The past few weeks, spectators around the country and around the world have watched the 2009 version of the Little League World Series (LLWS). What started more than 70 years ago as a small venture by a gentleman named Carl Stoltz of Williamsport, PA has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. For years, the LLWS championship game has been televised nationally. With the advent of cable television, and with the ever-increasing emphasis on youth sports, today one can find early round games televised as well.
On Sunday, Chula Vista Park View (CA) defeated Taiwan's champions 6-3, in front of a crowd of 32,400. Add to that the fact that compared to last year's tournament, television ratings were up over 100% for ESPN2 broadcasts, more than 60% for opening weekend telecasts, with a recent Saturday broadcast on ABC up over 160% and it is clear that interest in Little League Baseball has never been higher.
While it is easy to point to an overemphasis on youth sports as the reason for the focus on the LLWS, it is curious that the LLWS is the only youth sporting event that receives such attention. There is no event in youth soccer, basketball, football, or hockey that even comes close to rivaling the popularity of the LLWS. Furthermore, the LLWS is for 12-year-olds, but there is not similar attention given to older, more advanced youth baseball tournaments.
Although the Little Leaguers are quite good for their age, ESPN could certainly air 17-year-olds playing Legion baseball and provide a higher quality of baseball. So why is there so much intrigue over watching 12-year olds play baseball in the LLWS?
1) Who is the next rising star? Virtually every major league player competed in Little League, but only a select few made it to the LLWS in Williamsport, PA. Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell, Book Powell, and Jason Varitek are all former LLWS participants who made it to the major leagues. Fans love to project the next great prospect. Of course, major league teams have enough difficulty accurately projecting the success rate of 18-year-olds (see Michael Lewis' best-selling book, Moneyball for a terrific account of baseball scouting). Most 12-year-olds have not yet hit puberty, nor have they decided what they want to do tomorrow, much less with the rest of their lives. Even though most fans are aware of the astronomical odds of stardom for these kids, it is tempting for all of us to play Nostradamus when it comes to youth sports.
2) The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (to borrow a line from ABC Sports). The emotions that these youngsters display run the gamut. Watching them pour their heart and soul into games, and then have dreams realized or crushed makes for tremendous drama. Someone once said that one of the beauties of sports is that it is like an excellent play, but the difference is that in athletics, neither the audience nor the participants know the ending. This is particularly true when we are talking about pre-teens playing a game.
3) The purity of youth sports. For many, Little League Baseball conjures memories of baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. We may think back to our youth, walking to the park, with glove in one hand, and our new bat in the other. Sunny nights at the field with friends and family. Refreshments after the game. Dirty uniforms. New spikes. Strike outs. Errors. Laughter. Maybe even that one time when we connected for a home run, and felt that, even for a moment, we were destined to make the Major Leagues. The Little League World Series puts kids on a big stage at a time in life when they have not been corrupted by agents, money, or greed. Amazingly, one may not be able to say the same thing in a few years once 9th graders are being recruited by colleges around the country.
Of course, the LLWS has its imperfections and impurities.
1) Age-related scandals. Danny Almonte of the U.S. became the poster child for this several years ago, but other countries have regularly been rumored to have players on their rosters whose age exceeds the limit.
2) Sportsmanship gaffes. Kids are suddenly placed in the spotlight, they have hopes built up, and then these dreams may come crashing down in front of millions. A couple years ago, players from Coon Rapids, MN were caught spitting on their hands before they shook hands with the team that had just defeated them. I remember the same thing happening periodically when I was a kid, but when it's caught on national tv, it becomes a major issue.
3) Temper tantrums. The LLWS is not immune from emotional blowouts, whether it be from coaches or players.
4) Overinvolved parents.
So what do we conclude about the merits of the LLWS? Should youth sports be televised nationally? What does this say about our culture? Although I'm not sure the attention these youngsters receive is warranted, nor do I think it may be healthy for their long-term development, I'm also unaware of research that documents the negative effects of playing in the LLWS. Furthermore, these games provide a unique opportunity for us to discuss important lessons with our children. There is a layer of separation when we talk with our kids about steroids in baseball, or a major league manager getting kicked out of a game for arguing.
Talking to our children about sportsmanship, lying, or anger when they are watching other kids play in the LLWS may have a more lasting impression because these issues may seem more real to them. Understanding that whether they are on national tv or down at the local little league field, sportsmanship, honesty, respect, and teamwork always matter will serve our children well in all that they do in life.