NESN Debates: Are Little League World Series Players Exposed to Too Much Pressure Under National Spotlight?

NESN Debates: Are Little League World Series Players Exposed to Too Much Pressure Under National Spotlight? Editor’s note: Each week, NESN.com’s editorial staff will debate a topic via email in a feature called “Field Judges.” We’ll post the conversation and the ruling on NESN.com.

This week’s question: Is the national spotlight too much for kids playing on national TV in the Little League World Series?

Michael Hurley, Senior Assistant Editor, 11:01 a.m., Tuesday

Hi everyone, it’s that time of the week again where we take a topic in the sports world and have ourselves a debate. This week, it’s something that probably all of us can relate to: Little League. With the Little League World Series on our televisions this month, there’s the age-old question of whether it is right and whether it is OK for these 12-year-old kids to have the pressure that comes with being on national television placed upon their little, bitty shoulders.
 
Obviously, any baseball-playing kid would kill for the opportunity to make it to Williamsport, as it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime event. Realistically, maybe less than 1 percent of these kids will go on to have careers playing baseball, so it may be the highest level they ever reach.
 
That being said, there is tremendous pressure that comes with it. These kids can play in front of 30,000 fans, something the Tampa Bay Rays can’t even say on most nights. They are on ESPN. Everyone they know is watching. If they succeed, it’s great; if they fail, it’s horrible. While it might be fun to watch Alex Rodriguez make an error, it’s anything but enjoyable to watch a kid boot a grounder and start crying. I mean, unless you’re sick and enjoy watching that kind of thing.
 
So here we are. We’ll be watching, but is the national spotlight too much pressure to put on these kids?

John Beattie, Associate Editor, 11:11 a.m., Tuesday

How can it even be considered a bad thing that these kids are in the national spotlight? First of all, these boys are all 12 or 13 years old, so the daily pressure they’re about to embark on as teenagers is going to be far more than a few cameras and thousands of screaming … scratch that — encouraging — fans. At least the national spotlight is shining on them for excelling at baseball and not for, oh, I don’t know, beating pregnant women, pretending to cruise cross-country in a homemade balloon or “doing hoodrat things with friends.”

If we continue to put Spelling Bees on national TV then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t put extraordinary young athletes on national TV. Plus, tears, taters and mascots dancing with overweight umps? Talk about compelling television.

Ben Watanabe, Assistant Editor, 11:27 a.m., Tuesday

The kids will be fine. It’s the adults I worry about.

Kids are remarkably resilient. They face adversity in ways a lot of grown-ups can’t. Not that baseball is life and death, but when you go to a funeral, look at how many young people are consoling the adults who can barely keep it together. Somehow, we grow out of our fearlessness. Unfortunately, many of us also grow out of our sense of keeping things in perspective.

For whatever reason, youth sports seem to bring out the worst in some parents. Perfectly reasonable human beings turn into hateful, spiteful demons when their children are on the field. They want their little ones to succeed. I get that. Screaming at the umpire, taunting the opposing players and sparking arguments with parents from the other team in the parking lot is unnecessary, though. (These are not isolated incidents, either. I’m willing to venture I’ve covered over 50 Little League games, and every game I’ve ever attended featured all three of the previously mentioned acts. When you attend these tournaments as a neutral observer, you realize the evil these events bring out in people.)

I’d suggest improving the Little League World Series this way: Ban all adults. Little League International can provide the parents with a private viewing area to watch the game with like-minded fans, where their invective can’t be heard by the other side, the umpires or impressionable kids. Bring in the players’ classmates and siblings to root them on positively. Even remove the ESPN announcers and replace them with precocious 12-year-olds who want to break into broadcasting. Kids make this event great. Adults merely ruin it.

Michael Hurley, 12:09 p.m., Tuesday

I’ll jump in here. I don’t disagree with anything either of you said. From covering high school sports for a while, I know how nasty and awful sports parents can get. I’m sure they’re all nice people away from the field (well, no I’m not), but sitting in the stands, they can become truly grotesque individuals.

That being said, I think back to my days in Little League. I was always younger than everyone, thanks to my summer birthday, which meant when I was 11, I was considered 12. That means I had to overcome incredible odds, obviously, but I still hit .880 and won the town championship my final year (I made one of those things up. You decide which one.). I remember leading off that championship series and literally shaking because I was so nervous. There were probably 30 spectators total at the game, yet I remember feeling incredible pressure. Of course, I probably hit something like seven triples that game and cemented myself in Arlington baseball lore, but I’m just trying to picture what it’s like to step into the box at Williamsport with millions of folks watching you.
 
