The 71st Little League World Series began Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania and finished 10 days later with Japan defeating Texas in the final, 12-2.
The event was televised live on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, with the championship game played before about 24,863 fans at Lamade Stadium and millions more worldwide watching on TV.
Whether this is a good thing is something I have struggled with for a long time – if placing this sort of pressure on 11- and 12-year-olds is wise. Having played and coached youth baseball, majored in Recreation and Leisure Studies and covered the Western Regional Little League tournament for years as a sportswriter in Southern California, I have had my doubts about the fishbowl atmosphere and intense scrutiny of what is, after all, a child’s game.
Little League Baseball, now an international organization of nearly 200,000 teams in 80 countries, had humble beginnings. Carl Stotz, a Williamsport resident, founded it with three teams in 1939. Lundy Lumber defeated Lycoming Dairy 23-8 in the first game played.
Since then, Little League has exploded in popularity, with the first World Series title game televised in 1953. In the process, what was designed as a summer pastime for children has become a spring game so that the World Series can begin in mid-August.
Tellingly, the organization’s founder, Stotz, severed his ties with Little League Baseball in 1956 when he thought it was becoming over-commercialized.
Healthy competition or overkill?
Too much, too soon – do these children have too much hype, pressure and media attention foisted upon them at a young age? I know what my recreation professors back at San Francisco State in the 1970s would have said, and that is a resounding “yes.”
Competition was almost a dirty word back then with society’s over-emphasis on winning disparaged and a thing called “New Games” championed. New Games, for the uninitiated, had the motto of “Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.” They included “cooperative games” such as teams pushing a huge “earth ball” around a field and tug-of-war games where one team would vie against another, with participants changing sides if the battle became too one-sided.
It was some weird stuff we learned and it included large dollops of propaganda against traditional sports and competition.
Imagine my surprise a few decades later when I first covered the Western Regional Little League tournament in San Bernardino. Our coverage began with the day the players stepped off the buses at regional headquarters and made a bee-line to massive Al Houghton Stadium. The youngsters’ eyes grew as large as saucers as they surveyed the massive ballpark where they would be playing.
By the tourney’s semifinals, extra lighting was trucked to the venue, ESPN descended upon the city and overflow crowds watched the games with former major-leaguers like Harold Reynolds announcing. I found it on one hand cool, and the other disturbing, as I became part of the phalanx of media interviewing these miniature ballplayers.
To be sure, there is much to like about the Little League regionals and the World Series – the joyful pin-trading among players, teams of umpires dancing between innings to the old Village People standard “YMCA” and players pounding the ball out of the yard and coming home to back-pats from teammates.
The flip side is those same cameras are also trained on the youngsters when they make errors – in fact, showing numerous close-ups of a Nevada player who made a few miscues in the same inning of the regionals last season. That’s lame, considering these are just kids.
Then there are the Little League scandals over the years, such as the Danny Almonte brouhaha in 2001 when his Bronx, New York team had to forfeit its third-place finish because Almonte was 14 and not 12; and the forfeiture of the World Series title by a Chicago team in 2014 for stocking its team with players from the suburbs.
Experts weigh in
Hmmm, bad stuff. But does it mean Little League Inc. and the World Series it brings us are bad things?
I put the question to Steve Ramirez, a local school principal who led the Kingsburg 10-and-under team to a state Cal Ripken League baseball championship and the Pacific Southwest Regionals in July.
“Seeing the response of my kids and the life-long memories made playing on that stage, I think it motivated us,” Ramirez said. “We wanted to win state and go on and so we knew we had to keep working harder. When we made it, it was gratifying.”
Too much pressure, too soon? Nah, I am really starting to doubt it. It’s not the 1960's anymore and kids grow up faster now with technology playing a big part. A baseball guy I respect – former Archbishop Mitty High School-San Jose coach Bill Hutton – conveyed this to me a few years ago.
"A lot of this has changed exponentially and acutely in the last 10 years," Hutton said. "It's a neat opportunity for the kids to have the games covered this way — it's big stuff. Their world is different than our world used to be. Everything is captured on video instantly, all year round."
Indeed it is. And for better or worse, it’s a genie that’s not going back into the bottle anytime soon.