The Little League World Series begins Friday in Williamsport, Pa., and I'm planning on watching a lot of it over the next 10 days.
I'm also planning on feeling kind of weird about the whole thing.
I love the baseball, love watching the kids play on those little fields, love watching their exuberance when they succeed and their heartbreaking, teary-eyed attempts at stoicism when they fail. I played Little League baseball, and though I never played it very well and never played on even a decent team, seeing those double-earflap helmets and watching those gangly 12-year-olds rush 45-foot fastballs up there takes me back.
I love it on those rare occasions when the camera catches a couple of kids goofing on something in the dugout. I can almost hear a coach barking over his shoulder at me, "Kaufman! How many outs are there?" Oops, supposed to be paying attention.
But the thing is, those occasions are exceedingly rare because these kids are like little pros. The Louisville, Ky., team that won last year was widely praised in the media for its snap and poise. The team, TV commentators noted admiringly, practiced five hours a day. An Arizona Republic story this week about the Chandler team that's representing the West noted that its players hadn't missed a day of batting practice since the Fourth of July.
When I was a Little Leaguer, it was understood by pretty much everyone that throwing curveballs damaged young arms, and it was discouraged, though not outlawed. The pitchers in today's Little League World Series serve up a steady diet of breaking stuff, wicked little curves, sliders and sinkers, and their pitch counts often rise well into three figures, totals considered dangerous for professional pitchers 10 years their senior. Has something changed in our understanding of adolescent anatomy, or are these kids just being sacrificed for a week's worth of glory and ratings?
"Research evidence irrefutably demonstrates that adolescent pitching interferes with the normal growth and development of the growth plates of the pitching elbow to varying degrees," writes Mike Marshall, the one-time Cy Young-winning reliever who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, on his Web site. "Without doubt, youth pitching at any level causes some limitation to their adult abilities."
I'm not sure where the chalk line is between good, fun hard work and child abuse, but I suspect some 11-year-old's cleats are getting close to it.
It wasn't long ago that the only part of the Little League World Series that was televised nationally was the championship game, in which it seemed that a team of 19-year-old Taiwanese bodybuilders were always mashing our plucky American lads. It was one of those odd, yearly "Wide World of Sports" events, like the World Wristwrestling Championships or the All Ireland Hurling Final.
But in recent years ESPN has been televising more and more of the Series, to major-league-type ratings, and the field has expanded from eight teams to 16 to accommodate the tube's insatiable appetite. This year even some of the American regional games leading up to the tournament were on TV. Almost all of the 32 games in Williamsport will be televised this year, starting with Tallmadge, Ohio, vs. Saugus, Mass., Friday at 3 p.m. EDT on ESPN2.
The Little League World Series is starting to look a little like big-time college sports, where everybody's making a buck except the players. Eerily like college athletics, the Series has become something it wasn't designed to be, transformed from fun, healthy competition, a diversion for the participants, into a lucrative business proposition. That dichotomy -- a business grafted onto a foundation of amateurism -- is what's at the heart of the corruption that's threatening to destroy college athletics. It's a system that just doesn't work: You guys do that thing you do, we'll just be over here counting the money you're making for us.
The age and eligibility scandals of the last two years are under control this season, according to Little League officials who have tightened up enforcement, but it's just a matter of time before the next scandal hits. As the event gets bigger, more popular as part of the sports calendar that we return to every year, more lucrative, the incentive to cheat gets greater and greater.
Am I the only one who watches these smooth-cheeked sluggers and thinks, "I wonder what's really going on here"?
But I still watch. And if I were one of the players, reading this column, I'd say, "Shut up! We get to go to Pennsylvania! We get to play on amazing fields in front of big crowds! On TV! We get to meet kids from Venezuela and Guam and Delaware! Why do you want to take it all away from us? We don't need your help, thank you very much. We know that athletic success, lavish praise and special treatment might go to our heads, but we'll take our chances that we can handle it, and there's not so much going on in Chandler, Ariz., this week that we can't miss it."
And in a lot of ways, I'd be right. It's weird.
Since no California team made it, I'm rooting for the team from Mexico City.
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