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A great game, indeed

When I was 12 years old, my Little League all-star team lost in the regional semifinals to a team from San Francisco. It was a heartbreaking loss that ended our chances of competing in the Little League World Series. With thousands of teams vying for eight spots in Williamsport, PA, it was unlikely we would have advanced much further in the tournament, but the finality of the defeat, and thus the finality of our youth baseball careers, was crushing to a seventh grader.

After the game, our coaches gathered us together down the right field line. My teammates and I trudged towards the outfield, tossing our helmets, bats and gloves—anything that we could possibly associate with the game of baseball—to the ground.

I don’t remember much of the postgame conversation. Praise was given. Morale was salvaged. But I do vividly remember the last thing our coach said to us before he pulled us together for a final cheer. “You’ll remember this for the rest of your lives.”

I reacted to his surprising display of sentimentality with disbelief. Like most of the memories from my twelve years of life, I expected that the summer would fragment into a few outstanding memories and moments. A play behind the plate, pregame warmups, postgame dinners with teammates—those might stick with me. But the idea of that entire summer being a part of my life forever seemed somehow too idealistic.

And yet, in the years that have followed, that summer has retained a special place in my heart. There was something magical about the baseball we played, the camaraderie we experienced, the purpose that we felt as we represented our town. It’s something that I have rarely experienced from organized sports in the years since. Even though the game of baseball didn’t change as I played in high school and now in college, my relationship to the game became different—more cluttered, less invested.

I suspect this is why the Little League World Series has remained such a special event for me. We look back on the sports that mattered the most to us and yearn for a chance to play those sports again with the same carefree dedication that we did when we were younger. Now, as our lives are more complicated and the responsibilities pile up, it’s a dedication that can be impossible to recreate, but for a few weeks each summer, watching the Little League World Series is a chance to revisit that wholehearted brand of baseball.

It amazes me how much the tournament never gets old, even as I get older. The uniforms, the states and countries represented, the abounding enthusiasm from the parent cheer sections, the sheer joy on the faces of players and coaches alike—it’s must-see television.

For much of the past two weeks, my dad and I sat and watched the games unfold. We watched like it was professional baseball, marveling at the diving catches and hard-throwing pitchers, commenting on coaching strategies, discussing tournament contenders. As we watched the games, it was hard not to feel a twang of nostalgia.

This nostalgia is probably why ESPN pays $7.5 million a year to broadcast the event, and why every adult involved, from the commentators to the sideline reporters to the coaches to the parents in the stands, seems like they are having as much fun as the kids on the field. We scream with joy, we feel our stomachs turn when balls get by the outfielders, we gasp when pitches are pummeled into the grass above the outfield fence.

This past Sunday, I watched as a team from Hawaii beat a South Korean team to win the world championship. At the start of the sixth inning, the team three outs away from a world championship, the TV cameras picked up a shot of the Hawaiian coach talking to his players in the dugout.

“This is a great game, guys,” he said to his team. “Whatever happens from here, it’s a great game.”

He was referring to the game at hand, of course. The starter pitched a complete-game shutout. The leadoff batter hit a booming home run. It was a remarkable display of Little League baseball.

But to me, his words also spoke to the game of baseball as something deeper. Something international, intergenerational, interpersonal. As he spoke to his players, their faces pressed against the chain-link fence of the dugout, a world championship in their grasp, I could see in his face and in their faces the very thing that compelled my dad and I to watch, to catch a fleeting view of the endless baseball summer that we rarely experience again as we go from being Little Leaguers to high-schoolers to college students to adult-leaguers.

Sitting on my couch thousands of miles away, seven years removed from the last time I stepped on a Little League field, I couldn’t help but smile as the coach clapped his hands and his players ran out onto the field to take their positions, smiling and jumping around, the thrill of youth baseball on full display.

A great game, indeed.

 

Contact Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu

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