Little League, Big Dreams
pp.304, $22.95, Sourcebooks Inc.
Charles Euchner's previous book, The Last Nine Innings struck an immediate chord with me, since it dealt with the 2001 World Series, in which our beloved Diamondbacks beat the hated Yankees in the most dramatic fashion impossible. His latest offering, Little League, Big Dreams, about the Little League World Series (LLWS), doesn't have such resonance. This is, I should quickly point out, in no way the author's fault - in the Scottish town where I grew up, there was no Little League. The peak of sporting excellence for twelve-year olds was the summer soccer league: that, however, received no coverage outside a few column inches in the local paper.
Hence, the American obsession with "junior sports" remains a matter of total bemusement to me. The nation grinds to a halt every March for the NCAA basketball tournament, while Division 1-A college football games attracted an average crowd of over 46,000 per game last year (15,000 more than major-league baseball). But perhaps the weirdest example of this phenomena, to my eyes, is the LLWS, which takes place every summer in Williamsport. It's twelve-year old kids, playing ball - yet the pool games are a staple of ESPN, while the US and World Championship contests get national, network TV coverage. An Arizona team, from Ahwatukee, made it there this year; you could have wallpapered your house with the press coverage. Though they didn't make it out of pool play, were still feted on their return and presented at a D'backs game (even if the town name was mis-spelled as "Ahwahtukee" on the JumboTron!).
It's all very strange - and remains that way, after reading the book. For while Euchner does a good job of revealing the ferocious effort necessary to reach Williamsport, I'm still perplexed on a number of levels. For example, the LLWS is far from being the "best" baseball in its age bracket - this is an inevitable result of the relatively small catchment area, from which teams can draw. "Travel teams", which pull players from a far wider area, are universtally regarded as being a much higher standard of play, but their tournaments do not receive anything like the same level of coverage. Even the tournaments run for other age groups by Little League, like Senior League Baseball are all but ignored. It seems that the LLWS has, after 60 years, become an icon of Americana, and is covered as such even though - as anyone who has watched a game will admit - the play is often a bit crap.
The other question which remains in my mind is, how much fun is it really for the kids? Certainly, it doesn't seem like the rigorous training, punishing schedule, risk of (and actual) injury, and the fact that 99.9% of teams end up as losers, would make a good time. But it's hard to tell from the book, because it concentrates almost entirely on the World Series, which the vast majority of players never reach. From my perspective, as someone to whom this is all entirely alien, it would have been interesting to take a look at Little League from the bottom to the top. I'm curious to see how whether the issues Euchner depicts are prevalent throughout the system, or only at the highest levels.
I appreciate, however, it would probably be very hard to get an honest answer from the players, as to how much they're enjoying it, or what say they have in their participation. Wisely, Euchner talks more to the parents and coaches, who certainly seem like the driving forces, to an almost creepy degree. It's as if their kids' success becomes their success; perhaps the closest parallel I can come up with, is the parents who push their pre-teen daughters into beauty pageants. It's not how I would raise my kids, and I'm not certain it's the best way to raise rounded adults, especually when, as it appears here, you're prepared to sacrifice their well-being for "your" victory.
The book is probably at its most fascinating when it covers aspects off the beaten track, such as the Russian team's background and involvement. Sure, they lost every game, but their coach was the only one who refused to let his pitchers throw curveballs, which can cause permanent damage to developing arms. I have much greater respect for him, than those coaches who push their players to the limits of their unformed bodies, and beyond. There's a telling quote from one coach: "Someone needs to speak out for these young athletes. They are being abused and everyone who has ever coached an all-star team is guilty because the rules allow it." And here's another one, from author and former NBA player, Bob Bigelow: "The child's need to play is trumped by the adult's need to win." Er, your attention, please: It's only a freakin' game, folks.
Euchner makes it plain what his opinion is: Little League is a great idea, spoiled by the adults. They forge documentation (see the Danny Almonte affair); they force their pitchers to throw the curveball; and it's they who harangue the umpires and opposing coaches when results don't go their way. [We had an unpleasant demonstration of this from the Ahwatukee parents, who accused an opposing team of losing deliberately, thereby eliminating the AZ team] The book presents damning indictments of all these, and I'm thoroughly convinced by its case. In his final chapter, Euchner suggests that the best way forward may be to return the game to the kids, and let them have more of a say, rather than being little more than ball-playing robots. That sounds a great deal more like my kind of game.
While I can certainly appreciate the effort, which is both massive and, iceberg-like, mostly beneath the surface, I can't help feeling it's somewhat misdirected. If all the time, energy and money devoted to Little League was spent on social projects, it could make America a much better place. Though, I admit, you could probably say the same about almost any other large-scale activity, and despite my qualms, I suspect that the vast majority of parents approach Little League with a more benign, laid-back attitude than those who reach the World Series.
Certainly, Euchner's book is a useful part of the discussion on Little League's position as we enter the third millennium, and is recommended for anyone who played, coached or parented Little League. Even I, who falls into "d) None of the above," certainly learned a lot about the organization (as well as the Hawaiian fondness for Spam!) - though I can't honestly say that my opinion of it has been improved by what I know. The next time I watch the LLWS, I'll be doing so with a more informed, but perhaps slightly jaundiced eye. It will certainly no longer be merely a bunch of kids playing ball.
[You can visit the publisher's site for more information on the book]