Little League delivers, though sometimes it takes a while

By Jim Correale

My first encounter with Little League Baseball was rather underwhelming. In the early 1970s a friend took me along to a tryout at a dusty field in East Boston. The equipment was makeshift, the coaches weren’t very engaging and the sun was hot.

I didn’t go back.

I’ve thought about that day in recent years and wished it turned out differently. Though I’ve always been a mediocre athlete, I was certainly good enough to play and have a good time, and I’ve come to see Little League as a worthwhile program — a highly regarded part of American childhood that is generally a positive force for young people and local communities.

Years after that disappointing initial experience, I was a sports reporter at a string of weekly newspapers, and when the mainstay of our sports sections — high school athletics — fell silent for the two months of summer vacation, I found myself standing alongside baseball and softball diamonds throughout southern Maine, watching kids of all ages rip doubles and groove fastballs and dive to make the catch they’d always dreamed about. I even got to follow one team down to Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series and was pleasantly surprised by the entire experience.

Watching, interviewing and writing about kids as young as 9 years old might seem like drudgery or a waste of time, but the sports section of a weekly newspaper is really not the place for someone with an ego. Besides, everyone is thrilled to have an actual reporter show up to their games, and the players are ecstatic when asked to answer a few questions afterwards. What they lack in verbal dexterity, they make up for with raw enthusiasm.

After local leagues wrap up their playoffs at the end of June, everyone’s attention turns to “all-stars” — the team from an individual league, usually from a single town or big-city neighborhood — that will compete district-wide and then, possibly, statewide, regionally, nationally and internationally. It’s a long road to the championship in South Williamsport and ESPN.

The next criterion that a reporter needs to keep straight is divisions. The players who actually make up the Little League all-stars we commonly think of are only the 11 and 12-year-olds — baseball for boys and softball for girls (though there is often a girl here or there who prefers, and is allowed to play, baseball). There is also Minor League (9 and 10-year-olds), Senior League (14–16 year-olds) and Big League (16–18 year-olds).

To top it off, there is more than one governing body in the US that runs baseball programs for kids — the most notable competition being Babe Ruth League (and its Cal Ripken division for pre-teens). This is the landscape that I tried to keep on top of each summer for our eight weekly newspapers, which together covered a wide swath of southern Maine.

Before 2005 the Pine Tree State had sent a team to the Little League Baseball World Series twice before — 1951 and 1971 — so I was in the right place at the right time in the summer of 2005 when the boys from Westbrook won the New England championship, coming back from losing three of their first four in the regional tournament. The team was quickly whisked off to Williamsport, and my publisher agreed to pick up the costs for three of us — me, another reporter and a photographer — to head down to cover the team.

We drove the nine hours, checked into a cheap motel and spent a few days at the Little League complex, which is in the small town of South Williamsport. I quickly realized that the entire event is not held primarily as a moneymaker for the parent organization. Attending the games is free, as is parking, and the food and souvenirs seemed reasonably priced. The organization also pays the travel, food and housing costs for all participating teams.

Plus, the media building offered ample space to work or connect to the Internet, as well as complimentary cold lunches, hot dinners and plenty of bottled water.

Though the final games are televised by ESPN and ABC, everything else about the Little League World Series seems less a marketing opportunity than a genuine celebration of the game and the glories of youth — a rare experience in our often superficial and uber-commodified world.

Westbrook lost their first two games to teams from Louisiana and California before beating a squad from Kentucky, but their 1–2 record was not good enough to propel them to the elimination round. The kids were disappointed but returned home the next day to a heroes’ welcome, as police cars and fire trucks greeted the team bus and then escorted it back to the league’s home field, where fans had gathered to congratulate the boys. Our weekly paper was filled with stories and photos on every aspect of the entire event.

One of the best parts of the whole affair for me was tagging along to the Red Sox game that the Westbrook team was invited to attend the following week. I secured a press pass and followed the players onto the hallowed field at Fenway Park and inside the Green Monster scoreboard, where I signed my name on a wall in that dark cavern just as the kids had done. Then, as the Little Leaguers stood next to their big-league heroes for the National Anthem and were escorted to choice seats, I was allowed into the press box above and behind home plate, where I enjoyed myself at the complimentary buffet and sat watching the game a couple of rows behind longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

In the end, Little League Baseball did give me some thrills and memorable moments. I just had to wait 30-plus years for them.