Friday, August 28, 2009

Oh, Those 'Little' Boys of Summer ...

I can't pull myself away from ESPN and its saturation coverage of the Little League World Series, now winding toward its endgame. I'm borderline obsessed with it.

I thought I had gotten my fill of the Series last year when I covered these pint-sized ballplayers for  But even as my career with the veered in another direction, I've maintained a deep affinity toward the event. 

I left a piece of my baseball heart last summer in Williamsport, Penn., the epicenter to what might just be the purest form of America's national pastime. 

Each summer, teams of Little Leaguers travel there from places as near as Kentucky and as far as Japan or Saudi Arabia. They come carrying hopes and dreams and passions for what has become a decidedly international game. While baseball planted its roots firmly in U.S. soil, its branches go in every direction.

So you sit in Lamade Stadium or Volunteer Stadium and see this United Nations of youngsters enjoying this game like Jeter and Howard and Braun and Granderson and Pujols and Mauer and Ellsbury and ... well, like any big leaguer. The youngsters run and throw and swing and catch. They laugh, they hurt, they cry. They make new friends, they see new sites, they live a fantasy. 

I used to think that putting a spotlight on boys 11-, 12- and 13-years-old was misguided. I mistakenly believed adults had co-opted the game, molding the World Series into what it has become: a made-for-TV spectacle. 

But I discovered firsthand last summer that the Little League World Series is no more about adults than a secondary education is. The World Series is about little boys like Dieter Miller and Hung Yuan Lin and Wen Hua Sung and Edmond Americaan and Claycandy Hariquez, Kiko Garcia and Bulla Grant and Harley Hunter and Katie Reyes -- and, yes, a girl of summer, too; it's about what they love and enjoy.

Oh, the adults around them enjoy it all as well. They soak up this intoxicating atmosphere at Williamsport like a town drunk with no limit on his bar tab. They cheer wildly for their sons and grandsons and brothers and cousins and the neighbor's kids. They celebrate the successes; they mourn the disappointments.

And there are many of the latter in Williamsport. For only one team will leave this burg deep in the middle of nowhere with a championship. The rest of the teams will return to their homes with disappointment in tow, though not as losers. 

For to make it to Williamsport is to be a winner. It's an experience of a lifetime, a lifetime that has only begun to take shape. 

As I watched these little boys of summer last year, I hoped they would have successes beyond the playing field. The odds are that, of the scores of boys playing in Williamsport then, only two or three of them will reach the big leagues.  

That's OK, because what they will have learned from their experience is how to be a good teammate, how to accept things they cannot change and how to enjoy a moment that so few boys will ever experience.

And for the rest of their lives, they will have hours of ESPN video and their watercolored memories to remind them of the thrills they are having -- win or lose -- on a small stage that is every bit as grand as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.    



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