x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Little League now in the big league

After watching Saudi Arabia beat Venezuela on Tuesday in the Little League World Series (LLWS), I tuned in for Canada against Germany.

After watching Saudi Arabia beat Venezuela on Tuesday in the Little League World Series (LLWS), I tuned in for Canada against Germany. The 12-year-old German pitcher was struggling. His manager came out to the mound and told him: "Relax, just throw to the mitt, just play?you're not having fun out here." That was good to hear. As much as I like to watch the LLWS each summer, I have a love-hate relationship with the event. But before I get to that, we have to look at how this event has developed so much that a game between children is on national television and ESPN, the biggest sports channel in the United States.

The tournament championship game was first televised by ABC in 1963. For the next few decades, it was a novel event. I stumbled on the title game on a summer afternoon. In the 1970s, the winning sides started coming not from the US, but from foreign countries. From 1971 until 1981, teams from Taiwan and Japan won 10 of 11 titles. The sport of baseball, which Americans consider "our sport" was being dominated by others.

US teams quickly became the underdogs in the LLWS and viewers checked in each summer to see if our boys could upset the powerful teams from Asia. As this happened, ratings for the title game sky-rocketed. Still however, viewers mainly saw the two best American teams play and then the finals versus the best the world had to offer. During the past decade, sports television has taken the LLWS prime-time and with unprecedented coverage.

In 2007, ESPN expanded the coverage to include all the games. Small towns around the country can tune in to see their local team play on television. It is big league. Now comes my problem: it is not supposed to be big league. The television coverage has all the bells and whistles that a major league game has. Players are interviewed before and after the game. They show how fast the pitchers are throwing and compare it to the major leaguers. Managers are miked up to let the people at home listen in when he talks to his players.

While the access is great, it can also be disturbing. I do not see it as much anymore, but for years you would hear how managers treated this game as if it was the big league World Series. I played grade school sports and I have been subject to over-zealous coaches who berate players. I think the coaches who are in the LLWS now are keenly aware that they are under public scrutiny, so they temper their behaviour now.

Worse yet is the "cry shot". ESPN is notorious for zooming in on a pitcher who just gave up a home run. The tears start flowing and the camera captures the emotion. That is the negative. The positive is that this event has given children worldwide something to aspire to. It is not about getting on television as much as it is the ride to get there with your friends. A team from Dubai could have been playing in this year's event in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, had they not been beaten by the Saudis in Poland in June.

A fun part as a viewer is to see a 12-year-old jump on his teammates' backs after he makes a great play. The professionals rarely show that joy anymore. But the best bit is to see children doing something special as such a young age. Most of us go our whole lives without competing against the best. The children at the Little League World Series may go on to other great events in their lives, but for a few weeks every summer they get us to watch and remember when sports were just fun.

@Email:ppabst@thenational.ae You can watch the LLWS live on ESPN America