The Little League World Series

On a beautiful, sunny, late summer afternoon I’m sitting on a hill in northern Pennsylvania watching 12-year-olds demonstrate the perfection of the game. Welcome to the Little League World Series (LLWS) where “the best seats are on the hill.” While some wish they were in Lamade Stadium’s grandstands, most of the people I met love being on the hill. They love the camaraderie and the almost ready for Autumn breeze that cools the bright sun.

What can be better than two days in the north-central Pennsylvania hills watching the game we love? It doesn’t matter that the players are twelve, it’s still the same game and the level of competition dramatic.

The Game’s Perfection

The Setting

It’s the bottom of the sixth (and last inning) of the championship game. Louisiana is leading Curacao 8 – 0, with two men out. Egan Prather has pitched the entire game and wants to be on the mound for the last out. Earlier in the tournament, Prather pitched 5 1/3 innings of one-hit ball to help Louisiana avoid elimination. That day, he struck out ten kids from New Jersey. Today he continued to dominate, allowing only two hits while striking out six.

“Mighty Casey” statue on the hill

Little League rules state that a pitcher is not allowed to throw more than 85 pitches in a game. However, Prather has thrown only 69 pitches through the first five innings and is well under the limit when Curacao’s Curley Martha comes to the plate with two out and no one on base.

Martha is no slouch. To date, he’s hit .563 with a tournament-leading three home runs to help Curacao get to the finals. One of these was a two-run shot against Japan in Saturday’s International Bracket final.

Martha also seems to match Prather’s competitive fire. Curacao was likely headed for a loss, but Martha wasn’t going to be the one to make the last out. He’ll leave it to one of the next guys to swing and miss or hit a weak ground ball to end the game. Let him walk slowly back to the dugout while Louisiana celebrates.

The Encounter

Louisiana’s Egan Prather Delivers…..

With two strikes, Martha fouls off pitch after pitch. Prather keeps challenging him, and his pitch count continued to grow. Every once in a while, he walks behind the mound, uses the rosin bag, throws it down and climbs the hill to make his next pitch. At one point, shortstop Stan Wiltz takes a few steps toward the mound to check-in and show some support. Prather glares at him, says something like (I assume) “I got this, leave me alone,” and Wiltz walks back to his position.

Martha wants a pitch he can drive, something in the strike zone. Since its a two-strike count, Prather doesn’t have to throw something over the plate. He can throw his best pitches that are around the edges and corners of the strike zone. Pitches Martha shouldn’t be able to hit. Martha’s only recourse is to foul off these pitches in the hopes of getting a better one he can drive.

….Curacao’s Curley Martha Hits Another Foul Ball

The scenario repeats eight times. Prather paces to the back of the mound, uses the rosin bag, climbs the hill, gets set, pitches, Martha swings – foul ball. The suspense increases with each pitch. Prather’s plight increases when he throws his 85th pitch. Prather will continue to pitch to Martha but must relinquish the mound if he gets on base. Of course, Prather does not want to be anywhere other than the mound when Louisiana wins.

Each player glares at the other. Again, Prather paces to the back of the mound, uses the rosin bag, climbs the hill, gets set, pitches, Martha swings – foul ball.

Finally, on the 88th pitch, Martha lines out to shortstop Wiltz and Louisiana’s celebration begins. They’re the last team standing of the 7,700 teams that started the tournament in their respective regions. They meet at the mound, parade the banner around the field and touch the Howard J. Lamade bust in centerfield. 1

Celebration!

“The Game of Ball is Glorious”

Baseball is the only team sport where this type of Mano a Mano confrontation is the centerpiece of the competition. For example, in football, the offensive line protects the quarterback as he throws passes to his teammates. There are 11 players on the opposing team, in various positions, who try to stop what he plans to do.

Similarly, in basketball, while a defender opposes the player with the ball, that defender can be assisted by another player or two. Moreover, the outcome of the interaction is not definitive, the player can pass the ball, so someone else can try.

Tennis, match play golf, boxing and wrestling include the single-player confrontation, but they are not actual team games. Players can be organized into groups and wear the same uniforms, but they are still individual contributors.

That’s why we remember Charlie Root pitching against Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series and the mythical “called shot.” Or Ralph Branca vs. Bobby Thompson in 1951 and the “Shot Heard Round The World” when the Giants won the pennant. Or, Prather vs. Martha in the Little League World Series.

