This August, I haven’t been following Major League Baseball. Instead, I’ve been watching the Little League Baseball World Series on television. The event, held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, features the 16 best baseball state champion teams in the country in a double-elimination bracket tournament, following regional play. (Due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, international teams are not participating in the tournament this year.)
As I watch, I like to see the faces of the 12-year-old players. A child strikes out, looks to be on the verge of tears, and then, a few minutes later, is seen laughing uncontrollably with his teammates in the dugout. A pitcher who feels that the umpire is applying a maddeningly small strike zone contorts his face upon a close pitch being called a ball. He drags his feet. His manager comes to the mound, and the pitcher immediately starts complaining in wild gesticulations.
These players aren’t guided by superstition or limited by tradition. In professional baseball, a pitcher who is throwing a no-hitter is generally left alone between innings for fear that interaction with teammates will break the no-hit spell. But in a recent Little League Baseball World Series game between state champion teams from Washington and Florida, the Washington pitcher who threw a no-hitter was seen chatting—and laughing—between innings.
As a Boston Red Sox fan in the late 1980s and 1990s, I met every lead, every win, every climb atop the standings with a sigh. “It won’t last,” I’d say, steeling myself for the inevitable collapse that would follow. As my father liked to put it, “The Red Sox are always good enough to break your heart.”
The Little Leaguers that I’ve been watching this summer bear little of that weight of history. For them, play is joyful. They are excited when they win because their manager will have to make good on his promise to dye his hair the team’s colors. They plead with their manager to let them stay up late to celebrate.
These kids, who like to play baseball, are extremely good at playing baseball. But they are also just kids. Instead of batting average, home runs, runs-batted-in and other stats, the television graphics for each player list favorite school subjects, TV shows, rappers, actors, and foods (with steak the clear winner in that category).
Still, the Little Leaguers are playing on a stage more like that inhabited by major leaguers than a pickup game of ball in the park. In this year’s Little League Baseball World Series, managers are mic’d-up, allowing viewers to hear all the times that adults are reminding the players to “have fun,” to lift them up when they’re down, to remind them to be good sports. The soundbites are a gimmick that the game announcers use to comment on the value of youth sports, to nod their approval at seeing adults reminding young players what baseball should be all about. Of course, the very appearance of Little League Baseball World Series games on ESPN makes these baseball games something altogether different than a normal youth sports experience.
Major League Baseball, facing declining viewership and attendance at its own games, wants to piggyback on the enthusiasm of the youth spectacle that is the Little League Baseball World Series. So, in recent years, it has sent two teams to Williamsport to play a game during the Little League World Series. This August, the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim played at Williamsport.
Sports programs were full of feel-good images of Major Leaguers sliding down wet Pennsylvania hills on cardboard alongside Little Leaguers. At times, ESPN broadcasts missed critical pitches in Little League games because they were playing footage of arriving buses carrying the big league teams into town, or of the Major Leaguers signing autographs. During one inclement weather delay, the announcers interviewed injured Angels player and three-time American League MVP Mike Trout about what being at Williamsport meant to him.
Despite such public relations offensives, there are real questions about baseball’s future as a premier professional sport in the United States. Professional ball is marred by cheating scandals, notably the electronic sign-stealing and subterfuge of the Houston Astros. New rules designed to speed up the game, and encourage more action, have failed. Major League Baseball has produced fewer Black American ballplayers than in the past, and executive level positions are still dominated by white men.
And all of this is to say nothing of the controversy surrounding how the big leagues have handled the COVID-19 pandemic this season, admitting full stadiums of unmasked fans in many cases, and not requiring vaccinations among players.
Major League Baseball may be interested in Little League as a way to create interest in the pro game. But, for me, what has been so interesting and wonderful about watching the Little League Baseball World Series this summer is that it is precisely unlike Major League Baseball. Professional athletes often respond to media requests for a post-game narration of a key play with sneering reluctance and boring soundbites. But Little Leaguers just smile, excited to explain exactly how a play went down. For them, it’s fun to talk to a reporter or be on TV.
I watch the games not to see Mike Trout reflect on the value of Little League, but to see a player’s mother smile and roll her eyes in answer to a question about when her son developed his signature shoulder shimmy before throwing a pitch. I watch the games to see the kids tell a deflated teammate that it’s okay that he struck out, that he’ll get ’em next time. I watch the games to see a scrawny kid who’s a head shorter than everyone else get a hit. I watch the games to see the kids celebrate, and then collectively realize that they need to wave their caps at the opposing team as the COVID-19 era equivalent of shaking hands.
I watch the games because they feature kids who like to have fun—who deserve to have fun after a year and a half marked by the pandemic. The Little League Baseball World Series features exceptional ballplayers. Many of these elite athletes throw pitches at 70 miles an hour. They make spectacular plays in the field. But I don’t watch the Little League Baseball World Series because of the level of play. I watch because it is fun to see kids being kids—sometimes smiling, sometimes goofing around, other times frustrated and forlorn. And for that, I can skip the spectacle of the Little League Baseball World Series and head to the baseball field next to our local elementary school and watch Little League games this season. Sure, those games likely won’t include the superstar baseball players in the Little League Baseball World Series. But they’ll be even more fun to watch.