I sat on the edge of my seat watching the Goodlettsville Little Leaguers much of last week, and judging from TV ratings, mass Twitter comments, and the fact that my fantasy football league actually took time out at its draft on Sunday once or twice to watch the Japan game, a lot of others did too. It’s funny how quickly we learned to care about a bunch of kids that none of us knew anything about two weeks ago, which got me to thinking: how did they win our interest so quickly?
Is the brand of Little League baseball the best around? Certainly not, because: a) they’re 12, and; b) even though these players are the best in the world for their age, you could see the limits in the latter innings of the U.S. title game when both teams were out of pitchers and it looked liked prolonged batting practice in the sixth and seventh innings. With Major League Baseball readily available on TV, you could certainly have watched more skilled players at the same time Goodlettsville was on the tube.
But look at the Little League World Series against the backdrop of sports stories recently. Every day on the news, it’s been something. We’ve seen Penn State, drug scandals across major sports, the New Orleans Saints bounty program (against the backdrop of our increased awareness about football and brain damage), lesser college football scandals at Miami and North Carolina, a labor stoppage in basketball, and closer to home, Da’Rick Rodgers and Kenny Britt. Safe to say, it’s not been sports’ finest year.
Let me start by saying that I’m very much a capitalist at heart, but I’ve got a theory: the more money is involved, the more sports in their purest form is ruined. There’s just too much at stake for too many people to protect, whether it’s agents or coaches or owners. A perfect example came last week, when Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson admitted he didn’t give full effort in games last season. The reason: he was in a contract year and didn’t want to get hurt and ruin his market value. At some point, it stops becoming less of a sport and more of a business.
Even in the “amateur” side, there is so much money in sports like college football and basketball that schools turn their heads the other way when overzealous boosters flash cash at the next high school star who can lead their programs to the Final Four or a BCS title game. If you’re a school without any particular hang-ups about morality, the reward almost always out-weighs the risk. But if you’re a spectator and you do, it’s harder to enjoy the game because you never know who’s on the up-and-up.
There are also other ways that we take the game too seriously at different levels. You hit a home run in Little League, you’re allowed to show your child-like enthusiasm for a moment. Do that at the professional level, and the next pitch you see is in your ribs.
And then here came Goodlettsville. There have been no allegations of performance-enhancing drugs, or 15-year-old kids posing as 12-year-olds, no player strikes, no benchings for not playing hard. The coaches seemed to have the kids’ best interests at heart, as did the governing body: teams had to adhere to strict pitch counts. The players played hard, and they cared. I even spotted some tears as the Tennesseans nearly blew a huge late-inning lead to the California squad on Saturday.
It was nothing more than players playing passionately for the love of the game. No hidden agendas. No prima-donnas. There was even sportsmanship: a Japanese pitcher even shook Brock Myers’ hand after Myers homered off him on Sunday.
That’s why it was so easy to love them.
The shame is that kids grow up. Many a big-leaguer started out this way before learning how we do things as “adults.” The same kid enjoying the game in its purest form today may well turn tomorrow to steroids, or one day stop playing hard in September when his team is 20 games out of first place.
It’s said that baseball is nothing more than a kids’ game. If only that could be true forever…