Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Boys of Summer

Every year I watch the Little League World Series, and I am reminded of a quote from the movie Kicking and Screaming. Will Ferrell’s character (Phil) coaches a ragtag youth soccer team in the same league as his overzealous father (Buck). When Phil tries to emphasize that he doesn’t want to put the pressure on his own son playing soccer because “it isn’t the big leagues,” Buck tells him: “For those who live between Broadway and Grandville, between the ages of 11 and 12, who are free on Sundays and Tuesdays, this is the big leagues.”

And for the young ballplayers who are eligible to play in their local league, who are between the ages of 11 and 13, who are selected to their district’s all-star team, and who advance through state and regional tournaments, the Little League World Series is the Big Leagues. Not many kids get the chance to play baseball on national TV, or have their stats plastered on ESPN, get Twitter shout-outs from celebrities, and compete to be champions of the world. It doesn’t matter how many of them are going to play ball in college or take a shot at the pros. For a few weeks every summer, the teams at LLWS get the red-carpet treatment and the world watches baseball in its purest form: kids. It is the big leagues.

It’s one of the biggest stages in sports, but keeps the feel of the endless games we played on the playground as kids. A routine grounder might bounce to the outfield for a hit; what looks to be a routine fly ball may just carry over the fence; the runner beats out an errant throw for the inside-the-park home run. But make no mistake, these kids can play. Pitchers hurl 70 mph fastballs; hitters send baseballs to the outfield grass. The fundamentals–knowing where to throw, how to advance the runner and slide into home–are on display every game. They’ve got swagger too. The home-run bat flips; clapping after a big hit; the fist-pumps after a key strikeout; these kids know how to have fun when the world is watching.

But they also give us the best moments in sports. Entire teams celebrating at home plate when a teammate hits a home run. A coach delivering an inspiring message to his team that just came up short. A player apologizing to the opposing coach after showboating just a bit after a home run. The batter shaking the hand of the pitcher whose last pitch knocked him on the helmet.

This year we watched a female pitcher captivate audiences with her performance on the mound. A team from Chicago honored the legacy of Jackie Robinson. There were late-inning comebacks, defensive web-gems, and close plays you had to watch again. There’s a lot that distracts from the sport when following professional baseball–the money, egos, long games–and sometimes we need a reminder of why this is indeed America’s pastime; why showing up at a ballpark will remain an important part of our culture regardless of who we’re rooting for. These kids represent the idea that the truest purpose of sports is to play for the love of the game. And they can show us that when a group of people unite their individual efforts for the good of a team, they can accomplish great things. So next year tune into one of the most inspiring and entertaining sporting events and see sports at its finest. We call them Little Leaguers, but every year, they’re standing tall.  AN

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Life without Tiger

Golf is going to be okay.

At first, we weren’t quite sure. For over a decade, Tiger Woods captivated golf audiences around the world even before he won his first Masters in 1997. He posted remarkable scores under par, won the “Tiger Slam” in the prime of his reign as the World #1 player, and consistently found his name at the top of every leaderboard. Tiger Woods, to be fair, was golf. American viewers flocked to grandstands and televisions, seeing Tiger’s fiery personality match the same intensity that he fueled into every shot. In 2009, his well-publicized leave of absence left the sport with a gaping hole. Suddenly Tiger’s quest for 18 majors ground to a halt. TV ratings plummeted; fans lost interest. Tournament sponsors wondered if the game’s popularity would ever recover. Now Tiger is playing again, but the older Tiger is far from the Tiger of old. He is 38 years old, has endured multiple knee and back surgeries; his swing mechanics put an incredible amount of strain on his body, and he is always under pressure and scrutiny whenever he tees off. He hasn’t won a major in 6 years, and although the unluckiest deflection off the pin at the 2013 Masters may have played a role in that, the Tiger who showed up at last weekend’s PGA championship isn’t likely to contend for another one anytime soon.

But golf is going to be fine.

Not because we are waiting for an eventual return to Tiger greatness, but because we are in the midst of Rory McIlroy’s own remarkable winning streak in his young career. Because Rory has already won 4 majors, posting impressive scores each time. He will roll into Augusta for a chance at the career Grand Slam, 4 years after an atrocious final round 80 cost him the green jacket in 2011.

And also because Phil Mickelson is still trying to win the elusive US Open, ending the heartbreak of his 6 runner-up finishes. He already has 3 Masters wins, and would love to cap off his own career Slam. Not to mention he has continued to play well despite dealing with arthritis (and whatever financial investigation in which he is involved; he has not been charged with any wrongdoing).

And because Rickie Fowler is playing the best golf of his career, finishing in the Top 5 in all 4 majors this year. He has quickly become one of golf’s young stars, and will likely be hoisting a major trophy soon enough

Because Jordan Spieth has yet to reach the prime of his likely outstanding career.

Because we could see Bubba Watson’s long drives win him a few more green jackets.

Because Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia are still trying to shed the infamous “best player to never win a major” label, despite a combined 67 professional wins and multiple runner-up finishes in major tournaments.

And because every tournament seems to have another “can you believe that” shot, and of course the guy yelling “get in the hole” even off the tee. And every tournament might have the same thrilling finish we saw last weekend. If you missed it, you missed out.

No matter who you’re rooting for, the stage is set for great golf in the upcoming years. You may want to tune in a few times (the broadcasting is getting better too, with less down time between shots). Over the next few years, golf is going to be very exciting to watch. Whether the same can be said for Tiger, we’ll have to wait and see.  AN