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Little League 2014 Drips To An End

The 2014 Little League World Series is over. The soft-serve ice cream machines, unplugged and rolled outside the concession stands, leaked defrost onto the walkways on Monday morning. Cablemen who worked here for ESPN the past two weeks roll up the network’s tentacles. The Worldwide Leader’s thousand eyes are already packed away, ready for shipment to whatever college town they’ll be focused on next week – football is coming and Full Coverage must be provided of kickoffs from Dublin to Spokane.

The Little League grounds, now with players, coaches, and families departed, will yield no more storylines, no more shots of tearful, fresh-faced youth glorying in victory and crushed in defeat until next year. Then, a new group of 16 teams will arrive in mid-August and provide the material for the ESPN and media machine to make a fresh batch of sentimental sausage, in the usual flavors of Tear-Jerker and Smile-Maker.

If one isn’t prone to eating up the Youthful Joy and Pure Sportsmanship angles whole, it’s easy to dismiss the World Series spectacle as one of the most TV-friendly events ever conceived. Don’t blame the hype all on ESPN; there’s always been an advertising angle. When U.S. Rubber came on as a Little League sponsor in 1947 by giving founder Carl Stotz $8,000 to put on the second World Series, it was a sponsorship like any other – for profit. When the company, maker of Keds shoes, effectively took over the organization in the mid-1950s, it pushed for more organizational growth, and the dollars have followed ever since.

It’s an icky business, these players getting nothing, other than a free trip and some equipment they’ll quickly outgrow, while offering their faces for national endorsements. The feeling is made worse when watching at home: ads for laundry detergent follow shots of kids sliding into third.

On the ground in Williamsport, there’s less noise interfering with reminders that the World Series participants are Just Folks who come here with whole lives behind them that have led to this point. Without real people reacting to life, preferably within the emotional context of a ballgame, the World Series sponsors would have no heart-warming or -wrenching pictures alongside which to sell their wares.

Now, some of the adults aren’t the nicest; perhaps they are part of the Adult Problem with Little League that’s been worried about since the Fifties. One of this year’s managers talked frankly in the conference room about the postgame “butt-chewing” he gave his team after a loss. He then spent most of the week’s evenings at the nearby Mountaineer Lounge, drinking Tuaca and muttering about should-have-beens.

New England’s Dave Belisle was the managerial star of the World Series after the speech he gave his Rhode Island team when they were knocked out by Chicago. Some of the New England families showed up at the Mountaineer later that night for dinner, a big enough crowd that the staff kept the kitchen open well after its 11 o’clock close to feed them all.

There, the Rhode Island people talked about Belisle and how he’s been an assistant coach for his father for decades, since leaving Providence College, at Mount St. Charles Academy, a hockey powerhouse that has won like 30 state championships since 1978. He doesn’t have a win to his name, but coaching is something the man knows.

The next day, on the concourses, Belisle was taking congratulations from strangers on his speech: “What you said was so great!,” that sort of thing. Few, if any, knew him from Adam; sometimes it takes national TV exposure for people to be reminded others might have something worthwhile to say.

Washington’s manager, Robley Corsi Jr., had plenty to say during the week. He felt good about his team’s chances of getting to Williamsport when they showed up at the Northwest Regional. Their competition included Wyoming – “I think they’ve got a one-team regional, you show up and you win,” Corsi said, and Alaska: “They’ve had snow off the ground for like four days, and they’re playing in the All-Star tournament.” Compared to the Hawaii and California teams, who played in a different group at the same site, his team “looked like midgets.”

Corsi, who beat melanoma while coaching his team over the past couple years, also had the best response to the generic “How do you think your chances are?” question: “We’re going to beat everyone, because we’re better than them. If someone is better, we’re going to lose.”

When professionals savvy in the ways of cameras and microphones speak these days, they lack that sort of forthrightness. Someday, perhaps, all of us will be experts in saying nothing that doesn’t advance our Brand. Then, the thin slice of life that a Big TV Production can replicate will be an honest depiction of reality. Until then, so long as most kids continue not to give a damn until they’re 13 or so, and some people keep that sense all their life, the Little League World Series will be something that’s worth watching. Because it’s all about the kids.