The confrontation between pitcher and hitter is central to the game and incredible. Walt Whitman would say “glorious.”

That’s why it is impossible for me to resist baseball’s allure. I will always find a ballpark and relish everything the game was, is and ought to be. Give me a diamond, nine guys on each side, a few balls and bats and I’m at home.

Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Williamsport, PA (est. population 28,347) is the county seat Lycoming County. The west branch of the Susquehanna River separates it from South Williamsport, the location of the Little League’s headquarters and the World Series. The city is in north-central Pennsylvania between the Allegheny Mountains to the north and west and the Appalachian Mountains to the south.2 For baseball fans, the location of Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the series’ home, is a little slice of heaven: a cute little ballpark nestled in the northern Pennsylvania hills.

Statues in Market Square

The Little League began as a three-team league in Williamsport in 1939 – with three teams: Jumbo Pretzel, Lycoming Dairy and Lundy Lumber. It added a second league from Williamsport the next year. Since then, the Little League has grown into an international organization of approximately 200,000 teams in every U/S. State and 80 countries worldwide.3

In 1947, the Maynard League from Williamsport defeated a team from Lock Haven, PA to win the first LLWS.4 In 1952, the first international teams played in the series. Today, 7,700 teams from around the world compete in regional tournaments. Ultimately 16 teams represent eight regions from the United States and another eight from around the world compete in Williamsport for the championship.5

Of course, people throughout the region celebrate the Little League and its World Series. I enjoyed the welcoming signs hung from businesses and private homes. I also loved the statues of players, on each corner of Market Square in the center of town.

If You Go

What am I saying? Of course, you should go!

The gates open at 8:00 AM (occasionally earlier). To get good seats, fans begin to line up earlier, around 6:00 AM, although I met some who were there even earlier. Once the gates open, fans race to their preferred seating locations.

There are15,000 seats in the grandstand and up to 40,000 seats (they claim) on the hill behind the outfield.

Sitting on The Hill

Most attendees sit on the hill behind the outfield fence.

The steep hill is divided by a flat area that includes a paved walkway, that enables people to walk from end to end. At the top of the hill are stairs that lead to exits.

The area in front of the walkway is used only for seating. Although some people sit behind the walkway, that area is used almost exclusively as the famous sliding area. Kids and the young at heart use pieces of cardboard to slide down the tall and steep hill.

Toward the end of this year’s championship game, soccer great, Julie Foudy left ESPN’s broadcast booth and gave the hill a try. It brought back good memories. Twenty years before, I was at the Rose Bowl with the Nomad family watching Foudy play, and the Women’s National Team (aka “the 99’ers”) win the World Cup. Now here I was watching her barrel down the hill at the LLWS.

Of course, every fan has their individual preference as to what is a good seat. The people I sat with chose a location right where the hill started to flatten out. They were in front of some bushes that surrounded the flagpole, which is in front of the walkway. Others choose to sit closer to the field on the steep angled part of the hill.

You Need the Right Chair

Different types of chairs facilitate seating:

  • Plastic chairs where the back legs are cut in half, making them perfect for sitting on the steepest part of the hill – closest to the action.
  • Folding chairs that have very short legs, like the ones you see regularly at the beach are a good choice. These chairs work nicely on the gradual sloped and flat part of the hill. They enable the viewer to see over the people in front of them without blocking people behind them.
  • Folding chairs with standard height legs are best for the flat areas in the back because they can block the view of others if placed in front of them. Moreover, they can’t handle the steep angles.

The Fans

The choice of seating engenders different behaviors. In my two days of extensive research, I noticed five different kinds of fans. You have to decide which you are going to be.

Stadium Wannabees

Some fans head to “Will Call” when the gates open and wait for any remaining tickets to be distributed. I originally, understood that the grandstand was only for VIPs and the players’ families and their friends. However, I met people who said that there are a few thousand tickets that remain and are distributed to fans.

Long lines at “Will Call”

Getting some shade..

The problem is, if you are alone and go for the stadium seats, you lose a chance at good positions on the hill. So here is the strategy: you need to choose the seating location to target before the gates open. If you have family or friends with you, part of the group can wait at “Will Call” while the others stake out a position on the hill. However, everyone needs to be at “Will Call” when the tickets are distributed. Each person only receives one ticket. They can’t have extra tickets for friends.

Note that some of the VIPs don’t use their tickets. From the hill, you will see many empty seats in the grandstands.

