An August Tradition

Let’s preface this by saying that I am a fan of children playing youth sports.  It’s good for them socially, they learn how to play as a part of a team (which is going to be an integral part of their entire lives), and it introduces other concepts that will serve them the rest of their lives: (1) life isn’t always fair, (2) you can do everything right and still lose, and (3) it’s not failure that defines you, but how you handle that failure.

I am not however a fan of Little League Baseball as an organization.  Nor, am I a fan of the annual August Tradition that begins tomorrow just South of the Susquehana River in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania known as the Little League World Series.  Why do I not like the Little League organization?  Well, it appears to me that the concept it was founded upon in the 1930s is long gone.  If the idea was to give children in the range of 11-12 a place to play baseball in the summer, and have some fun, it appears the Little League World Series is anything but fun for a lot of kids.  The pressure is obvious on the face of those who are playing, particularly the pitchers.  Some of that pressure – maybe most comes from Little Timmy’s mom and dad – who just know their little one is one his way to a Hall of Fame Career.  Guess what he’s not,  and your child is like all the rest and should not be defined by his performance on this stage.

Little League is supposedly a non-profit organization yet that non-profit is in the middle of a television contract with ESPN that pays them a total over the life of the contract of $76 million.  I can tell you that the general definition of non-profit is that the profits the organization makes are paid out in salaries to its top executives so my guess is that whoever is in charge of Little League Baseball, Inc. isn’t going hungry.  There are other issues like pitch counts, which I understand the concern over player safety, but I think parents and coaches are better suited to determine when a player’s arm has turned to rubber than some bozo in South  Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

But, my biggest problem with the Little League organization is the television contract itself.  Why?  ESPN not only covers the World Series wall-to-wall by televising every game, but now televises the regionals leading to the World Series.  I get televising the championship game and maybe even the U.S. and International Championship Games, which are essentially the Little League semi-finals, but the entire tournament should not be on television.  Do we really need to watch a 12-year old have a meltdown when he’s having a bad day on the pitchers’ mound?  No we don’t, and they shouldn’t have to be exposed to that at their age.  These aren’t professional players.  They are kids, yet if you give up a grand slam in the final inning and your team loses, ESPN’s camera is going to be right there catching what appears at the time to be the worst day of your life and guess what, it’s there forever because as one television news photographer told me, the camera doesn’t blink and the picture doesn’t lie.  Trust me when I tell you that ESPN is all about ESPN and they don’t care that some 12 year old is dying right in front of their cameras because the old television producer in me tells me that in the production truck the producer of the telecast is high fiving his director at the “television gold”.

There have been concerns over the commercialization of Little League Baseball for a long time.  The organization itself was founded in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1939 by a guy named Carl Stotz.  Stotz – who was employed as something called an oil clerk – realized that his two nephews didn’t have an outlet for playing organized baseball so he created a three-team league with a field about 2/3rds the size of a Major League field, convinced a lumber company, a diary farm and a pretzel maker to sponsor the three teams for $30 apiece, and Little League Baseball was born on June 6, 1939.  The concept of the organization from the beginning was that the children in the particular Little League would come from an area surrounding where they lived as set forth by boundaries.  It quickly expanded in the post World War II world and went International in the 1950 when the first two foreign Little Leagues were set up at both ends of the Panama Canal.  Stotz unknowingly created an International phenomenon, but even he had some problems with the monster he created and in 1956 severed ties with the organization over concerns it was becoming too commercialized.  What would he think about the $76 million television contract?

Little League first hit television when ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcast the championship game in the 1960s.  Among those who have lent their voice to the televised championship game are legends like Jim McKay, Howard Cossell, and the great Brent Musberger.  Now, you’ll hear play-by-play by some dude named Carl Ravech. 15 Major League Baseball Hall of Famers have played Little League Baseball.  George W. Bush became the first former Little Leaguer to become President of the United States, and among those to advance from the Little League World Series to the Major Leagues are Boog Powell and Gary Sheffield.

