I love baseball. Maybe you know this about me.
For the true baseball fan, this is a great time of year. Baseball in one of its purest forms returned last Thursday with the first pitch of the Little League World Series. The Knucklehead and I are lucky enough to live within a short drive of Williamsport, PA, so when he was little, we’d drive up and spend a day shifting back and forth between Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums. Readers of this blog will remember that we’ve been to all 30 major league ballparks, and many other baseball attractions around the country. It is without exaggeration that I tell you the LLWS is a must-see.
There are problems with Little League in this country, and there are problems with youth sports that are very real. It is not with blind eyes that my knucklehead and I gaze on the fields of Williamsport. As with any youth organization, children involved are visited with blessings and with harm. In future blog posts I will address the harm that awaits our children in youth sports, and what I’ve assumed as my role as a parent as The Knucklehead has grown up.* But today, I want to want to wax a little nostalgic. Today, I’d like you to see the LLWS as we have.
We started going when The Knucklehead was about six or seven; still too young to play Little League baseball himself. We went to see the big kids play, to see what he might be doing himself some day.
To understand what makes this such a great experience for young kids, there are a few things you should know. First, is that games go on for almost two weeks, day and night, split between two stadiums. Eight teams from across the United States play each other to an eventual American Champion, while eight international teams play each other to determine who faces the US in the final. So there’s a lot of baseball being played on a campus that has a small-town fair feel to it. You park in the gravel. You walk around. You eat hot dogs and kettle corn, and wash it down with lemonade. You watch baseball. You watch people.
All the games are free. All of them, even the final, broadcast around the world on ABC. It’s easy, if you’re a die-hard fan, to take in four games in a day. If you’re a more casual fan, it’s easy to wander in and out of the stadiums, or catch part of a game from the hill rising up from the field.
The Knucklehead and I rarely went to Williamsport on the weekend, or during the final rounds of baseball. Instead, we’d pick a weekday early in the tournament, before the place was mobbed with too many crowds. Those were the best days for us, because most of the people we’d see wandering around were families of the players, if not the players themselves between games. If you got to a stadium a little early, you could wander down and find great seats, especially for the international games.
I remember one of our first games, a pool game between Japan and Mexico. It was a morning game, and we’d staked out a couple great seats right behind, and to the first base side of home plate. We talked about it, and I came up with a few reasons I was going to cheer for Japan. Those reasons were: 1) because I liked Japanese films, 2) the names seemed easier to pronounce, and 3) since they had to come a greater distance, I figured they’d have less people cheering for them and would appreciate our support.** Then there’s the custom they have of bowing to the opposing team and the spectators after every game, win or lose, which I find to be the classiest thing I’ve ever seen on a playing field. The Knucklehead decided my reasoning was good enough for him, and cheered with me for Japan.
So, we’re sitting there, and as each kid comes up to the plate, they flash his name and a stat or two on the scoreboard. So we’re able to cheer on each kid by name as he or she digs in, and since we’re sitting so close, the players can clearly hear us, every once in a while flashing a wave or a wink, which makes The Knucklehead’s day, as if David Ortiz himself was acknowledging him. And when Musashi Miyamoto (not his real name; sorry kid, I don’t remember) comes up with runners on, we’re yelling encouragement at the kid by name, and doesn’t he just tattoo a pitch over the right field wall, putting his team on top. We go nuts, and as the kid crosses the plate, right before he high-fives all his teammates, he looks straight at The Knucklehead, and points both index fingers right at him, as if to say, “I got you, bro! Thanks for the love!”
Knucks, being a little kid, almost falls over. He can’t believe the connection he just made with someone from halfway around the world. Someone, not incidentally, who just hit a monster 3-run shot.
We talk about that on the way home that night. I tell The Knucklehead that when that kid goes home, all his friends are going to ask him what America is like. Miyamoto’s friends are going to have their own predispositions, and Miyamoto himself will have a handful of experiences. Good and bad. But he’ll have at least one story about a little blond American kid that made him feel welcome. “That’s how we make the world a better place, Knucks, one person at a time. We can’t reach everybody, but we reach the ones we can.”
In subsequent trips, we assumed a sense of responsibility. Knucks and I don’t live in Williamsport, but we do live in Pennsylvania, so we came to feel ourselves as hosts to people coming in from across the country and around the world. If we saw someone looking bewildered, we’d ask if we could help. We’d talk to everyone, in the stands, in line for food. We’d ask everyone where they were from. How far they’d traveled. How long they’d been on the road. We’d welcome them to Pennsylvania, ask them if they were finding things they needed. There’s an atmosphere at the LLWS that fosters hospitality like that. They were our guests, and it was important to make them feel welcome in our home. Not a bad lesson for a young child to learn.
