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Thursday, August 16, 2001

Last year at this time, I couldn't watch the Little League World Series. I was still living (for a couple more weeks) in the duplex next door, and I depended on the local cable system for my programming. The cable company doesn't really cater to its customers in rural areas. I guess we should be grateful to get USA and TBS, because they don't offer ESPN2.

When I moved here I got the satellite dish and the many incarnations of ESPN that come along with it, like ESPNews and ESPN Classic. The Little League World Series starts tomorrow on ESPN2, and I'm looking forward to watching as many games as I can.

This is a true "world" series, in the sense that teams represent every part of the planet where Little League baseball is played. They meet in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and are often given uniforms with names like "Latin America" and "Far East" on them, but they really are all-star teams from single leagues in cities and towns throughout the world.

The deck is stacked slightly in favor of U.S. teams, though. In the past they've brought four U.S. teams and four International teams to Williamsport and seeded them in different brackets. This ensures that one U.S. team appears in the championship game, even if the two best teams are from other countries. Call it politics, jingoism, xenophobia or whatever, it keeps people watching and supporting the program. At least any team from anywhere has a theoretical chance to win it all. And as of this year there are sixteen teams in the LLWS, eight of them from the U.S.

In spite of all the manipulating that adults do to gain an advantage, whether it's on the field or on the bottom line, these are still twelve-year-old kids playing a kids' game. They joy when they succeed is genuine, and so are the tears when they don't. The game at this level is played with a lot of skill and a lot more emotion, and it's fun to watch.

ESPN2 focuses on the U.S. teams, of course. Over the last few days I've been watching some of the regional finals broadcast from around the country. These games are one step removed from the spotlight of Williamsport, and the losers are finished for the season. They go home, while the winners go on, so the emotion on the field and in the stands runs high. Watching parents support their children's dreams, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, can be inspiring. These kids aren't likely to forget this summer's adventure.

Something in a game the other night disturbed me, though, and I still don't know what to make of it. In the Mid-Atlantic regional championship, a team from State College, Pennsylvania, played a team from the Bronx, New York. The Pennsylvania team introduced themselves as the "young Americans," apparently to distinguish themselves from the kids from New York, some of whom were born in the Dominican Republic (and all of whom had Spanish surnames).

Their parents (the ones from Pennsylvania) sat in the stands waving U.S. flags, as if they deserved the allegiance of U.S. viewers more than their brown-skinned counterparts. I took umbrage.

On the other hand, the New York team parents waved Dominican flags. The announcers informed us that the team plays together twelve months a year and travels to the Dominican Republic to play every winter. Little leaguers playing winter ball puts a slightly different light on the resentment towards the way that team is run.

But I couldn't fault the enthusiasm with which they played the game. On the field, they were kids at play. If they love it that much, why shouldn't they play as often as possible, all year around?

The State College kids played well, but they were no match for the dominating pitcher from the Bronx. He allowed no hits, and few of his opponents even made contact against him. The Pennsylvania coaches and parents never stopped encouraging the players, and nothing negative was said by anyone involved (at least on the air). After they lost, the youngsters stood respectfully and applauded as their conquerors frolicked in victory. They deserved to win, and they deserved to celebrate like a bunch of twelve-year-olds.

In the end, I think there was enough blame (if that's what we're looking for) to go around. Maybe one team pushes a little too hard. Maybe the other team resents what looks like an unfair advantage. Maybe an opportunity to teach some sensitivity was lost somewhere along the way.

It's too bad, but other lessons were learned by everyone involved. I have a feeling that the overall experience was a positive one for both sides.

Little League

Children playing a child's game. This is one of Eric's games from 1987, when he was eleven.

The local cable system had a chance to add ESPN2 when it found itself with an open channel slot on August 1 of this year. Instead, they added the Food Network. I suspect money was involved in this decision.

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