Thursday, August 25, 2005

My headache is returning

Every year in August I get one. And it's caused by the completely ludicrous amount of coverage that ESPN gives the Little League World Series these days. Once upon a time - that time being the 70's and 80's - the Little League World Series entered the national consciousness for one Saturday in August, when ABC's Wide World of Sports televised the championship game. Everybody got to see little people play on that cool mini-stadium in Williamsport, and generally the Taiwanese team beat the crap out of whatever American team made it to the finals. This happened so often that I can recall the first time I ever saw an American team win; in 1982, a team from Washington State, led by Cody Webster, who was allegedly 12 years old but appeared so mature he had five o'clock shadow by the end of the game, pitched and hit his team to victory.

This amount of coverage was harmless enough. But now ESPN has gone completely overboard, as they seem to do with everything. The whole damn tournament is on, and in some years I've even seen televised regional coverage. This troubles me for numerous reasons, including:

(a) the quality of play is just not that good. Yes, some of these 12-year-olds are remarkably talented, and a few major leaguers, such as Gary Sheffield, have played in the LLWS, so there's always a chance to seed a future "I saw him play when . . . " opportunity. But they are, after all, 12. Throw in the pressure these kids are under, and it's not as though you're seeing flawless, fundamentally sound baseball. Hell, you rarely see that in the majors these days.

(b) given the pressure they're under, and their ages, some of these kids are going to make Bill Buckner-esque errors. Is it really healthy for them, or anyone, if they go through this on national television? No 12-year-old who walks in the winning run should have to have his tears televised.

(c) It is not really a "national championship", as it's perceived to be. Not every community's youth baseball program is affiliated with the Little League organization, as there are AAU and other leagues in which youngsters play. So even if you want to see the best team of 12-year-olds in the country - and if you do, I suggest that you need a great deal of help - this does not provide a vehicle to do so.

(d) most importantly, it's both a contributor to, and symptom of, the absolutely insane level of sophistication that characterizes youth sports nowadays. All of this nonsense - traveling teams as early as age 6, forcing kids to pick one sport and specialize not long after that age, year-round training - cause a whole litany of problems. Why are so many pro athletes cretinous, amoral, thuggish louts? Because their lives started revolving around sports at such an early age - and all the people around them told them they could do whatever they wanted because of their athletic talent.

Why are doctors seeing an increase in overuse injuries in young athletes? Because they have to play year-round to keep up, and as a result put stresses on their bodies that are unnatural. Why do kids all over Minnesota abandon friends and their communities to transfer high schools simply to play for a better team? Because they think they have to in order to get a scholarship - and because a message has been sent by society that nothing is more important than sports. And this message is sent in a lot of ways, with one of the biggest being when 12-year-olds hitting and throwing a ball is no longer just a cute diversion, but big business.

I am truly torn by some of these issues - naturally you want kids to excel at whatever they do, so it's hard to say they shouldn't keep playing year-round if they want to. But how many want to, or are forced to either by overzealous parents or because they have to keep up? How many miss out on valuable aspects of their childhoods because they have a tournament every weekend? Sometimes I hope my son becomes a musician.

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