I am a baseball guy. Always have been. Ever since I was eight-years-old and I thought the rock-hard, faded, lime-green Astroturf covered field at Candlestick Park in San Francisco was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I haven't been able to shake my love for the greatest game there is - the game they play every day.
In 1987 I photographed my first Major League Baseball games in Oakland and San Francisco with a Nikon F3 and Fujichrome RDP 100 color slide film. I was a photojournalism major at San Jose State University interning at the Contra Costa Times when I quickly realized that knowing the game gave me an advantage over many other photographers who arrived at the ballpark bemoaning the fact that nothing ever happened. That's baseball!
Once I graduated from college and began my newspaper career working at a 15,000 circulation daily covering lots of Little League and high school sports. I knew I had to pay my dues in order to earn a few calls up to the big club (the big newspaper in our chain) to shoot an A's or Giants game. The fun part of the education I got shooting hometown sports was getting the chance to learn from my awesome boss Bob Larson. Bob taught me how important it was to tell a story with my pictures for our local community. These kids playing for their youth or high school teams were giving it their all, and the results of the games were a big deal to our readers.
By 1993, I was photographing the big leagues full-time as a freelancer for Sports Illustrated and Major League Baseball, but I always missed my days on the small fields where I had total access and could do whatever I wanted to make a picture. I would always tell students when I critiqued their portfolios that they could make better pictures of nine-year -olds playing baseball that 29-year-olds. Of course they never wanted to hear that. Luckily I have had the chance to prove my theory right the past few years by shooting one Little League game each season, coached by my good friend and co-author of three books about the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, Brian Murphy.
Murph is in his fifth year coaching his nine-year-old son Declan playing Little League in Mill Valley, California. I first photographed their team in 2013 when Declan was five and they were the Hot Rods (http://manginphotography.net/2013/05/thanks-you-mill-valley-little-leaguers/). I had so much fun I had to come back and do it every year. They are now the KC Monarchs (an ode to the famous Negro League team the Kansas City Monarchs) and I made my annual trip to the fabulous Boyle Park in Mill Valley to shoot their 5:30pm first pitch against the Rockies on Tuesday.
As a favor to Murph, my main job each year is to try and get nice pictures of each player on the team. Of course this usually involves shooting action of the kids at the plate or on the field with my 400mm 2.8 lens. Well that's easy. The challenge of the day, and the fun for me is trying to get real moments of the kids away from the action. Over the years, I have done a pretty good job of working my way into big league dugouts before games to get fun candid images of guys goofing around with my wide angle lens in an effort to show fans something they don't normally get to see - the personalities of these guys playing a child's game for millions of dollars. On a day like Tuesday at Boyle Park in Mill Valley, I can go into the dugout before the game with my wide-angle lens and shoot pictures of REAL children playing a game they love for fun.
It always helps being able to photograph a subject in a wonderful setting. Some dugouts are merely chain link fence that you can see through with cars in the background. Not at Boyle Park! The old school yard boasts wooden, dark-green dugouts that are a photographers dream. Twenty minutes before game time, Murph was in the dugout talking to his squad and I made sure I was right with him to document the young Monarchs getting ready.
The skipper was going through his lineup of 12 players, one-by-one, giving each young ballplayer something positive to think about before they took the field. As each Monarch heard his name called, his face lit up and he was encouraged by his teammates. Nice moments were happening right in front of me and the pictures were happening. Kids this age are such a blast to photograph. Their faces show so much expression - some more than others. As Murph went through his roster, my eye was drawn to a cute young man to my right with long red hair, freckles, twinkling blue eyes, and a blue KC hat on backwards. Suddenly, young Charlie lit up as Murph addressed him.
"Today’s the day Charlie has a new stance. He has some great practices under his belt, and he's hitting it better than he has all year. Today is the day he is going to do it. Starting in left field, Charlie!" said Murph. Young Charlie beamed as he locked eyes with the skipper and soaked in the cheers from his teammates. At the same time his buddy Quinn patted him on the head, and I had the picture I was looking for.
I went on to shoot the ballgame and had a blast getting nice pictures of each and every Monarch, making parents happy all over Mill Valley. However, the best picture I made on Tuesday night was of young Charlie getting some love from his manager and teammates. This is a photograph that I keep looking at. I can't get the look on Charlie's face out of my mind, and also the looks and body language of his teammates in the frame. The picture is full-frame and not cropped at all. It is one of the most perfect pictures I have made in a long time. At least to me! As a photographer, I need to make myself happy to keep the creative juices flowing, and being able to share the dugout before the game with those young Monarchs has really given me a spark.
2017 marks my 30th anniversary of photographing Major League Baseball. Over that time I have shot 20 World Series, published four books, photographed many Sports Illustrated covers, documented dozens of Hall of Famers, and witnessed countless historic milestones. On Tuesday, I shot a Little League game in Mill Valley and made a picture of a nine-year-old that is as important to me, at this point in my life, as any frame I ever made of Barry Bonds.
Canon 16-35mm 2.8
1/400 @ 4.0, 400 ISO