Hill – Early Birds

Members of this group, park close to the stadium, near the top of the hill. In so doing, they will likely pay a small fee to near-by residents or businesses to park on their property. When the gates open, they are in a position to get the best seats available on the hill. They stake their claim with blankets for friends and family to use when they arrive later or as a buffer between other attendees.

Hill – Gate Openers

I was in this group. Not knowing any better, I followed the “Stadium Parking” signs as I headed up Market Street toward the stadium. The parking here is free. However, it is below the stadium, so I had to walk up the hill to get to the stadium. By the time I got to the seating area, there were no prime locations.

Moreover, good spots were limited since I did not have the requisite chair. I mistakenly assumed that most fans sat on the ground. Without the right chair, the dramatically angled slope was uncomfortable. However, I needed to be as close to the slope as possible, so I could see over others that had chairs.

Luckily, I charmed a group of “Early Birds” and asked if I could sit in the area that they had declared as theirs. I sat next to them both days.

Hill – Late Nicks

These people get to the grounds hours after the gates open and try to squeeze their chairs into any available space. However, they are polite and make sure that they do not block others who are already situated.

Hill – Jerks

Jerks get to the grounds late and place chairs wherever they want without considering whose view they are blocking.

Is Baseball Like a Liquid?

During my two days on the hill, I considered the question I asked at the beginning of my adventure:

“Does Baseball like a liquid take the shape of its container?”

Thomas Boswell

After all, I have now been to venues in four different countries, Mexico, Canada, England, and the United States. To date, I have attended games at 23 MLB ballparks. Not to mention, I sat in Doubleday Park in Cooperstown for a few innings. I also saw the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha. Now I was at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

Even though I still have seven more ballparks to see, I am ready to declare, unequivocally, that the experience at each ballpark is different. The game transformed as I went from site to site.

It’s not that the strategy or the way the game is played is different. The adventure, the feeling, the view and sounds of the crowd make each experience unique.

My next stop on the tour is the makeup game in Tampa. It replaces the one I missed in early May when I was too ill to make the drive from Miami. A few days later, I leave for a long trip out west to complete my journey to all 30 ballparks. I can’t wait.

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Let The Children Play – Why Support Youth Baseball?

Let The Children Play – Why Support Youth Baseball?
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I’m new to blogging. However, I understand that bloggers refer to key, foundational posts as “cornerstone content.” In my opinion, the cornerstone content for the 4Bases4Kids blog should be my rationale for starting the program. In other words, I need to explain why I am doing this and why the reader should care.

My first piece explained why I was starting this quest and why I included fundraising for youth baseball and softball. The second discussed my baseball background, answering the “OK I’m going on a quest, but why baseball?” question. My third post outlines my itinerary and hopefully garners enough interest so that readers will want to follow my progress. To complete the foundation, I need to explain why I think we need to support youth baseball. Is there an issue with youth baseball in low-income and inner-city areas that requires focus and donations?

The knee jerk answer is “of course, don’t low-income and inner-cities need help in any number of areas?” While that is the assumption, there is also evidence that indicates that youth athletics in these areas need support.

The evidence indicates:

  • Lack of activity causes physical and mental hardships in children.
  • However, participation in athletics including community sports leagues (including baseball leagues) is shrinking.
  • A significant part of the attrition is due to more expensive private club teams that are cannibalizing the traditional leagues.
  • Registration and other participation fees make up a large percentage of local community league’s revenue.
  • Lower-income kids are more likely to stop participating in organized sports than middle and upper-income kids — likely due, in part, to these high costs.
  • Some organizations work in low-income and inner-city areas but need increased funding and awareness.

Active Kids Do Better in Life

Yes, you’re likely thinking, “tell me something I don’t know,” but let’s start at the beginning.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative summarizes the benefits of sports activity in the chart below. 1

If we want kids to avoid obesity, drug use, risky sex and pregnancy, we should encourage them to exercise. If they do, they are also more likely to do better in school, attend college, earn more financially and be more productive at work. Additionally, active children have a lower probability of disability, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

“Indeed, the physiological health benefits of sport participation are well documented. Sport participation for as little as 2–3 hours per week can result in significant cardiovascular, metabolic, and musculoskeletal adaptations independent of age and gender, and is associated with a 7% lower risk of obesity in adulthood for girls. Numerous studies have also shown the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of sport participation. In addition, compared with school-sponsored physical education, youth sport programs provide a broader community support for addressing the physical inactivity and childhood obesity epidemics by engaging children and adolescents in addition to parents, coaches, and families.”2

