King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Little League World Series: No joy in Mudville. Just a cool, calm professionalism.


Salon Staff
August 23, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

I get more uncomfortable with the Little League World Series every year.

As a kid, I was very aware of grown-ups trying to spoil us kids' fun by declaring that something that was really fun for us was in fact harmful and should be banished or fundamentally changed in some way. "Kids have been doing this forever," I used to think. "Why is it always when I come along and get my chance that they try to shut it down?"

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And yet here I am. I don't know that I'm ready to say the Little League World Series should be shut down. Free country and everything. But gosh, I can barely even stand to watch it anymore.

Here's what I wrote three years ago when I talked about the growing popularity of the LLWS and how that was distorting everything Little League baseball was supposed to be about, turning it into a miniature version of college sports, with everybody in it to make a buck, except the players, but only because they're forbidden to do so.

"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 haven't seen every game this year, but I also haven't seen a shred of exuberance. What I've seen is a lot of miniature baseball players -- except that 6-8 kid on the Saudi Arabian team -- acting like professionals.

I've seen them studiously not crack smiles after hitting home runs, a bunch of pubescent Scott Rolens. I've seen them tell ESPN interviewer Erin Andrews that they're proud of their teammates for getting the job done, still have a lot of work to do against a tough team from Beaverton or whatever, blah blah blah.

Some of them use that fake deep grown-up voice my 3-year-old uses when he's pretending to be a firefighter or a "worker man." Cute when he does it.

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Hey, kids, if you want to emulate a superstar, try David Ortiz. Try Dontrelle Willis. This stuff's supposed to be fun.

Of course, if a kid shows a little childlike exuberance, celebrating a big hit by doing a little dance on second base, let's say, he gets slapped down by the media for being a bad sport. Unprofessional is what's really meant by that.

Good grief, fellow typists and chatterers, don't we have meaningless football games to cover?

There's supposed to be no joy in Mudville when Casey strikes out. Not when he hits the game-winning home run or strikes out 12 opposing batters in six shutout innings.

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While throwing like 120 pitches, by the way, almost all of them curveballs, all of which is routine, and which is considered physical abuse of pitchers in their 20s, but it's OK for 12-year-olds whose arms are still growing because, hey, the kid gets to play on TV and then go back to the hotel and eat pizza!

Argh! Bah! Fooey! I know I'm just an old guy ranting at the wind here. I know youth sports is all about traveling teams now and winning at all costs, and I'm pining for some kind of bogus lost innocence that never really existed in the first place.

But I can't help thinking something's wrong here, and the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

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The Little League World Series wouldn't be the Little League World Series these days without crisscrossing accusations that players are older than they claim to be, that traveling teams are masquerading as Little League teams, that teams claiming to be from Whateverville are in violation of the rules because half their players are ringers who really live in Whateverville Heights.

I'm sure you heard about the fiasco in the New England regional final, where the Vermont manager realized he'd failed to give a kid enough playing time, an offense punishable by forfeit, so he ordered his team, which was beating New Hampshire, to let them tie the game, so there'd be time to get the kid in.

The New Hampshire coach realized what was happening and ordered his kids to swing at bad pitches and not advance past third base. New Hampshire succeeded in losing, which means it won by forfeit.

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That's the spirit!

"That's what's plaguing youth sports the most: Adults don't seem to be able to keep the experience in the right perspective," Peter Roby, the director of Northeastern University's Center for Sport in Society, told the Chicago Tribune. "They keep wanting to make it an adult activity when it's not."

Oh, but it is. Can you imagine the kids in those dugouts at the Little League World Series acting like kids? Can you imagine them goofing off in the middle of a game, when they're supposed to be paying attention? They're probably afraid of being fined.

You probably also heard about Bob Johnson, the president of the Staten Island Little League, who blasted George Steinbrenner, Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees for not donating enough money to his league's LLWS-bound team.

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Or actually, not for the team. Little League pays the way for the team to go to qualifying tournaments and the World Series itself, in Williamsport, Pa. The Staten Island team had to travel to Haverstraw, N.Y., and Bristol, Conn., for state and regional play.

What Johnson was trying to raise money for was to pay for the players' families to make the trips too. See, that's what this is all about. The parents. Most teams get corporate sponsorships.

It's nice when Mom and Dad can go with Skippy to watch him play in the big games, but is it a necessity, on a charitable level with, say, muscular dystrophy research? I daresay Skippy would have more fun in Pennsylvania if Mom and Dad weren't around taking home videos of everything. Isn't it supposed to be the kids' experience, after all? The games are all on TV anyway.

So Steinbrenner wrote a check for $5,000, and Johnson thanked him by saying, "For Steinbrenner, $5,000 is throwing dollar bills in the air." Then he really hammered Rodriguez, who Johnson apparently thinks makes more money than Steinbrenner, proving that he's not just a jerk but a dumb jerk.

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"He plays $1,000 a hand in poker," Johnson said. "He might as well throw $1,000 in our dugout. I don't want Steinbrenner's money. I want A-Rod's money. He's making $20 million a year."

I suppose I shouldn't blame this clown for acting like the New York Yankees somehow owe his Little League thousands of dollars because it qualified for the Little League World Series. He's under a lot of pressure. He's got a business to run.

Right, kids?

Previous column: The NFL's dreary exhibition season

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