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Mar 26 2000: Thoughts of Spring: Little League

Spring has come to Boston, and I don’t just mean the temperature got warm. We’ve had some 65 degree days here and there since February, but this weekend people really started taking it seriously. Or, maybe seriously isn’t the right word, because damn it looked like people were having fun. The first thing I noticed when going out for a motorcycle ride was there were a lot of other motorcycles on the road.

The second thing I noticed was all the ballfields in use. When you ride a motorcycle you sit up higher than you do in a car (though not as high as you do in a van or SUV). I could see into parks and fields that, when I am in the car, are invisible to me. Today every single one was inhabited by either a father and son just throwing a ball around, or a couple of neighborhood kids playing a game, or a maintenance guy with a rake, raking out a huge mound of orange-ish infield dirt. I didn’t see people playing Frisbee along the river–that’s a summer thing, I guess. What I did see was people whizzing a small white sphere into each other’s leather-covered hands. It’s spring, it’s time for baseball.

Seeing all those kids out there got me thinking about Little League and about the Little League World Series. Last summer, it so happened that during the week of my baseball renaissance, the Little League World Series was being played. If you’ve read the journal entries above (“Born Again in Baseball”), then you know I spent a week in New Jersey and went to Yankee Stadium for the first time in over a decade (getting close to two). That week was the week of the Little League World Series, which ESPN televised. (One of the bonuses of staying at my parents’ house is they have cable TV.)

I was totally captivated by the games I saw. One of the teams was from my neck of the woods, Toms River, New Jersey, a town we drove through often to get to Seaside Heights, a town where some relatives lived, and you know, I think I even almost dated a guy from there. (He played tuba and I played tuba in rival marching bands. If either of us had been a little more socially ept, I think we would have asked each other out. But we were kind of shy geeks.) I was completely won over by the sportsmanship and the athleticism of the kids, too.

At eleven and twelve years old, none of them looks yet like he will when he’s a man. They were baby-faced and short-legged, and they played their hearts out. The announcers did a good job of illuminating the backstory on the kids and teams, and, as if they knew Little Leaguers the world over were watching the broadcast, which of course they were, they announced in a very educational way, too, stressing fundamentals, good fielding decisions, and so on. What a tutorial for an out of the loop adult like me, who at that point hadn’t yet remembered how to keep a scorecard…

You know me, fan of the drama of baseball, how could I resist this one? The Toms River team, called “The Beast of the East,” had won it all the year before, and were back to try to hold on to their title. They were ahead in the semi-final game 2-0, the “United States” championship game, and it looked like they were going to steamroll right over their competition, Phenix City, Alabama, who they had beat already once in tournament play.

But then the tide turned, when the semi-final game had to be called on account of rain. The next day, the game resumed under sun, but the momentum had been lost. Their star pitcher, Casey Gaynor, who was also the manager’s son, was put back into the game, but his curve wasn’t curving and the other team was hitting it. He got hammered when a Phenix City player, William Gaston, III, hit his second homer in his life (two days after Gaston’s birthday, to boot). Phenix City scored 3 runs that inning, to take the lead 3-2. The player who came in to pitch after Casey (Eric?) made a heroic effort, pitched great and gave up no runs, but those Little League games are short… I was completely on the edge of my seat.

Oh, sure, I worried that all the tv exposure and fame would go to the kids’ heads. That it would harden them or ruin them somehow. I felt a little… voyeuristic watching the young kid from Toms River (was his name Mike?) come to his final at bat, as they were on the verge of losing the game, swing at a third strike and then burst into tears.

But that just proved they were kids after all. The experience hadn’t turned them into mini versions of adult pro ballplayers. Phenix City went on to play Osaka, Japan for the World Championship, and the Toms River crew came home to a huge hometown parade. I saw some of the follow up coverage on the local news. What a pack of little troopers. Their parents expressed pride for what they’d done, even if they didn’t ultimately win it all (You think it’s tough for the Yanks to make the postseason? How about playing in a league with 200,000 teams and close to three million players?) Maybe it was selective news coverage, but I didn’t see any of the “stereotypical” bad pushy-parent stuff. Coach Gaynor, a shoe store manager, who had led three teams to the championship, decided to retire.

In the end, Osaka beat Phenix City, and the day after their championship, I was sitting in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium with my brother and his girlfriend, and there were both teams, Osaka as World Champions, and Phenix City as US Champions, out on the field with the Yankees! I’ve never been so excited to see players whose names i didn’t know. Each of the young players ran out the their respective positions as the Yankees took the field, and stood with his cap over his heart while the national anthem played. Can you imagine the thrill that must have been? First to have won a championship, and then to be standing there with the current baseball World Champions, in Yankee Stadium?

Steinbrenner apparently invited the teams, and they had to get on a bus at 7 a.m. that morning to get to the Stadium from Williamsport, PA (where the Little League World Series is held every year). I’m sure the kids thought it was worth the trip. It’s yet another one of those episodes about the wonder of baseball and Yankee magic that never cease to put a lump in my throat.

(For more info about Little League: The Little League World Series will be played August 20-26, 2000, in Williamsport, PA.

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