Benefits to Society

I’ve always considered myself to be relatively compassionate. I’m one of those “do things for the good of humanity” sorts of people. As such, this evidence is enough reason for me to support helping kids’ develop active lifestyles. However, others may need to understand if there are macroeconomic benefits to society? I don’t have those numbers, sorry. However, if active children become more productive and earn more, won’t they pay more taxes? Won’t they also purchase and maintain health insurance, increasing the health system’s solvency? Additionally, if they avoid major health issues won’t they require less help from society? It sounds like there are benefits to keeping kids active.

Moreover, support now has a reoccurring value. The Alpine Institute found that active children become active parents who raise active children, so the cycle continues intergeneration-ally. 3

While there are long term benefits, there are also immediate benefits to society. “Communities have found that it is cheaper to invest in planned sporting activities and keep children involved than to deal with the problems caused by kids that grow up without supervision, getting in trouble all the time.” 4

So if youth activity is good, what is the problem?

Participation Rates

The problem is that kids don’t participate in these activities. For example, only 24% of kids ages 6 – 12 regularly participated in high-calorie-burning-sports in 2017. 5

Additionally, the Aspen Institute reports that only 69% of children ages 6 to 12 joined in a team or individual sport in 2017. That means that roughly one-third of children aged six to twelve are less than appropriately involved. Significantly, the chart below indicates that these rates are consistent with, if not slightly below the six-year trend. Baseball fans should note that only 37% of these children regularly participate in a team sport. 6

The “glass half full” perspective for baseball is that its participation consistently ranks third, behind only basketball and bicycling. Additionally, almost the same percentage of kids play either baseball or softball as those who play basketball. The “glass half empty” perspective is that although baseball participation was up almost 4% (softball was up 2.0%) in 2017 over 2016, only 14% participated in the two sports. 7

Financial Stress on Lower-Income Families

Significantly (and why my focus is on low-income and inner-city areas), participation rates correlate with family income. While only 34% of children in families that earn less than $25k participate, 69% of those in families that earn greater than $100k do so. The other income ranges follow this progression. 8

Additionally, participation in families that earn less than $75k has declined since 2011. Conversely, those in families that make more than $75k have increased their involvement. Most disconcerting is the drastic decline for those in families that earn less than $25k. Their participation dropped from 42% in 2011 to 34% in 2017. 9

“Athletic participation for kids ages 6 through 12 is down almost 8 percent over the last decade, according to SFIA and Aspen data, and children from low-income households are half as likely to play one day’s worth of team sports than children from households earning at least $100,000.”

“ ‘Sports in America have separated into sport-haves and have-nots,’ said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen’s Sports & Society program. The group released its research at its annual Project Play Summit on Wednesday in Washington. ‘All that matters is if kids come from a family that has resources. If you don’t have money, it’s hard to play.’ ” 10

Competition With Community Baseball

Consider how the disparity between the “sport-have’s and have-nots” effects traditional community and Little League baseball. Both are facing stiff competition from private club teams. “Little League participation, for example, is down 20% from its turn-of-the-century peak. These local leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience.” 11

Private leagues are more expensive and can cost – on the high end – more than 10% of a family’s income. 12

“Full-time travel baseball means many more practices and many more games — many of them far away. To rise in rankings and win tournaments, some teams, especially in warm climates, play nearly year-round, competing in as many as 120 games per year, more than most minor league players.” 13

“Travel ball is not new — it’s been around for a couple of decades. But participation in full-time travel baseball has exploded in recent years. For example, in 2000, Atlanta’s first All-American Wood Bat Classic tournament opened with about a dozen teams. This Memorial Day weekend, nearly 100 squads from half a dozen states will descend on fields throughout metropolitan Atlanta to participate. The players range in age from 8 to 14.” 14

Costs to Participate

Costs to play, of course, are provided by the children’ families. Player registration fees, can be expensive and possibly limits the possibilities of participation. For example, Little League registration fees account for 65% of budgeted income. Uniforms, equipment supplies account for 66% of expenses. Costs are estimated to be $75 in spring and $40 in fall. 15

These fees can cover more than the cost of uniforms and equipment. This scenario discussed on the Little League’s web site is instructive (emphasis added):

