The Little League World Series always brings some major league ambivalence out in me.
Part of me loves seeing kids on that stage, because, for a lot of them, that’ll be their one shot at the kind of notoriety everyone dreams about. Or weren’t you one of those kids who stood in the back yard playing an imaginary game of baseball, or saw yourself at the free throw line hitting the winning shot?
Maybe you even announced yourself. I know I did. And when I announced myself, I always came through. That’s right. I had a 1.000 batting average.
But as much as I fantasized about tape-measure home runs, no-hitters or making that sparkling defensive play at second base, a very big part of me is happy that I was only a legend in my own mind. I’m not sure I’d have stood up to all that pressure at age 12, and I don’t know how anybody does.
I had my moments in Little League. Not many, mind you. But I had the thrill of hitting five out of Walter Flynn Field when I was 12, and for each of them I got a half-gallon of ice cream at Fontaine’s Market, which was a mom and pop store on the corner of Winnepurkit Avenue and Boston Street. I probably put on a few pounds in the summer of 1966.
Having an August birthday helped. Most of my classmates in school were already playing Babe Ruth or CYO baseball by the time I was in my final Little League year. I know guys who’d kill to have been born in August, since Aug. 1 was the age cutoff. If you were born anytime before that, you had to play a level up. In other words, even though you were 11, you had to play as a 12. I know a few guys who were born on July 31, and they cursed the obstetrician every time the subject came up.
It’s kids’ stuff, really, but I find that those are the memories I cherish the most.
I have mixed feelings about the direction the Little League World Series has taken. I love seeing the kids in their moment as big shots. I love seeing them mugging for the cameras, imitating their favorite players, and knocking one out of the park and doing the home run trot.
And if that’s all it was — the good things — I’d be on board. But it doesn’t matter which teams are playing when a 12-year-old kid comes up short. I really, really feel for the kid if he strikes out with the bases loaded, or makes an error, or gives up a home run in a big situation. It’s then that I wonder how much of childhood is sacrificed for the glory of being on ESPN, and is it worth all the hullabaloo?
One picture that haunts me every time I see it is Ralph Branca, lying face-down on the stairs leading to the Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse after giving up that famous “shot heard ’round the world” in 1951 (before I was born!!). He’s not celebrating.
Branca was a pro. And he couldn’t contain his emotions.
It’s not that I disapprove. It’s just that I worry that we’re exposing kids to unneeded stress for the whole country to see.
I’ve been told I worry too much. The kids from Saugus American who went in 2003 said that to them, it was fun, cameras or not. They just played the game and went swimming in the pool afterward. Even in the national semifinal, one of the most hand-wringing games I’ve ever watched on any level, all they worried about was playing.
Still, when David Ferreira just barely beat out an infield hit, allowing Dario Pizzano to score the winning run, I didn’t know which kid I wanted to be at that moment. But I also wonder whether I’d have wanted to be Ferreira had he struck out.
Six years later, Peabody Western’s Matt Hosman parked a walkoff grand slam to hoist his team into the 2009 LLWS. This was a national ESPN broadcast (as was the Saugus game) and, boy, for a fleeting second, as I gathered up my stuff and walked down to the interview room, I envisioned I was in my back yard once more, hitting wiffle balls into my father’s three-tiered rock garden (lower deck, mezzanine, upper deck), hitting that salami.
What it must have been like to be him! How do you come down from that?
At the end of the day, I really enjoy seeing kids achieve what they set out to do, at any age, and any level. For the better part of 20 years, that’s the part of this job I truly celebrated. Make sure kids get all the credit they deserve, and for heaven’s sake, go easy on the ones who — for whatever reason — fall short. I’m pretty sure that behind closed doors, there are a lot of Ralph Branca moments.