When did this stop being a kid's game?
Saturday, August 24, 2002
Kids used to say the darnedest things.
Now they strut and pose, point and taunt and then scream things like, "THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT!"
This much hasn't changed, though. They still have no clue what they're talking about.
Some chest-puffing and high-stepping by a handful of kids in the Little League World Series has more than a few grown-ups in a snit. Imagine that.
Anybody who has followed Little League knows that a world championship for 12-year-olds has become way more trouble than it's worth to everybody but the people who buy and sell the TV rights. The tournament has been plagued by problems over the years, but child labor laws have never been one of them.
Every time a kid winds up taking the fall, remember who taught him how to play the game; who handled the paperwork; who created, administered, coached and umpired the leagues; who shook their hand, patted them on the back, relentlessly hyped the appearances on television; and who reaped the considerable rewards.
The past problems
Last year, the crisis was an overaged teen, and two weeks ago, it was residency rules. For most of the years before that, it was why foreigners seemed to win all the time. And now the problem is showboating.
First, a kid from Harlem named Fernando Frias called a home run shot in a game last week, banged it off the center-field wall instead, stopped at second base and ran his mouth for as long as his breath allowed. Then a teammate, Andrew Diaz, actually hit one over the fence and circled the bases as if he were a one-man Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
"I'd call it no more than a 12-year-old child being overexcited. He lost his head for moment," Harlem coach Morris McWilliams said -- where else? -- on ESPN late Thursday afternoon.
A few hours later, Harlem faced Worcester, Mass., in a semifinal, with a chance to advance to Saturday's U.S. championship game. If there was something worrying the Harlem coach, you couldn't tell by his words or demeanor.
"Andrew apologized for it," McWilliams said, "and we moved on from there."
There is a reason the only grown-up allowed between the white chalk lines of the diamond during play in the Little League World Series is the second-base umpire. That way, the chances of screwing up the games, at least, are kept to a minimum.
Left to their own devices, kids are as capable of entertaining as they ever were, maybe better.
In the first U.S. semifinal played Wednesday night between Louisville, Ky., and Fort Worth, Texas, there were dueling no-hitters, 49 strikeouts, 11th-inning home runs and nothing that registered over-the-top on anybody's scale of exuberance.
Given the attention and expectations lavished on these kids, you expected the pitcher who lost to be crushed.
It's almost become a staple of the broadcast. It's why you flinched, instinctively, when somebody handed a mike to Fort Worth lefty Walker Kelly.
The kid, barred by Little League rules from pitching more than nine innings, had just struck out 21 batters. Two innings later, Louisville cracked open the game with two home runs off the Forth Worth bullpen. When Walker was told it was the longest game ever, you assumed the disappointment would be too much.
"That," he said, smiling wide enough to flash a full set of braces, "was really cool."
The displays by Frias and Diaz were somewhat less so. And uncool as they might have been, they were behaviors learned from grown-ups. Anybody with a TV can find it on, anytime of day or night.
Interesting, then, that what we didn't get to hear on the Diaz home run was coach McWilliams shouting at him as he rounded second base and began his parade lap.
"You just can't hear me," McWilliams explained.
Judging from what McWilliams did say for public consumption, it's safe to assume his players got the point.
Some of the best players in baseball are also its biggest showboaters -- Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds -- and that's probably no coincidence. Part of coaching is teaching kids to understand that the achievement comes before the celebration, not after.
Jim Litke is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.