As I predicted, with the Olympics and Shark Week having fully run their courses, summer TV hit a real rut; shows that started in May/June have wrapped up, new seasons don’t begin for a month at least, and my preview HBO subscription has run out!
Which leaves us with one of the more peculiar American traditions: the Little League World Series.
Founded in 1947, LLWS is not a cultural flash in the pan, but an institution that rivals the Olympics in American history and crushes Shark Week by a cool 40 years. But the intensity with which the tournament is covered, along with the increasingly globalized competition, makes one wonder if maybe Little League baseball has gotten too big for the little kids who play it.
Like any sport or competition with children involved, a wary eye is always cast on the parents. But let’s not kid ourselves. These are the best ball players in this age group (11-12, with a few eligible 13 year olds) in the entire world, and they want to play baseball. We can’t assume every mom is living out her childhood dreams of stardom through her child, or that dad is drilling grounders into his kid’s chest late into the night to assure he doesn’t make an error during the big game.
The children themselves are easy enough to understand (generalizing, of course). My brother served as a Little League All Star from ages 11-13, and while he was not exactly dying to spend his entire summer playing baseball, his teammates definitely were. If they could’ve played year-round they would have, so to be able to compete with the best players from other states and countries would have been a dream come true.
The uneasy, almost queasy feeling you sometimes get watching LLWS–when the chubby catcher fumbles a throw to home, when the scrawny kid strikes out to end the season–is akin to children’s pageantry. You can’t help telling yourself “This stress, this pressure these expectations–this is for adults!” At its core this is untrue; humans are competitive, from very early ages. But our desire to prove ourselves by seeing who runs fastest at recess is different from ESPN broadcasting your highs and lows for the world to see.
The series has been broadcast on ESPN since 1963, and with the current “USA vs. the World” format being institutionalized in 1976, it has taken on a life of its own. Kids are interviewed rigorously by professional reporters, cameras are shoved in their faces seconds after a heartbreaking end to the season…worst of all, in these early rounds of the tournament it’s not unusual to see a 9-0 rout. It’s tough to stomach watching children get hammered mercilessly by other children.
The conversation reached a breaking point when, in 2008, Wii released the first LLWS video game. While the series wasn’t popular enough to see a fourth edition in 2011, the fact is millions of dollars being made off of the triumphs and tragedies of a few scores of children. Yes, the exploitation of child labor is still widespread in the world and playing baseball is not the worst way to be exploited…but it’s always good to step back and ask ourselves what exactly we are watching here.