Little League World Series: Home Run or Foul?

6 years ago

Baseball is considered the national pastime. And big league dreams often begin in the mini-minors. Ever see the effort of a pint-size slugger swinging for the fence off a tee? Or the look of amazement as a freckle-faced short stop raises a glove to catch his first pop fly? For many kids, the love affair with baseball continues well into adulthood. While most will never make it to the pros, punching a ticket to the Little League World Series is within the realm of possibility.

The first Little League game was played on June 6, 1939.  The Little League World Series, which kicks off Thursday, August 18th, is now in its 65th year. Up to 45,000 fans can pack the stadium for the championship game and a million more watch it live on television.

The tournament trail begins in July when more than 450 teams from over 20 countries compete for regional titles. The trail ends, as it does every year, with 16 teams - eight from the U.S. and eight from international regions  - making their way to Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. 

For the fifth year in a row, ESPN will broadcast the LLWS, as they did the month of qualifying games leading up to the Series. Every moment, both triumphant and traumatic, is captured by TV cameras.  This live coverage, in which a standout performance can turn a player into a celebrity or an ill-timed mistake can turn another into a pariah, is the stuff of reality television.

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The problem with this kind of programming is that it stars 11 and 12 year olds who don't have the experience or coping mechanisms to be in the national spotlight when the stakes are so high.  Audiences may be riveted by the close-up of a teary-eyed pitcher who gave up the game-winning hit but the agony of defeat doesn't need to be fodder for entertainment, especially when it involves pubescents. With every team that earns a berth into the final tournament, another goes home empty-handed and devastated.

Sportwriter Bill Plaschke's LA Times column suggests "televising the Little League World Series exploits the raw, innocent emotions of children who have no business — aside from being good business for ABC and ESPN — being reality TV subjects."

We just don't need to see it. And they don't need us to see it. The cameras heighten the already incredible pressure and alter the already erratic behavior. The cameras needlessly deify and unfairly embarrass. The cameras change everything for kids who just aren't ready for it.

"The kids are out of their league," Plaschke concludes, " and there's nothing little about it."

Little League International and ESPN agreed to an eight-year television contract in 2007.  The organization has come to rely on the television money for about one-quarter of its approximately $20 million annual budget.  As part of the broadcast, kids' photographs, stats, height and weight, are all available. Members of the media can also request one-on-one interviews with players.  Even seasoned celebs have difficulty fielding interview questions without the benefit of media training. But the economic incentive for putting middle-schoolers on television appears to outweigh protecting their childhoods.

Watching the Series on TV is a bit like watching a train wreck. It's hard to believe that some of these kids are actually kids. There are more than a few 11 and 12 year olds who have facial stubble and a few more that look like they should be tested for illegal substances.  In many ways, the LLWS is looking more like its big-league brother and less like a childhood rite of passage.

Your son or daughter may sleep with a baseball glove. He or she may be the star of the park league. Trophies may line the walls of your den. Your family may dream of a college scholarship or pro career. But it takes baby steps to get there. And the "babies" shouldn't be exploited along the way. Childhood is short enough. Let kids experience the peaks and valleys of youth away from the national spotlight. If you want to bring a video camera to document the experience, that's cool but leave the big TV lenses, and the voyeuristic public, out of the picture. The same goes for "Toddlers & Tiaras" but that's another story. Of course, this is just my opinion. What's yours?

BTW  – This is the 37th year since girls were first allowed to play Little League Baseball in 1974 (although the first girl to actually play Little League did so in 1950 in Corning, N.Y. – Kathryn “Tubby” Johnson). Through last year, 15 girls from all over the world have come to South Williamsport  to play in the Little League Baseball World Series.



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