Leave it to the impeccably nicknamed Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra to explain the beauty of Little League baseball.
“It keeps the parents off the streets,” he once said.
I had to miss a game the other day, and I could barely contain myself as I checked my phone obsessively for a text or e-mail about the fate of our 9- and 10-year-olds. Who pitched? Who got the big hits? Who made the inevitable, stumbling snow-cone catch that drew the excited outburst from the parents, sitting behind the fence in their camping chairs?
Year in and year out, the games hold the same surprises. Someone sticks out a glove and finds the ball. The boy who’s afraid of live pitching stays in the batter’s box and lines a single. Makes you swell with joy, every time.
This is the 75th season of Little League International. Fittingly, it’s the diamond anniversary.
For decades we’ve been hearing that youth participation on the diamond is eroding. Kids play soccer or lacrosse; kids play hockey year-round. Kids play video games.
But kids still play baseball, with no less delight than did those boys in Williamsport, Pa., in 1939. In my North Shore town, we Little League board members have been anxiously charting the small but steady decline in enrollment over the past several years. Then our numbers guy took a look at the enrollment figures for children attending our schools, which have been declining at roughly the same rate. Percentage-wise, baseball is holding its ground.
Emotion-wise, it would take a chilly heart to be unmoved by the Little League Pledge, which concludes, “I will play fair, and strive to win, but win or lose, I will always do my best.” I’ve been coaching my own boys’ teams for 10 years now; already I rue the day when my youngest moves on to high school, and another coach. But many of the biggest thrills have come from kids who aren’t mine, glowing with pride after they’ve learned they can in fact throw a strike, or shorten up their swing enough to get a solid hit off one of the league’s hotshots.
Home sick from school recently, my 10-year-old was watching the original “Bad News Bears” on Netflix. The movie, with its endless litany of racial slurs and Buttermaker’s beer cans, might be the single most egregious example of just how far off the rails the 1970s went. But “The Bad News Bears” is also seriously funny, and one of the great underdog yarns of all time. It’s all there: Engelberg and his candy addiction; an ashamed Ahmad in his underwear, up a tree; Timmy Lupus shouting “Wait till next year!” (The team’s archnemesis is, naturally, the Yankees.)
As I write, a new e-mail comes in, bearing the subject line “Your Little Leaguer Could be Featured on ESPN.” The organization is calling for video uploads of the Little League plays of the week, with a chance to win a 2014 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite.
Of course it’s not quite the same as it was back in old Williamsport, when Carl Stotz signed up Jumbo Pretzel and Lundy Lumber to sponsor those first teams. Today, the league is installed in 80 countries, claiming 160,000 teams. The Little League World Series has become a TV event, and the teams that get that far are stacked with 6-footers and kids who throw 75 miles per hour.
But real life is more like the local game — some hits, some runs, always at least a few errors. The advice never wavers: Just try to keep the ball in front of you.