A few days ago, Eagles lineman Todd Herremans tweeted, “Anyone watchin Little League World Series?” With the Phillies still fighting to hold their lead in the NL East, most sports fans around here were probably tuned in to the big show. But there’s a lot to love about Little League baseball. The look on a kid’s face when he knocks a home run over the outfield wall. The determination of a young ace staring down a three-two count in the bottom of the ninth. The sportsmanship when the winners and losers line up to shake hands and pat backs. The exuberance of a child enjoying that feeling of victory with his family and friends. The way that sometimes, even for these boys playing like men, only a hug from mom or dad can help ease the sting of defeat.
So leave it to ESPN to take one of America’s last incorruptible sporting events and twist it into something less pure, something that feels a little too SportsCenter-highlight-ready for comfort. In one recent game, a young slugger crushed a ball that seemed to land somewhere in Ohio. Instead of running to first, he took a second to admire his blast. That’s a move he surely learned by watching his big league heroes. He also knew that’s exactly the kind of highlight that Baseball Tonight salivates over. Sure enough, ESPN showed the kid’s moon shot again and again, along with a slow-motion replay as he indulged in some stylin’ and profilin’ before rounding the bases. Another Little Leaguer crossed home plate and unleashed a barbaric cry that Walt Whitman would appreciate (and probably heard). Again, the viewers at home were treated to a few replays as the kid screamed, just a few feet away from the pitcher who just blew the game. The next night, Boston Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett cut loose the same way, and again, it made all the highlights.
Charlie Manuel was on WIP this week and talked about how he likes players who play the right way—guys like Chase Utley, Derek Jeter and Jim Thome. The skipper said he’s not much for “dancing in the dugout.” Kids playing baseball shouldn’t have to adhere to the code of the majors or act like they’re working a 9-to-5 job. Baseball, especially for kids, should be fun. Still, that notion of playing a sport the way it’s meant to be played can get lost in the glare of national TV cameras. It’s a lot more tempting to show up your opponent with a slow trot, posterize someone with a nasty dunk, or showboat in the end zone when you know the world is watching. And it’s not just the kids. During a critical moment late in the showdown between Kentucky and Georgia, a mom was seen jumping for joy after her team scored the go-ahead run. Her first reaction? Looking straight into the camera and mugging for a few seconds. If the parents know how to get the most face time, you can bet their media-savvy kids understand, too. Bryce Harper apparently learned the worst of these lessons at a young age. Considered the best baseball prospect in the country, the 18-year-old has already been thrown out of a minor league game for arguing with an umpire, and the video of him blowing a kiss to a pitcher he just rocked for a home run became a YouTube mini-sensation.
Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote a column this week suggesting it’s time to start paying Little League players, considering all of the money they’re generating for the World Wide Leader and a lot of other adults. That would only make the problem worse. Some kids are already emulating the lousy behavior they see in the pros. Add money to the equation and you’re teaching them that sports and dollar signs are inseparable. That may be true, but some lessons are best learned later in life—like in college, where they’ll surely find out about a system that profits on the talent and hard work of young athletes. For now, let these kids be kids. It’s bad enough that ESPN’s coverage is encouraging a new generation of ballplayers to be less like Thome and more like Manny.