“The Situation: A local league decided to build a field for the Little League Intermediate (50/70) Baseball Division to begin offering new opportunities for its 11- to-13-year-old baseball players. The building cost to the league was $100,000, and after securing a loan through a local bank, construction began in the fall so that the field would be ready for play the following spring. In order to raise the necessary funds to complete the project and pay off the loan, the local league hosted district tournament games, with all of the concession stand proceeds going to offset the cost; organized a capital fund that requested funds from local league sponsors; and also generated revenue from a silent auction and home run derby-style fundraising events. The remaining balance was to be covered by the player participation fee collected during registration for the coming season.” 16

Pressure on Low-Income Families

It’s not surprising that it’s easier for children for higher-income families to participate in private clubs. “Fees and travel costs are pricing out lower-income families. Some kids who don’t show talent at a young age are discouraged from ever participating in organized sports.” 17

The pressure on low-income kids to participate increases due to weaker participation in school. “The schools have by and large defunded gym programs for children creating a healthcare crisis of major proportion in the US and other parts of the world with childhood obesity and asthma creating lifelong chronic disease problems.” Global Youth Team, League, and Tournament Sports Market, 2018-2024: A $15.5 billion market in the US, the youth sports market rivals the size of the $14 billion NFL, Cision PRNewswire reporting on a new study by Wintergreen Research Inc., September 5, 2018 18

The “Hypercompetitive Selection Process”

Once children fall behind in their athletic development, it’s hard to catch up.

“But pursuit of a college athletic scholarship has ‘reshaped’ the youth sports landscape, and placed an earlier emphasis on winning and elite skill development that often forces children to select one sport at an early age.” 19

“That has pushed hypercompetitive selection processes into younger age groups — some basketball analysts rank the nation’s best kindergartners — and ravaged traditional recreational leagues whose purpose is to get kids playing rather than winning games.” 20

Not surprisingly, the hypercompetitive atmosphere is not fun for all children and they don’t thrive or continue. “Children cite ‘fun’ as the primary reason for participation in organized sport and its absence as the number one reason for youth sport attrition.” 21 Attrition is “alarmingly high,” “one-third of participants drop out annually, and 70% drop out by adolescence.”22

Note that there are additional and very disconcerting physical issues that arise from children playing baseball in this hypercompetitive atmosphere. Some of the proliferation of arm injuries is due to early involvement in highly competitive leagues. 23

Is Major League Baseball Involved?

Major League Baseball is involved in at least two initiatives:

In 2015, MLB teamed with the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) to launch the Play Ball initiative. The ongoing goal is to “encourage sustained participation in the sport for years to come.” 24 Playball.org is a $30 million effort that has shown positive results in getting children interested in baseball. 25

The second is RBI “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities” that has been administered by MLB since 1991 and has “designated more than $30 million in resources” since its inception. The program’s mission is to:

  • Increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth
  • Promote greater inclusion of youth with diverse backgrounds into the mainstream of the game
  • Increase number of talented athletes prepared to play in college and professionally
  • Encourage academic achievement
  • Teach the value of teamwork 26

While both have admirable goals – it’s likely that they need help. With regards to the RBI program specifically:

“In more than twenty-five years, Baseball has spent more than $30 million. Which, and I’m not sure how to put this kindly, doesn’t seem like a lot. This season, Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia will start twenty-seven games and earn $25 million.”

“It’s just unrealistic to think $30 million spread over all those years is going to accomplish much of anything. Or even $60 million, or $90 million. Unless all those millions are spent in one year, and then again every year for a bunch more years. But over nearly thirty years, ostensibly in efforts to change the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of American kids? To convince them not just to play baseball, but also become lifelong fans? “It’s too good of a cause to be a lost cause,” longtime Dodgers executive Fred Claire says. “I think Baseball can do a better job. You can’t change society, but you can be a part of that change.” 27

What Does One Do?

In my case, I’ve decided to spend the year to raise awareness of the programs and money to support them. In so doing, I am hoping that others will become involved by donating their time and money to work with the various organizations that work with children to become more active, especially in the game I love.

This list includes organizations that I am researching and trying to communicate with to establish how I will distribute the funds raised and possibly to help publicize the initiative.

-Little League International “Urban Initiative” – https://www.littleleague.org/play-little-league/urban-initiative/ – explicitly focused on developing the game in the inner city

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