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Little League World Series: Big Mistake?

Johnie Freatman |
August 31, 2011 | 2:24 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

Does the world stage take the fun out of the game? (USACE Europe District via Creative Commons)
Does the world stage take the fun out of the game? (USACE Europe District via Creative Commons)
Being 12 years old is supposed to be an innocent time. A time for friends, a time for fun, a time to try to navigate all the prepubescent angst and emotion that accompany the teenage transition. However, for a number of young athletes, it has also become a time for all this emotional development to be exposed, poked, and prodded by national television and broadcast to millions of people around the world.

The Little League World Series serves as the ultimate dichotomy of modern sports. The pure joy that the youngsters exude reminds us that on some level, sports is still purely about “the love of the game.”

It also reminds us that the commercialization of youth sports is officially run amok.  What used to be a single tape-delayed showcase of the best American and International team has turned into a mass-marketed extravaganza with 69 games televised.

In the pursuit of this televised glory, we are often left wondering who the real kids are.

Just this year, a Ugandan team qualified for Williamsport, the first African team in the event’s 65-year history. However, they were disqualified after it was revealed that numerous players had falsified birth certificates. A U.S. State Department statement said “several parents admitted (birth records) had been altered to make some players appear younger than they actually are.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the most well-known case of exploitation at little league baseball’s highest stage. In 1992, a team from the Philippines was stripped of its LLWS title when it was revealed that every one of their players was too old for the competition.

And then of course, there’s Danny Almonte.  

In 2001, he captured the imagination of baseball fans with some of the best pitching ever seen at the event, including the first perfect game in 25 years. Only after the tournament ended was it discovered that Almonte was actually 14 years old, resulting in a forfeiture of his team’s victories and a silence of the Randy Johnson comparisons.

Of course, part of the problem is the comparisons and expectations themselves. 

Those who succeed at the highest levels of Little League baseball are also, by and large, those who have physically matured the fastest. This maturation is often enough to masquerade for advanced baseball skills and give onlookers expectations that simply can’t be attained over a long period of time, when physical advantages are mitigated.

The baseball wayside is littered with former Little League World Series stars. For every Jason Varitek, there are far more in the mold of Sean Burroughs, one of the most decorated Little League players ever. 

Burroughs threw two no-hitters and hit .600 as he led his team to the LLWS championship. The son of former AL MVP Jeff Burroughs, Sean Burroughs appeared on Letterman and was on many people’s radar as a future MLB star. Instead, he has been a journeyman and ironically, for somebody once known for prodigious Little League home runs, has had MLB organizations cite a lack of power.

As with the ranking systems that evaluate the most “elite” 10-year-old basketball players, one wonders what the benefit is to adding all this pressure. 

If a LLWS star reaches the big leagues, it is expected. If they don’t, many look upon them as failures. Either way, they have to contend with more scrutiny than any child should.

Of course, when these kids finally do indeed start acting their age, it is on display for the entire world to see. Proponents of televising the LLWS point to the so-called “human element”, or the potential of seeing the volatile emotions of children, as some sort of positive.

Do these people remember the cruelty of junior high, where for some boys, crying is viewed as a show of weakness? 

Do they not understand how big of a stage national television is and that any embarrassing show of emotion could be brought up for years to come?

In an age in which the perils of digital information are enumerated by adults and “Facebook is Forever,” what happens when a few 12-year-olds stop thinking about their digital surroundings and engage in a crotch-grabbing ritual, literally (gasp!) in front of millions? Would future employers reach into Pandora’s Box and hearken back to this moment of juvenile naivete?

Perhaps most frightening of all is what this shows us about us, and the youth sports culture our indulgence has created.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Danny Almonte threw a perfect game in the World Series for the first time in 44 years. In fact, it was the first perfect game in 25 years. Neon Tommy regrets the error.]


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