Sometime in between yelling at my TV that the South Korean coaches are bush league on Thursday and pumping my fist as Hawaii’s Sean Yamaguchi recorded a strikeout with the only three pitches he threw in the sixth inning on Sunday, I realized that I’m addicted to the Little League World Series. I absolutely love it. And I don’t mean that ironically. I understand that some people pretend to care about 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds playing baseball as a joke, but I’ve been well past that point ever since experiencing Hawaii’s legendary comeback in the bottom of the sixth inning of the 2005 title game. Now, every year, I get genuinely invested in the lives of children I will never meet, to the extent that I’ve probably spent about 30 hours over the last five days watching Little League baseball from my couch. In fact, I feel confident saying that I could step into ESPN’s broadcast booth and fire off Little League takes that would make Karl Ravech’s face melt. (The two I’m most passionate about: The new bats have RUINED the game, and South Korea’s coaches should be banned for the rest of this year’s tournament because of the Randy Marsh vibes they’re putting out.) The Little League World Series is a sports-watching experience unlike any other, and each August I’m left in awe that it even exists in the first place.
No, seriously. I cannot believe that ESPN and ABC broadcasting the Little League World Series is something that annually happens. Do you realize how incredible that is? Football season officially kicks off in less than a week, yet if you flip on ESPN at any point during the next few days, you’re just as likely to see some 12-year-old with the faint outline of a mustache throwing smoke past a 4-foot-10 kid who loves lasagna and the tongue-out emoji as you are analysts discussing whether Carson Wentz will be healthy enough to start in Week 1. I mean, let’s do the “If this didn’t already exist and somebody came up with the idea today, what would the reaction be?” test. Here’s the pitch: Preteens from all over the world descend upon BFE, Pennsylvania, right as school is about to start … to play each other in a baseball tournament … at a multimillion-dollar facility … with thousands of people in attendance (all of whom get in for free) and a national audience watching via America’s preeminent sports network. We outfit these kids in Russell Athletic jerseys, make them stay in the same dorm for almost two weeks, and turn a cartoon gopher who wears costumes and dances with umpires into the face of the entire enterprise. How far into that pitch could you get before being laughed out of the room? If I were the one making the call, I’d be out as soon as I heard the word “preteens.”
The best part, though, is that despite the Little League World Series having all of the bells and whistles to suggest that winning is vitally important—big stadiums, massive crowds that come to the championship games, and the fact that ESPN sends its MLB crew to call the event—plenty of other aspects send the exact opposite message. There are pitch-count limits; every player on each roster is required to take an at-bat in every game; and the typical plate umpire might be a car mechanic from Albuquerque who will call any pitch that ends up in the catcher’s glove a strike. That last part is especially hilarious to think about. I mean, can you imagine another sporting event in the middle of a multiyear television contract with a major network being officiated by a less qualified group of people? It’s amazing. It would be like if some guy who, say, ran a roofing company in Omaha was asked to ref in the Final Four. Wait. Forget I said that. Let’s just move on.
The Little League World Series is a miracle, and it struck me over the weekend that we, as a society, must do whatever we can to preserve it. America needs the Little League World Series, maybe now more than ever. It’s the last bastion of unadulterated wholesomeness in sports. There are no debates over one-and-done culture, the catch rule, or protests during the national anthem. Little Leaguers don’t get arrested at strip clubs, care about their “brand,” pump their bodies full of PEDs, or sign with 73-win teams in free agency. All they do is hit dingers and do the floss dance, and then go back to school and ask girls if they watched it on TV.
Maybe I’m naive, but I’d argue that even the few instances in which it feels like the players are a little too self-aware—such as the Big Al phenomenon, Marwynn Matthews Jr.’s introduction, the Australian kid who loves Gucci cologne, Yamaguchi hamming it up for the camera, and Oliver Gonzalez’s “special talent”—feel more like kids having fun rather than a concentrated effort to become viral stars. And yes, I know there are occasionally scandals in the Little League World Series, the most famous one involving Danny Almonte and the most recent one surrounding a team from Chicago that vacated its 2014 U.S. title for recruiting players from outside its district. But even those are exceptions that prove the rule. The only reason the Danny Almonte story became such a big deal in the first place is because cheating in Little League has always been unconscionable. It’s OK to flip your bat after a home run, it’s OK to bunt to break up a no-hitter, and as the South Korean coaches have proved, it’s apparently OK to steal signs and run onto the field to put your hands on players during a live-ball situation. But if you try to cheat in Little League baseball, well, may God have mercy on your soul. (Just ask the Australian coach who was banned for the entire Little League World Series because he failed to get all of his players an at-bat during a qualifier game.)
And I think that’s why, even though I know it’s the most cliché thing in the world to say, I become so enamored of the Little League World Series every year. The wholesomeness is infectious. I am a sucker for pitchers walking over to first base to apologize to a batter they just hit with a pitch. I’m a sucker for postgame handshake lines, kids calling timeout to tell their coach that they’re nervous, and teams gathering sacred infield dirt to take home as a souvenir when they lose. I love that the umpires are volunteers, that pretty much every kid has a terrible and endearing nickname, and that the commentators are scared to call the fat kids “fat.” I love everything about the teams from Hawaii and Japan, that coaches are forced to pull pitchers who have no-hitters going if they reach their pitch-count limit, and that players cry when they screw up and/or lose, not so much because I’m a sadist but because I convince myself that I’m watching the origin story of a strong-willed adult who knows how to handle adversity and failure. I’m a sucker for little kids making big plays, big kids having to rely on something other than size and strength, and coaches and parents passionately supporting their kids without losing sight of what matters most.
I’m especially a sucker for the MLB Little League Classic that happened on Sunday, when Mets and Phillies players hung out at the Little League World Series all day and mingled with the kids before playing each other in Williamsport at night. Whenever I watch the Little League World Series, I basically just turn into Lenny Pepperbottom and say “How neat is that?” a million times.
So this is my plea to you, America: Make time for the Little League World Series this week. I know it seems like a lot to ask to suggest that you watch 12-year-olds play a sport that you might find boring even when it’s played by the best players in the world. But you’re thinking about it all wrong. The baseball isn’t the main course. It’s just the side dish for all of the other stuff that consistently makes the Little League World Series so great: teamwork, sportsmanship, human interest stories, nostalgia, Spain having a 6-foot-1, 248-pound player on its roster, and the essence of South Korea’s catcher. And besides, the baseball played at the Little League World Series barely resembles baseball as you know it. The games go by in a flash because they last only six innings and lack pickoff throws, while the mandatory pitching changes mean that even a nine-run lead with one out remaining isn’t safe. When I say anything can happen at the Little League World Series, I truly mean anything, and that includes the Beach Boys cutting into a game with a sound check from the hill in right field. (You read that right.)
As easy as it will be to laugh at this statement, I objectively believe that the Little League World Series is one of the greatest sporting events that takes place in this country and should be celebrated accordingly. And that is why I have no shame in admitting that I love everything about it.
Everything except South Korea’s coaches. Screw those guys.