August 16, 2002

Baseball's sinking ship is taking the kids down with it

Do you know the feeling that comes with the purchase of a brand-new pair of tennis shoes? The one where you feel great about owning some nice shoes, but deep inside, you have a nagging suspicion that to make those shoes, someone plowed over a rainforest and built a factory employing children at five cents an hour?

Now imagine how you would feel if the shoes came in a box lined with pictures of the factory's starving workers hunched over sewing machines, all the while being whipped by their heartless taskmasters. That's the feeling you get while watching Little League baseball.

By "Little League," I do not mean the baseball you see in the local park on a Saturday afternoon, sponsored by the local dry cleaner, but the Little League World Series televised on ESPN and ABC and sponsored by Honda. These players are good. Flawless defense and perfect batting stances right out of a Tom Emanski video, pitchers who throw Jamie Moyer-velocity fastballs and elbow-surgery-inducing curveballs, and lots and lots of hustle all the way around all combine to make for a darned entertaining six-inning game. Just pick your favorite state or country, and root away.

But underneath this smooth veneer lies the dark underbelly of Little League baseball. It's not just the stuff in the news, with the general scandals of over-involved parents physically attacking officials, or each other, and the baseball-specific scandals of a scrappy team of 12-year-olds from Harlem turning out to be a scrappy team of 16-year-olds from Harlem, the Bronx, and various parts of the Dominican Republic.

No, it's what's happening on and around the field that can't be ignored. Blame it on the broadcasters at ESPN, who can't stop reminding us that unlike professional players, these kids aren't in it for the money, just for the love of the game. They're right. In the majors, win or lose, the players still go home to their millions of dollars, while here, when the players lose, they let down everyone: their families, who put their lives on hold and spent thousands of dollars to travel with them and cheer them on; their hometowns, most of which are just dots on the map like Waipio, HI, and Webb City, MO, places that otherwise would never get any attention in the news; and, worst of all, their coach, who probably wants to win it all more than anyone else in the world.

All this comes out in little tidbits during the game. It comes out when the announcer talks about the coach, invariably a former ballplayer who failed to make it out of the minors and is determined to vicariously live out his dream of athletic success through his son, the star player. His determination manifests itself in various ways, from quitting his day job in favor of coaching, to forcing the team to practice for hours every day. It comes out through shots of the fans, who cheer wildly for their team when they are up, yet sit in stony silence when things aren't going their way. It comes out on the faces of the players, who refrain from showing any spontaneous display of joy, except for the relief on their faces when they don't lose.

As the game wears on, the tension builds. The pitchers tire, and baserunners reach. No one wants to be the one who blows it for everybody else. This makes things tough on everybody: the catcher, who doesn't want to give up the game-breaking passed ball (when the pitchers throw curveballs, they make Rick Ankiel look like Greg Maddux); the hitter, who doesn't want to make the game-breaking out, the defense, which doesn't want to make the game-breaking error; and so on and so forth. Given that the game ultimately has to break, someone always ends up as the goat, and given that this is Little League, that someone is usually 11 or 12 years old, and not usually ready to cope with it.

When the game does end, after a few seconds of showing the winning team pile on each other in celebration, the camera shifts to the losing team. Some players start wandering aimlessly in stunned disbelief, others cry their eyes out. There is no more depressing sight in all of sports. The only saving grace for them is that with the season over, the pressure of performing in front of a national audience releases, the memory of the loss fades, and kids can go back to being kids.

That is, until they watch SportsCenter the next day.