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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