I remember walking out of an exciting game, a nail-biter in which Curacao had come from behind to win. As I passed a big guy wearing a Curacao T-shirt, I tapped him on the arm and said, “Congratulations!” The man physically grabbed me and hugged me. He was beaming, jumping up and down (pulling me with him), bellowing in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish. But apparently, I can laugh in Spanish, and that was good enough for us. It was good enough for The Knucklehead, too, who chirped about that all the way home.
There are lots of little lessons like that in Williamsport. For adults, it’s a place to be nostalgic, to look back. For kids, both players and spectators, it’s a place of dreams. A place where they can fantasize about their futures in baseball, be lured by the sugarplums of competing in the majors. They know it’s not likely to happen. They’re twelve-year-olds, they’re not idiots. But they can still dream.
Most of them, anyway.
Which brings us to Mo’ne Davis.
Mo’ne Davis, as many of you know, is the ace of the pitching staff for the Taney Dragons, representing the Mid-Atlantic states in this year’s LLWS. I watched her pitch a complete game to get her team to the LLWS (6 innings in Little League, but all the more impressive when you’re working with a pitch limit of 85. Clay Kershaw wishes he could make it through 6 innings with only 85 pitches). Yesterday, she pitched a complete-game shutout to help bring her Philadelphia-based team their first victory. Mo’ne throws heat, up to 70mph. I’ve never been clocked on a radar gun, but as an adult man, I’m not sure I can throw at her speed. Definitely not with her accuracy. Mo’ne isn’t the only pitcher on her team, and the Dragons wouldn’t have made it this far unless they had a full roster of great players. She is part of a team, and baseball is a team game. But I’m not sure they would have gotten this far without her.
You should watch Mo’ne play baseball, because this is the last chance you’re going to get. Since she’s 13 (Little League rules allow 13-year-olds to play if they turn 13 before a certain date), this is her last season in Little League baseball. And since she’s a girl, this is probably her last season of playing baseball. Ever.
Little League is to be applauded for insisting on allowing girls to play baseball (at least at the national/international level. In reality, on the local level, it’s often a different story, subject to the prejudices of the community). But after that, there’s almost no opportunity for girls to play baseball in an organized league. Yes, there’s softball. Softball is a fine sport. But it’s not baseball. And Mo’ne Davis is a baseball player. You can see it when she takes the mound. When she stands at the plate, facing another pitcher.
Mo’ne won’t get to play Senior League baseball, like her teammates. She won’t get to play in high school. Or in college. Or in the Major Leagues. Not in this country. In a week and a half, Mo’ne’s career in baseball will be over.
I wanted to reminisce in this piece, to write about the dreams fostered by the Little League World Series. But I can’t do that and ignore the fact that the dreams are only there for the boys. Somewhere in this country’s past, we decided that girls weren’t cut out to play baseball. That decision was made at a time when women were fighting for basic rights, some hard-won, some still being contested. That uninformed decision became so ingrained that even during the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League proved that women could play great baseball, the prejudice remained in place. Women shouldn’t have to play softball when they turn 14. They should be able to choose to play softball, or baseball, depending on which suits them.
Realistically, Mo’ne Davis would never make it to the major leagues, not as a pitcher. Youth pitching careers end in youth, the stresses on growing arms effectively end pitching careers before they begin. Major League pitchers usually start pitching in college. The odds of her making it to The Show as a player of any kind would be remote, even if she had high school and college baseball available, just as it is for the boys. Playing in the majors is winning the lottery, and these kids know it.
But they can still dream. That’s what the Little League World Series is all about. They can all still say, “what if?” The way children are supposed to.
Just not the girls. And that isn’t fair. Because I love baseball, and it would have broken my heart to have someone slam the door shut on my knucklehead because he committed the sin of turning 14. Mo’ne Davis loves baseball, too. You can see it when she takes the field. She should have the chance to say, “what if?” just like the boys.
**I needn’t have worried. We found out that every year a contingent of Japanese students drive up from Penn State University just so they can cheer on their countrymen. Or countrykids. Whatever. In any case, the PSU students paint their faces, bring signs, and in general make the kids feel like big-shot athletes. It’s a lot of fun to watch.