Play Ball!

What’s your favorite annual sporting event? Which one gives you the most joy every time it rolls around?

The Super Bowl? The Tour de France? March Madness and the Final Four? The Bowl game to which your alma mater garnered an invite?

While I look forward to all of the above, none is quite as much fun as what’s transpiring right now in the the little town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania: the Little League World Series. If you haven’t been watching, I strongly recommend you give it a try. The various ESPN networks are airing virtually every game, with the especially big Sunday games being shown on ABC. The action runs through next weekend, and there are games scheduled pretty much every day this week.

I first stumbled upon this event many years ago, while scrolling through the cable channels. Who would want to waste time watching a bunch of kids playing baseball? I wondered. They’re not as good as the pros. Why on earth is this even on television?

I changed the channel almost immediately.

Only with time did I realize how mistaken I’d been. A couple of years after first encountering the event, I stumbled upon it again. I’m still not sure why, but I decided to watch for a few innings.

That’s all it took. I was hooked. It’s now “appointment television” for me, and I start thinking about it early in the summer each year.

So, what’s the LLWS? And what’s worthwhile about watching “a bunch of kids playing baseball”?

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The tournament in Williamsport includes sixteen teams altogether. Eight represent various regions of the USA, and eight are international. Some individual countries with a strong baseball presence, such as Canada, Japan, and Mexico, always send a team. Others come from a larger international region, such as Latin America or the combined Europe/Middle East/Africa. The International teams all play in one double-elimination bracket, and the American teams do the same. The winner of each bracket plays for the championship, a week from today.

The teams in the tournament are not typical teams like the one in your local community, which play together from the first day of the season early in the spring. They’re usually All-Star teams, composed of the best kids drawn from all the various teams in a city. They don’t form a team of their own until the regular season concludes. These All-Stars then play together through district, state, and, ultimately, interstate regional tournaments to determine who gets to go to Williamsport.

The teams don’t always come from big cities, however. Not infrequently, teams from small towns will make it to Williamsport. This becomes the biggest story of the summer in those places, and an occasion for drawing communities together. No matter where you’re from, it’s hard not to cheer along for those teams.

The boys (and, very occasionally, a girl or two) range from age eleven to thirteen. In that spread you can still get an enormous diversity of body sizes — and that variety is part of what makes the scene so much fun. Some of these kids are less than five feet tall and weigh less than 80 pounds. Others are six feet tall and weigh nearly 200 pounds. Some are beanpoles. Some are fireplugs.

The overwhelming majority exude what I call “peak boyness:” a physical and emotional development that has gone as far as it can go, without having crossed the fuzzy line into adolescence. They’re big. Athletic. Their skills are impressive. But most still have the sweet and innocent look of boys, not young men.

That innocence carries over into the way they conduct themselves on the field. Their emotions are transparent, and uncalculated. When they strike out in a key situation, or blow a clutch play, the frustration is clear for anyone to read on their faces. When they’re injured, or lose a big game, they don’t hide their tears. When they make a big play, they don’t hide their exuberance or pretend they expected the outcome all along.

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My favorite example came a couple of years ago. You’d never guess the boy pictured below is watching an opposing batter crush his pitch out of the park for a grand slam home run. Or that his team was now down by eighteen runs. That was one impressive hit, and little Mekhi Garrard wasn’t the least bit shy in letting everybody know he thought so!

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And about those impressive skills: they’re good, but not always perfect. That’s part of what makes the games such a hoot to watch. In Little League, even at this level, there’s no such thing as a “routine” play. You’re always holding your breath, wondering if that fly ball will be caught, or if that throw to first base will really make it into the glove (or if it’ll end up in right field).

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At the LLWS, you’ll see lots of fun plays that rarely happen in the Majors. Many base runners advance on errant throws, or miscalculations by fielders. Runs often score on wild pitches or passed balls. It’s not a circus, or comedy of errors, by any stretch. The kids are exceedingly good at what they do, and often make spectacular plays. However, there’s still enough uncertainty to create suspense, and to keep you always on the edge of your seat. In Little League, leads are never secure. Offenses can always fold, and opponents can always rally.

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The whole LLWS environment is overwhelmingly family-friendly. Lots of parents and siblings come along to the tournament, and cheer along from the stands. And there’s plenty for the kids to do besides watch games; the grassy hills surrounding the stadium constantly have children sliding down on pieces of cardboard. It’s tough to watch this many families having this much fun, and not smile — no matter how your favorite team ends up doing.

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The 2009 LLWS was one of the first I watched extensively, and it had an unexpectedly profound impact on me. That summer, around the time of the tournament, a story was taking shape in my head; that story would grow into my novel, Full Cycle.

I always knew the primary plot would involve young Alex’s dream of tackling the 200-mile, one-day, Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride with his father. I had been less sure about the rest of the story. After immersing myself in the LLWS, I knew that baseball had been Alex’s first love, before the accident which had left him unable to play — and that Alex’s little brother, Ben, would have a natural gift for the sport.

The problem was, I didn’t know much about the practical aspects of local Little League teams. So, in early 2010, I reached out to a coach in the Seattle area and told him about the novel I was writing. He was intrigued, and spent a long time with me on the phone. He was passionate about the sport, and what it had meant for his own sons. He loved sharing his stories with me. I took pages and pages of notes. These notes formed the basis for Full Cycle‘s baseball subplot, which ended up harmonizing so perfectly with Alex’s quest to reach Portland on a bicycle.

In case you’re wondering: No, I’m not currently working on another novel. I would like to, but I haven’t “seen” my “big idea” yet — and I won’t be ready to write until I do.

I’m not sure of any other way to explain it, but with Passport, and then later with Full Cycle, the essential kernel of the story hit me without warning. I’d “seen” the plot, felt like I’d known the protagonist my whole life, and knew the direction he needed to go. While of course many details remained to take shape, and many details would change during the process of writing and editing, neither story’s essential core ever changed.

I do hope to get that next big idea soon. Something has certainly been “percolating;” once it decides to boil over, I know I’ll be spending the next few months bringing that idea to life.

In the meantime? Let’s enjoy some Little League baseball!

Baseball: Little League World Series-Asia-Pacific Region vs Mid-Atlantic Region

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