Well, there’s no avoiding it. Each year, around this same time, the event returns, seemingly more glorified and glamorized than the prior year, if that’s even possible. And each year I feel compelled to write about it, hopefully in an even more cynical way than the prior year, if that’s even possible. Of course, I’m talking about the most iconic and public symbol in all of America (and perhaps the world) of what’s been called the “professionalization of youth sports.” I’m talking about the 64-year-old Little League World series.
For anyone looking to lament the transformation of youth sports from its origins as a grass-roots, kid-centric, community activity to its present day manifestation as a multi-billion dollar, adult-dominated industrial machine, one needs to look no further than ESPN’s broadcast schedule for the month of August. Because there, one will find the living results of a $30 million dollar broadcast media contract extension signed between ESPN and Little League International back in 2007. Having expanded their coverage of games last year, ESPN is slated to show us die-hard baseball fans (is that who watches these games?) no less than 54 regional and international contests this August, leading up to the heralded world championship game to be aired on ABC, as tradition dictates. And for those of us who want to die even harder, this year ESPN will broadcast 18 of those games on ESPN 3D, presumably so that when the kid from Fairfield lays down a bunt against the team from Andover, we can feel like we’re right in the middle of the squeeze play ourselves. How cool is that?
Is that enough cynicism already? Maybe, but I’m not the only cynic doing the lamenting. I was dutifully watching ESPN’s SportsCenter this morning when they ran a story on a Little Leaguer from New Mexico who hit a walk-off home run and then dropped his bat and paused to admire the shot, much in the same fashion that we see an Albert Pujols or David Ortiz pose after stroking a blast which they instantly know is gone. In fact, the ESPN story pointed out that the kid’s manuever was similar to the home-run pose of his professed idol, Robinson Cano, and then ESPN proceeded to run a split screen video showing both Cano and the Little Leaguer in a synchronized display of their self-admiring, homer-viewing poses. Frankly, I thought it was kind of a funny story (though, of course, I silently hoped that the Little League coach had the good sense to impart a bit of wisdom on the matter of humility as the aspiring Hall-of-Famer rounded home plate and entered the dugout). But fortunately for all of us Little League cynics (and I know you’re out there), there was a fair amount of high-profile lamenting on the incident.
“Pimping” Home Runs
After seeing the story on ESPN, a fellow named Stephen Strasburg tweeted the following comment: “…Pretty sad seeing 12-year-olds pimp home runs, and throwing all curveballs. Times have changed…” Mr. Strasburg speaks with some authority when it comes to things involving the game of baseball. In 2009 Strasburg was selected out of San Diego State by the Washington Nationals as the first overall pick in the MLB draft, signing a record-breaking $15 million contract. ESPN called him the “most hyped pick in draft history,” (and who knows more about hype than ESPN? - just ask Little League…or Lebron James). Sports Illustrated called him “the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in baseball history.”
After just two months in the minor leagues, Strasburg found himself in his first major league start on June 8th, 2010 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. A Sports Illustrated columnist called it “the most hyped pitching debut in the history of the game.” (Perhaps it’s Strasburg who now knows more about hype than ESPN? Nah.) He set a team record with 14 strike outs and, two games later, set a major league record by compiling the most strike outs of any player’s first three games. I personally remember checking the TV schedules to see if I could watch him pitch. But over the next couple of weeks seeing Strasburg pitch became more difficult.
A couple of games after the Pittsburgh start, Strasburg’s shoulder started to hurt. A couple of games after that, Strasburg’s elbow started to hurt. A couple of weeks after that, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg may not be the definitive authority on whether Little League has taken things too far. (Besides, how can something called a “tweet” be considered a credible pulpit for any reasonably serious declaration anyway?) He does seem to have a point, however, when he says it’s sad to see 12-year-olds pimping home runs and throwing curve balls (which – and Mr. Strasburg may also find this irritating – Little League International is currently proudly proclaiming has nothing to do with kids’ arm injuries), and when he says that “times have changed.” But I think what’s “changed” is not the fact that kids are throwing curveballs and doing some show-boating. That probably was around long before Strasburg himself played Little League (which was only about 10 years ago). What’s more likely changed is that millions of us now have 54 broadcast opportunities to see showboating and curveballs, even in 3D, if we’re so inclined.
But alas, enough Little League bashing for one night. Besides, my son just ran in to tell me that there’s a kid on the mound for Kentucky that throws 85 mph. Lamenting be damned, I can’t help myself. I gotta’ see this – again.