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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Little League Baseball Enters Our World for the Next Week

The roar of the crowd. The anticipation of a game-changing play. The elation of victory. These were all things I knew nothing about after a truncated and disconsolate career in the game of baseball, a career which drove me to a Big League Chew addiction and left my batting average at just a notch below my weight, or IQ, depending on whether I was in a slump or not.

Baseball memories are always ingrained in young athletes. I meant that figuratively, by the way, not like the time I fielded a line drive off my jaw. The reward for that was no solid food for several weeks and, to this day, persistent questions of why I have a faded Rawlings tattoo in close proximity to my right ear.

Like any other uncoordinated urchin, I, too, remember the first time I tried to make an eye-popping catch only to land in an uncoordinated flop, missing the ball by no less than 5 feet and soon realizing that batting practice foul balls don’t count as outs once the game starts. And, yes, everyone remembers their initial time getting to first base, as well as the first time it happens in a game (a hit, that is). Of course, for me, I accomplished both after getting beaned in the head with a piece of cowhide.

Little League Baseball is an important part in a child’s life. (I copied and pasted that from some website, FYI.) The motto of the organization is courage, character, and loyalty. I presumably have stumbled upon the reason why I never flourished at this level. Where else would one expect such a spectacle to be staged but in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a 30,000-person town once known as “The Lumber Capital of the World,” presumably because of its liveliness. Adding to the town’s pizzazz is its wet/dry vacuum and wire rope manufacturing industries, and it being one of the largest destinations for Bavarian tourists in Pennsylvania.

Every kid can remember their own particular Little League moments, whether they involve tripping on their way around the basepaths, the result of accidentally tying the laces of their cleats to one another. Or, perhaps, it’s the screaming from the stands, oftentimes the cacophonic scolding symbolic of a parent trying to atone for their own athletic failings through forced exhortation of their own child’s tootling.

Shenanigans aside, what started out as a simple three-team league in 1939 — ostensibly a year more memorable for eastern Pennsylvania than Eastern Europe — has grown into big business. For 72, the league is actually in pretty good shape. (The Hollywood Diet?) ESPN nationally televises the Little League World Series in what has become more of a national parody of itself than any oversized slice of Americana ever chronicled by Norman Rockwell. The fresh-faced visages of pre-teens, teens, and tweens have been beamed across the country holding home run poses and coordinating celebrations like pint-sized Magglio Ordonezs.

While the bat-holding brats have been seen emulating their Major League counterparts in everything from their quest for a ring (not made of candy, presumably) and bling (perhaps some sort of collectible keychain?), duplicating duplicity has nearly been turned into an art form by these diamond rascals. The most famous example was that of Danny Almonte who, back in 2001, was purportedly older than the 12-year-old age limit would allow. Whether it was the appearance of facial hair, the zip on his fastball, or the fact that he left 3 tickets at will call for his ex-wife and kids, Almonte’s 62 strikeouts and perfect game during the World Series event was put into question when it was alleged that he was two years older than the age limit for the event, which is the rapscallion equivalent of pulling a Julio Franco.

A Little League team from Uganda was denied access to the 2011 event, allegedly because of inconsistencies in the team’s visa application with respect to the players’ ages. The team had apparently won its trip to the US to become the first African team to play in the LLWS. For the geographical record, a team from Uganda had beaten one from Saudi Arabia in baseball in a qualifying tournament played in Poland for the right to get an all-expenses paid trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (I see.) Instead of getting that chance, however, the youngsters joined a fraternity of ball players who are known for their OPS (older player syndrome), a list that includes Bartolo Colon, Rafael Furcal, and Ramon Ortiz. Thank you, sir, but I’ll pass on the other.

A week from Sunday, a team comprised of various boys aged 11 to 13 will be the latest to exult over being crowned champion of the 65th Little League World Series, avoiding the distractions that go hand-in-hand with being a young athlete: the media distractions — those middle school newspapers can be harsh; all the attention that comes with having your picture plastered over your town’s local laundromat; and the numerous Facebook hangers-on. They will receive a hero’s welcome upon their homecoming, befitting a Caesar returning from his latest triumph, though generic brand apple cider probably wasn’t the celebratory choice of spirits during the Roman Empire (but maybe the cause of its demise?)

The World Series grandeur will cause moments of excitement and periods of elation for 16 teams. The fun these kids will have probably will pale in comparison to next year, however, when they find their way to puberty.

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