-day sports vacation in which they watched 12 Major League Baseball and National Football League games. The highlight, though, was watching three days of Little League World Series games.

Yes, Cooper always wanted to see every Little Leaguer’s Holy Grail, but this also was a fact-finding mission. Scope the land, watch the games, view the interactions and report back home. Cooper was part of a team that had just captured an 11-year old Idaho state championship. Maybe, he thought, his Coeur d’Alene Little League teammates could be something more than spectators in 2018.

And here they are.

The dream has become reality. Smith and Coeur d’Alene are competing at the Little League World Series and have become one of the world’s best teams.

“We were here three days and saw Japan play Mexico and a great Southwest-Southeast game and some great baseball and he looked at me and said we have some work to do,” Jeff, also the Coeur d’Alene Little League president, said. “He was able to share that with the team throughout. Just being out there and seeing the experience and just seeing that Little League isn’t about wins and losses, but about camaraderie and making you better citizens was wonderful. He would see these kids battle and a team would lose 6-5 and come out of the Grove and be hanging out and trading pins and sharing snow clones with the team they just played. Baseball is pure and Little League is pure I wanted to see that.”

Cooper is one of countless Little Leaguers who has attended the Series despite his team not competing there. Just because he dreamed he might play at Lamade Stadium and told his teammates what they must do, did not mean it would happen. This was a study in hard work and the journey was not easy.

Coeur d’Alene dropped a 12-2 decision in Game 2 of the state tournament championship. It bounced back and won the title the next day. At the Northwest Regional, Montana defeated it in the winners’ bracket, but Coeur d’Alene exacted revenge and blanked it, 2-0, to earn the program its first Series berth, also just the second in Idaho history.

“I asked him if he ever really thought this would happen and he said, ‘I had a dream it would happen and once we won states and beat Washington and Wyoming, I thought it could become a reality and that’s when we realized as a team and started to believe as a team. He started thinking about that trip and what it would mean to him and his team and dad and league and city. After the (regional championship) game, we kind of looked at each other and we were both pretty emotional knowing what they had done.”

All 13 players have done heavy lifting along the way. Take any of those players away and Coeur d’Alene might not be here. It sure helped, too, having someone with inside Series knowledge. While Cooper had not played at the Series, he was the only one who had seen it in person. Having him share that experience made the Series feel more tangible.

Maybe if Cooper and Jeff had not attended the 2017 Series, Coeur d’Alene would not be playing at the 2018 Series.

“You watch it on TV and it’s fantasy land and then you see someone who has been around it and it feels more attainable. It’s one thing to know about the Little League World Series, but to know someone who has been there and can paint a picture in first-person terms gave the kids a vision,” Coeur d’Alene manager Sean Cherry said. “Cooper went there and saw kids his own age and said, ‘We can compete with these guys. They are not that much different from us. We can accomplish it, but we really need to work hard to get there.’ Having that first-person experience was sensational.”

One could say the same about Cooper’s play this summer. The slick-fielding first baseman provides pop in the middle of the Coeur d’Alene lineup and hit .357 at regionals with seven RBIs and five runs scored. He also played error-free defense and made some nice plays in the championship win.

Cooper has watched so many Major League games, but now he is the one making the highlights. His next dream is seeing a game in every Major League, National Football League and Minor League Baseball stadium.

Do not bet against him.

Cooper is a sports fanatic who can rattle off just about any statistic or historical fact one wants to know about a baseball team or player. He is smart, talented and driven. His future is bright and he already has achieved something do few ever do.

Watching the Series was great. Playing in it is almost beyond belief.

“His enthusiasm for the game is something that I wish I could see more of. He just loves being with his buddies and going to work, playing a game he loves,” Jeff said. “For him to be playing at the Series is just totally surreal.”