— It’s not impossible to imagine that late-to-the-friendly soccer fans turned on their televisions in time to see the high-def shoulders of a player slumped on the grass, aiming his most dejected-looking face away from the camera. They just didn’t expect him to be in a baseball uniform. A youth-sized uniform, discolored with dust from an undersized field.
If you clicked over to ESPN2 to watch the U.S. men’s national team face Mexico in Philadelphia last Wednesday, you were instead transported to a different part of Pennsylvania, taking an accidental warp zone to Williamsport. ESPN’s continuous coverage of regional qualifiers for the Little League World Series meant that the first hour of soccer was harder to find than new coach Jurgen Klinsmann's frequently forgotten umlaut.
This isn’t my favorite section of the televised sports calendar. If I wanted to watch a Little League game, I’d spend an evening sitting on a backless wooden bench, buying raffle tickets for a Bass Pro Shop gift card and cheering for whichever team lived closest to my hometown. Little League games should be seen through the shaky-handed camerawork of the centerfielder’s dad, not on a collection of national networks, crammed into the spaces between Frosted Flakes commercials and College Gameday promos.
But that's not the case anymore. The Little League World Series has become an increasingly big business for everyone but the Pedroia-sized players awkwardly fielding fly balls on the Lamade Stadium Field. Last Tuesday's soccer-swapping game, the Southeast Regional semifinal, was one of the 69 Little League games that will air in a 19-day span before the championship Aug. 28, a marathon of literal Not-Ready-for-Prime Time players that will feature enough crying to kill at least one Tom Hanks character. ESPN alone will air 16 games, which seems excessive, especially compared to the 17 NFL games they'll show between early September and late January.
Last year, the network's two-week slate of LLWS games introduced expanded use of instant replay, courtesy of “12 to 14 cameras and up to 16 playback machines,” which as the Los Angeles Times noted, “is nearly twice as many cameras as ESPN uses for many regular-season major league telecasts.”
This year will be even more ridiculously chronicled, as more than half of the World Series games are broadcast in 3D. “If a kid makes an error in right field and is out there crying at a Little League game, seeing his face is a big part of the story,” said Phil Orlins, ESPN 3D’s coordinating producer.
No, it’s not, Phil. If I wanted to spend my evenings with three-dimensional crying kids, I’d lay off the birth control pills.
I know that ESPN is increasing the production values — and their broadcast product — to get the biggest impact out of Williamsport’s little stage. But, to me, it has the opposite effect. It makes the players seem more like characters and less like kids. It seems less spontaneous and more staged, less precious and more pressured, equal parts "Baseball Tonight" and "Toddlers & Tiaras."
To me, it's excessive and almost unfair. Despite the practiced expressions and postgame press conferences (now streaming on ESPNWilliamsport.com) they're kids, the kind who still have favorite foods and take cartoon-shaped chewable vitamins. I’m not sure they need to choke down two weeks worth of nationally televised scrutiny on top of it.
But one game? Sure. The LLWS Championship game has been televised since 1953, when a pre-“thrill of victory” Jim McKay called it for CBS. Ten years later, tape-delayed coverage of the championship started airing during ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" and, starting in 1985, the game was broadcast live.
That part I’m cool with. It’s the other 408 innings that seem unnecessary, and unintentionally turned last week's regional qualifiers into the prime-time version of a participant trophy. And given the schedule for this year’s LLWS, a couple of teams will have the opportunity to lose twice on a major network, a double-feature of depression that will end with an uncomfortable amount of emotion and — because they’re 12 — emoticons.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe kids today — and that’s a sentence starter that comes with a bottle of glucosamine and an honorary AARP card — are inherently comfortable in a crowd, even the million-plus audience for the title game. They’re the oldest members of a generation whose lives have been lived hand-to-mouse, who have always Facebooked and texted and Tweeted and YouTubed, even though the Under-13s on the rosters are technically too young to agree to the Terms of Service.
Last week, New Mexico’s Caesar Garcia was criticized for “showboating” after a home run, earning virtual head shakes from one national announcer and one Washington National. Garcia’s response? Posting a lower-case status update to brag about bragging. “[Stephen] strasburg tweeted about me pimpin my home run!!!!!...blahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh epicness”.
He did. And he did, too. After Garcia smacked a three-run homer, he dropped his bat and paused beside home plate to watch the ball take its one-way trip over the outfield fence.
That was enough for Strasburg, 23, to take a break from his Class A rehab stint to type “Pretty sad seeing 12 year olds pimp home runs and throwing curve balls. Times have changed,” a tweet that was dying for a #getoffmylawn hashtag.
It’s hard to criticize Garcia, but I can find fault with the situation he was in. He was on national television and obviously realized that the network cameras outnumbered his teammates. I would’ve done the same thing, assuming that I had the hand/eye coordination to make contact with anything smaller than John Kruk.
Garcia claimed his behavior was a tribute to Robinson Cano, so Sportscenter did a side-by-side comparison of both swings. That doesn’t seem like a deterrent for other would-be-Canos (or would-be Caesars, although Garcia’s team was eliminated shortly after his blast). Probably the best way to prevent other kids from “showboating” is to threaten to send them to the Astros.
Grumbling aside, I’ll probably still watch part of the championship game. It is fun to see the winners throw themselves into a squirming, smiling Jenga tower on the pitcher’s mound. I understand the appeal of that and, yeah, I get caught in it almost every year.
But televising 64 other games in 19 days? C’mon. I thought Little League had a mercy rule.