Not to take anything away from Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, but he’s won how many World Series championships? One? That’s so cute. (We kid, A.J.)
Meet Clint Sauls, the most successful baseball manager in Houston history. In 10 years as manager of the West University Seniors team (ages 15 to 16, the oldest division in Little League), Sauls has won eight state titles, six regional titles, and two World Series crowns.
And we’re talking an actual global World Series, including eight international teams from places like Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Australia. West U is going for another title this week in Easley, South Carolina (Full disclosure: the first base coach for West U sleeps down the hall from me).
West U, representing the U.S. Southwest, won its opening round game on July 28, beating Wilmington, Delaware (representing U.S. East), 4-2. The team plays again 3 pm Tuesday, July 30, against undefeated Hawaii.
It's a hot ticket. Every game of the tournament is streaming live on ESPN Plus. The final game of the World Series, pitting the U.S. champs vs. the international winners, airs Saturday, August 3, on ESPN 2.
I caught up with Sauls as he was figuring out his pitching rotation for this week.
CultureMap: Why did you start coaching Little League?
Sauls: After graduating from Georgia Southern University, I got into coaching. I coached two years of high school ball as an assistant, and 2001-02 at Furman University, where I was the pitching coach and recruiting guy. I made $5,000 dollars and lived on a friend’s couch.
That’s when I realized I needed to make a better living, so I got into sales. I met my wife, and we came to Houston. I always missed coaching. I told her I wanted to make Houston our home and get involved in the community. What better way then Little League baseball?
CM: People may not know, but there are six different age divisions in Little League. Why did you pick the Seniors (ages 15-16) to coach?
CS: It was the most similar to the ages I had coached prior, and West U had a rule that no parents could coach after 12-year-old division. It made sense, and I love it.
CM: When you manage a team of 15- and 16-year-old boys, are you more a baseball strategist or child psychologist?
CS: Both, I think. We only get these kids for about two months so we don’t ever mess with mechanical things like swings or pitching motions. It’s all strategy and learning what to do in certain situation. The other part is child psychologist.
Kids at this age can still be very emotional. I try to get to know each personality and coach to that as best we can. No one gets special treatment. It just helps to know who each kid is and how to get the most out of them.
CM: All Little League coaches are volunteers. What’s your real-life job?
CS: I’m director of sales and marketing for the MOG division of Winchester Interconnect. I work in the oil and gas industry.
CM: Crazy Little League parents always make a good story. I heard that one of your games in the regional tournament this year was stopped because parents were brawling in the stands ... and their kids’ teams weren’t even playing. Is that true?
CS: That’s 100 percent true. Apparently there was some bad blood in two prior games between the Texas West team and the host team from Seguin. Once the host team was eliminated, I guess they wanted to continue the competition in a more pugilistic fashion. Luckily there was police there to control the situation and everything was fine, but it was interesting to say the least.
CM: One year, you sent a note to the team parents — “do not talk to me until the tournament is over?” How did that work out for you?
CS: Each year has been better. I wanted to deal directly with our kids and get them in the habit of being responsible for themselves. I also wanted to avoid any discussion with parents regarding playing time or whatever else. There is still always one who just can’t quite comprehend it, but it’s worked out well. Especially this year.
CM: When you play a team from a foreign country, do you notice that they play a different game, or do they play same as the U.S. kids?
CS: It depends on who it is. The teams from Latin America or the Caribbean definitely are more lively and they talk more. It’s a very exciting style that’s for sure. As far as Australia or Europe, it’s very similar to our style, and it’s always fun to see this game grow to other parts of the world.
CM: One of the reasons behind West U’s success in Seniors is that the league’s best 15- and 16-year-olds stay in the program for their final two years of Little League. Meanwhile other districts can’t even field a team because their better players move on to select teams and don’t look back.
CS: Select ball has a tremendous impact on the Senior Division. A lot of times these select teams don’t want kids to play Seniors, or anywhere else during the summer. They go so far as to bully kids and make them feel terrible for still playing "Little League." I've always thought it's strange that a team you paid $3,000 to play for would have the audacity to try and pressure kids like that.
Without these kids and their parents’ money, those select teams wouldn’t exist. I’m okay with kids playing as much as they want for as many teams as they want. I just want them to play West U Seniors, so we work around schedules. I think that’s part of why we have more kids wanting to be a part of it. We also have great coaches, guys that have played at all levels, so the kids learn a lot. The winning doesn’t hurt either. They know when they sign up that the goal is to win the World Series.
CM: When ESPN mic's you up, have you ever said anything crazy? Do you have to change your vocabulary for ESPN?
CS: Nothing crazy, but I’m definitely conscious of it. I do change my verbiage a little but overall nothing drastic. I’ve had an assistant coach make a couple of funny mistakes, but I’ve avoided it so far. Fingers crossed.
CM: Do the players find you even remotely funny?
CS: Of course they do! I’m a riot!
CM: You’ve said that this is your last year coaching the Seniors team. Is that for real? You’ve retired more times than Ric Flair.
CS: While I do appreciate the comparison to the greatest wrestler of all time, yes, this is my last year. Ten years is long enough, and I want to leave the next coaches in a good position to be successful. I think there is some great talent for next year, and the timing was right.
It would also be great to finish with another world title. While it wouldn’t be close to the 16 titles that the Nature Boy has, I’ll take it. Woooooooooooo!