After getting its start in Williamsport, the organization moved to  South Williamsport, Pennsylvania where it constructed Howard J. Lamade Stadium.  The Stadium was named after Howard J. Lamade, a long-time volunteer with the organization whose family founded Grit Magazine and donated the land on the which the Stadium stands.  Little League built a second stadium in 2001 when it constructed the adjacent Volunteer Stadium as a tribute to the volunteers who make Little League work, the coaches, umpires and local organizers.  You cannot buy a ticket to watch a game in the Little League World Series, and it’s not because it’s sold out.  That’s because it’s free.

The teams representing their respective regions of the country are all-star teams.  They are a collection of the best players from that respective Little League.  I’m not exactly sure how they decide who coaches the all-star team and I’ll assume that it’s the League champion coaches, but I’m just not sure.

Because the desire to win is so great like it is in the rest of life, Little League has been plagued by its own set of scandals.  In 1992, a team from the Phillipines was stripped of its Championship because they were discovered using players from outside its particular boundaries.  In fact, Phillipine officials admitted assembling a National All-Star team.  In 2001, the Rolando Paulino Little League from the Bronx had to forfeit its third place finish when it was discovered that it’s ace pitcher Danny Almonte – who was just mowing people down – was 14 years old.  Likewise, Almonte was discovered to not even be within the geographical boundary of the Rolando Paulino Little League and didn’t participate in the required number of regular season games.  In 2002, the Harlem Little League was investigated for using players outside of its geographic boundary, and just last year the Jackie Robinson Little League from Chicago was forced to forfeit its U.S. Title as it was found to have falsified boundaries to use players that were in fact ineligible to participate in that particular Little League.   What lesson are we teaching young impressionable minds?  It’s okay to cheat and win.  It’s not, but as long as there is a Little League World Series, there will be cheaters.

The International flair of the Little League World Series has also resulted in a number of International champions.  Taiwan leads the World in LLWS Titles with 17, but hasn’t won one in 20 years.  Japan is next with 10 including last year’s championship.  The most titles from any U.S. State are California with 7.  The only other states to ever win a LLWS title are Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, New York, Texas, Hawaii, Alabama, New Mexico, Michigan, Washington, and Kentucky.

There are plenty of alternatives to Little League Baseball, Inc. and many local recreational clubs have punted the Little League organization aside for other organizations.  Some simply have their own little county-wide league and that’s the end of it, and that’s not all bad.  Keep in mind that while these kids this week are getting to play in the LLWS, they are also missing out on some of summer, or even some school.

One of the organizations providing an alternative to Little League is Babe Ruth Baseball, Inc. which was founded in Hamilton, New Jersey in 1951.  It was originally designed for boys from 13-15 who were too old for Little League, but has expanded over the years.  I find it ironic that MLB Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. played Little League baseball, but now is a direct competitor and a formidable one at that.  Cal Ripken Baseball is a division of Babe Ruth Baseball for children ages 4-12.  Cal Ripken Baseball has its own World Series every year in Aberdeen, Maryland, Ripken’s hometown.  But, using his name Ripken has built not just the home facilities in Aberdeen but has constructed two other “Cal Ripken Experiences” with baseball fields in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  Those facilities all host week long tournaments.  In 2017, there are 8 separate week long tournaments scheduled.  Somehow I think I might trust my kid to an organization run by an MLB Hall of Famer, than some cheap suit in Pennsylvania.

Other alternatives include PONY Baseball, which was started in 1951 in Washington, Pennsylvania and in the South, there has been a trend for about 30 years to Dixie Youth Baseball.  Dixie Youth has established organizations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.  My last year in youth baseball in 9th grade, the North Roanoke Recreational Club gave Little League the heave-ho and joined up with Dixie Youth Baseball and they continue that relationship today.  Dixie Youth likewise has its own World Series, but like Ripken and Babe Ruth, ESPN is apparently not interested in televising that.

Or, maybe those other organizations know that youth sports is a vital part of the growth and development of children.  We can debate all day about the actions of some parents and coaches, but there’s no denying that you don’t play high school, college or pro sports without first starting on the sandlots.  Little League Baseball, Inc. would be wise to remember it’s purpose, but it’s original purpose doesn’t pay out $76 million.


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