My favorite sports daydream as a kid had me coming up to the plate with the bases loaded and the game on the line. But I wasn’t in Fenway Park or any Major League ballpark; I was concerned with immediate hypothetical gratification. So as it went, I was crushing a home run into the Williamsport, Pennsylvania sky. Little League World Series Champs!
Predictably, as I got older I stopped paying much attention. When I did catch a few minutes, I couldn’t shake the thought that even the best 12-year olds are still 12-year olds, and watching them play sports felt like a lame waste of time.
But wedged between youthful aspirations and teenage cynicism is the real, quantifiable tournament that is the Little League World Series. It’s televised and heavily advertised on ESPN, and teams from all over the world emerge from emotionally supercharged qualifying rounds and hundreds of hours crammed into minivans for the chance to take the field in the Valhalla of youth sports, Williamsport.
Should we watch? Should we care? Well, the incarnation this summer is the most compelling mixture of characters and narratives I can remember. Try to watch the Jackie Robinson West team, hailing from the South Side of Chicago, and tell me they don’t give a gentle tug at your heartstrings. They can also flat-out play ball, and not because of the inspirational coaching of Keanu Reeves. Keep an eye on outfielder Pierce Jones, who hit three home runs in their first game and could teach Bryce Harper a thing or two about looking cool in the batter’s box.
And how about Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old from urban Philadelphia who just became the first girl ever to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series? After winning the regional final last week, she gave a sheepish grin and said, “We’re just kids from Philly,” which probably had the marketing teams at ESPN high-fiving.
Her eyes, though, told a different story. They shined with a sparkling gleam that said, “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was the realization of that dream that she, I, and millions of young ballplayers across the globe have shared. Williamsport.
That moment was all that youth sports can, and should be. But what are youth sports, actually? I was watching a team from Texas play last week and a player hit a dramatic home run. His coach gave a brief primordial howl of man-bro excitement, but then turned back to the kids rounding the bases and screamed at each of them to “TOUCH THAT BASE, TOUCH IT,” as they rounded third.
All I could think was if that’s how he celebrates a home run, what’s he like in practice when a player boots a ground ball? Either way, I’m pretty sure that when kids dream of hitting a spectacular home run, they aren’t hearing Coach Alpha Male bark at them not to fucking miss third base.
It might seem pedantic to get worked up over such an instance, but I’ve seen that kind of coach many times before, and I know what a suffocating effect he can have on a kid’s enthusiasm. And when a coach’s ego gets too intertwined with the team’s success, the slope can get slippery before anyone stops to measure the consequences. See Almonte, Danny.
The Little League World Series in its current version is thus an interesting dichotomy. On one hand there is the unbridled excitement of Little Leaguers from around the world competing on their grandest stage. On the other hand there are often slimy adults who are too invested in their success. And above everybody is ESPN, which just paid $60 million for the rights to broadcast the theater of it all.
But let’s forget the politics and the douchebags and focus on people like coach Dave Belisle of Rhode Island, who gave his team this poignant speech following their elimination this year. And then tune in to watch Jackie Robinson West give the scorekeeper carpal tunnel, knowing that entire neighborhoods in the toughest parts of Chicago are rooting them on. Or see Mo’ne Davis shake off the catcher with her waist-length ponytail and then uncork a fastball for strike three. There will probably be walk-off home runs and rally caps and errors and tears. It may invoke joy or pathos or both, depending on the outcome, but it’s hard not to feel something. Ultimately it’s about kids living out their dreams, and there’s always magic in that.