World Series shines spotlight on kids
Sixteen-team Little League championship kicks off on Thursday
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Stephen D. Keener looked out of his office window and onto Lamade Stadium and noticed the band of boys in Little League uniforms climbing up and down the outfield walls.
"You wouldn't see the Yankees or Red Sox doing that," said Keener, laughing.
No, you wouldn't.
But what Keener, president of Little League Baseball Inc., saw on Thursday, a day before the official opening of the Little League World Series, was typical of what 12-year-old boys do -- even when they are the boys of summer.
They have fun, which is what Keener is certain they'll have at the series.
As the hours wind down to the start of games on Friday, Keener and his staff are putting the final touches on all things baseball. They've had consultations with the volunteer umpires, fitted the ballplayers for uniforms, readied for the Thursday night parade downtown and held discussions with ESPN and ABC about the games.
"Once the games begin," Keener said, "that's when the attention shifts to them -- the kids. That's where it should be."
For as Keener pointed out, the World Series is about the boys, not about the adults who came together and made the event what it has become -- the showcase for youth sports.
More than 630,000 teams this season vied for a trip to Williamsport, Pa., but their highway to baseball heaven was filled with detours and roadblocks. By Monday, all had been eliminated except the 16 teams housed in the International Grove here.
Yet those 16 teams show just how far the World Series has come since Carl Stotz, with a helping hand from others in the middle Pennsylvania community, founded Little League Baseball here in 1939.
In that first season, the tournament was held on a vacant lot in town. Three teams played in the first tournament: Lycoming Dairy, Lundy Lumber and Jumbo Pretzel. The boys of 1939 were probably as ramped up about a game of baseball as the boys of 2008 are.
Those boys who played in that '39 series might not recognize what it has become over the years. The event has caught the attention of baseball fans around the world.
It is now more than a game; it's an adventure; it's a media showcase, the stuff of ESPN SportsCenter, where pint-sized legends are built.
Today's World Series has gone global, too. Half of the 16 teams in the field are from outside the United States. Call it the United Nations of baseball -- its universal language is balls and strikes, hits and home runs.
It's enough to make a team, well, literally climb the outfield walls, said Joe McGuire, who coaches the Little League team from Citrus Park, Fla., that won the Southeast Region.
What would you expect from 12-year-olds?
For the past few days, the boys on McGuire's team have been befriending boys from other parts of the United States and other countries. All of them were playing the role of the typical 12-year-old, which meant McGuire had to figure out a way to tame his band of boys and their boundless energy.
"We just throw them in the pool," McGuire said, laughing. "Let them swim for a couple of hours."
Not even a cool pool can douse the fire inside his boys. They wait impatiently with the other 15 teams for the Little League World Series to officially begin.
The games themselves start on Friday afternoon when McGuire's boys take on the Midwest Region champion at 2 p.m. ET, but the pomp and circumstance that come with being part of Little League World Series begins on Thursday night.
After the parade, the next big event comes on Friday, with the opening ceremonies.
Dressed in game uniforms, boys from all 16 teams will march into Lamade Stadium to the Disney tune "It's a Small World After All." They'll remove their caps in a salute to fans in the stadium, and the fans will pay their respects with applause.
"I really enjoy that moment," said Keener, a former Little Leaguer. "That's kind of the fun part."
Until the games begin, Keener is trying to reign in the chaos. He and his staff want to make certain that everything goes as planned. It has, so far.
But who knows what the hours leading up to the games might hold for everybody, he said. In what is the grand finale of months of work, Keener can't be certain of anything. He does know, however, that he has an event that has caught people's fancy.
The World Series is as big as a sports event can be for a boy, said Charlie Phillips, coach of the Lake Charles, La., team that represents the Southwest Region.
Politicians and Hollywood celebrities have been to see Little Leaguers of the past play games in Williamsport. Hall of Famers like Jackie Robinson, Cy Young, Tom Seaver and Ted Williams have been here, too. More are sure to come. And then there are the boys.
They've come by the hundreds over the decades. In less than 24 hours, the latest band of boys will take the field, neat and groomed like the back nine of Augusta, to begin nine days of playing baseball.
"We're basically in Little League heaven on earth right here," Phillips said.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.