Why I Love Little League

"It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again."

As an adult, particularly as a parent, there is a certain pleasure in seeing a child do something for the first time. It allows us to shed for a moment the barnacle-like cynicism that as we accrue with age. So it was when the recent 9 &10-year-old Little League Baseball Virginia State Tournament was held in my town the other week. It reminded me of what I love about kids' sports when it's done well. And very well it was.

They came from all over: in cars daubed in paint and streamers, in caravans from the furthest regions of the state. For some this had been the longest trip they'd ever made. For others it was yet another field among hundreds they'd played on since they were in Pee-Wee league. Like society itself, the microcosm that is little league baseball is a melting pot of all shapes, sizes, colors, and wealth. One player is heard to exclaim with awe: "I've never played on a field with lines before." The brashness of the city kids mixes with the old-world politeness of their country brethren. Tables at the opening dinner that had been reserved for each team were soon peppered with members from others as pins are traded and that most adult of abilities to relive and enhance sporting tales was practiced for the very first time.

There were the nicknames of course. Great ones. One of my favorites was Bow-Bo who hailed from Honaker. He couldn't exactly remember why he received that epithet just that two of his friends had bestowed it upon him. Now he's getting older, he told me quietly, he would like to be referred to as just "Bo". There were also Noodle, Biscuit and Wormy whose names will forever echo in some backwater of my consciousness. Although of extreme youth, make no mistake these kids could play ball. There were shortstops that were like vacuum cleaners in the way the ball would always end up cleanly in the glove no matter where they had to field it from. We were treated to the sights of sluggers who could put the ball over the fence but were still young enough not to try and fake indifference to their accomplishment.

Games were intense. Who could imagine that a 2-1 ball game between teams of 9 & 10 year olds would be so compelling? The players rose to the occasion as they struggled each inning to break the game open only to find their opposite numbers equally as resolute to keep them in check. Fans cheered, cowbells rang, the clink of the ball as it met the bat filled the air, high octave calls of "cut it" echoed across the field. Overhead an airbus climbed out of Dulles airport. A few saw it. No one heard it.

There were blowouts too, but some of these transcended the realm of the ordinary. Not because of the baseball but because of the way the suffering players maintained their dignity and their opposite numbers gave them their respect. During one mighty thrashing I heard the coach reminding his players that: "These guys are our friends. We play basketball and football against them."

The players are told to put on their game faces. They do, but they last only as long as it takes to call "play ball". Their faces betray the terrible excitement of the game. You can see them live and die a thousand times during the game: as they face each pitch, when they field the balls that come their way, and when they attempt that throw to first hoping to beat the runner.

There's supposed to be no crying in baseball, but there was - just a little - and laughter - quite a lot - and there was every other emotion on display. The players wore them without self-consciousness: that was their privilege. It was there for everyone watching to see, and that was ours. Being an umpire bestows a precious intimacy with the game and its players. Most vivid memories include a batter who swung wildly at his first two pitches but battled back by fouling off several strikes and leaving the balls to draw a walk. There was a look of intense relief, joy, pride, and amazement on that batter's face as he made his way to first base. This was no face you'd see opposite you at the card table. Never more is the evidence of fear and anticipation on show than when the game is on the line. Bottom of 6, two down, two on, and two runs behind: The batter takes his last instructions from the coach. His last question/pleading is overheard as I stood nearby: "I only have to get to first base - right??" I find myself recalling a phrase from an old poem in which "Its beauty and its terror" is used to describe an object. I think I now understand how something could have those two properties at once.

The end of a game became a bittersweet moment. Sweet because there was going to be another game tomorrow, bitter because we were one game closer to the end of the tournament. Soon there would only be 8 teams remaining, then four ... There is a horrible type of cliché that one usually hears at occasions like this. It generally takes the form of "The game was the real winner", or "Everyone was a winner". Well no, there was a deserving winner and it was the team from SYA East. However, this was just one end product of the 7 days. The true value of an event like this is to be assessed as the sum of a host of smaller victories: to overcome, to achieve, to get back up and do it all again, to accept defeat with grace. The latter was no better demonstrated by the pitcher, having just been hit out of the park, who joined the throng at home plate to offer his hand in congratulations to the batter as he completed his tour of the bases. While the kids were the feature event, some reflections on the adults is only proper. The horror stories of over-competitive or over-compensating parents are the stuff of dark legend. As an umpire I felt a little trepidation before the tournament started. However, this was a needless worry, as the parents took their cue from their players and were gracious and generous.

Was the players' outstanding sportsmanship a function of their parents and coaches examples or were the kids the role models for the adults? It was both of course, although the tone of the week had been established by those responsible for organizing and running the tournament. This they communicated clearly to the managers and the officials. It was something they never let anyone forget for the duration. Whether this is turns out to be their only tournament or they go on to many more, I hope that years from now Bow-Bo, Biscuit, Wormy, and Noodle will remember with advantages what feats they did during those tournament days, recall each others names, and their stories teach their sons. In doing so they too can once again dip themselves in those magic waters.

"You know we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day."

Neale Ferguson
August 2008