Maybe I was a sensitive child, and maybe I’m still a little soft, but think back to the most embarrassing moment in your life. How many people saw it or knew about it? Five? Maybe 10? Imagine that amplified thousands of times over, and imagine getting ridiculed or taunted from jealous classmates. It can definitely be a lot for kids as they enter vulnerable moments in their lives. Does nobody else feel this way?

Ricky Doyle, Assistant Editor, 4:54 p.m., Tuesday

Listen, these kids playing in Williamsport have the opportunity of a lifetime based on their baseball skill. While only a tiny percentage will go on to play professionally, those that do are going to have to get used to the bright lights and large crowds at some point. Why not start them young?
 
In some ways, the Little League World Series is a microcosm of today’s society as a whole — wait, what? Seriously, though, when you think of it, you’ll likely have to endure uncomfortable experiences at one point or another in order to get where you want to go in life. Like my boy Sly Stallone said in Rocky Balboa (which was terrible, by the way), “Listen kid, the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.”
 
I know it’s crazy, but taking away the opportunity for kids to play on television and on a national stage would show just how soft we’ve become.
 
It’s like your drunk uncle that talks about all the crazy crap he used to do when he was a kid, yet he’s still standing. This time in Williamsport is only a footnote in the lives of these kids, and I guarantee a majority of them will look back on the experience when they’re older and consider it a favorable one.
 
I understand the pressure isn’t easy to deal with. But there’s not a whole lot of things in life that are particularly easy — unless you hit the lottery (which I’ve lost all hope on). So these kids should relish the opportunity while they can and understand that they should focus on having fun (OK, now I’m starting to sound like that hip uncle). But to deprive them of the opportunity because it’s “too hard” would be ridiculous.

Dan Duquette Jr., Assistant Editor, 6:51 p.m., Tuesday

Let them play! Let them play!
 
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids, and there’s no sense in depriving them of the chance to play in front of the bright lights just in case they might mess up.
 
When these kids look back and remember their time at the LLWS, will they focus on the ground ball that went through the wickets and allowed the team from Chinese Taipei to score three runs? I doubt it. They’ll just remember that they were lucky enough to make it that far. They’re going to forget the bad stuff and just think about what an awesome experience it was to be in Williamsport and have a chance to compete at the sport’s highest level.
 
Like Mr. Hurley, I was also once an athlete. And when I think back to the time my high school football team set the state record for consecutive wins, I don’t remember that I didn’t play a single down. I remember the electricity in the crowd and the celebratory pile-on that I nearly suffocated under while celebrating the clock running out.
 
Would you really want to deprive these kids a chance to fear for their lives in a celebratory pile-on? I certainly wouldn’t.

Tony Lee, Red Sox reporter, 7:22 p.m., Tuesday

I’ll piggyback on what John and Dan said, and draw upon personal experience. Everything that happened while I was in Little League, and even flirting with a Williamsport bid, was positive. But in a way, it was the end of the innocence. That summer finished with a lot of good friends heading in many different directions, only to meet again on a high school field three or four years later and already destroyed by acne jokes, braces and multiple snubs at prom-date requests (that was everyone, right?). Before all that, we had a chance to shine. Together.

When I was an All-Star (for, ahem, the third straight year), our team was loaded. We went to the finals of our section, which was a game from a state championship and then a trip to New England. As each game passed, the crowd grew immensely (in Vermont that means like three extra people and an additional cow showed up every time we played), and so did our excitement. When we eventually bowed out, it was a damaging blow, but the huge show of support made us realize we were part of something special.

We could only dream about how special that feeling was if we made it a few more rounds and reached a bigger stage.

Yours truly entered the last game we played to try to stem a fifth-inning rally by our opponents. We were down 3-1 but if I had held them there, a chance at a comeback in the top of the sixth was real. They scored three runs off me, although all came on a bases-clearing double on a ball that was foul. Trust me. Anyway, I don’t remember much beyond the horrendous call. I don’t remember the kid who hit it. I don’t remember how we eventually got out of the inning. I don’t recall what my teammates said to me once we returned to the dugout. What I do remember is almost every other moment of that incredible ride.

The kids in Williamsport have even more of those positive memories to draw from. They’ve already had so many remarkable triumphs to get to that point. Appearing on national TV is just icing on the cake. If you cry on camera after making a big error against Saudi Arabia, well, them’s the breaks. There will be tough times ahead. Lemons into lemonade … all that good stuff.

The sometimes painful climb to adulthood is a different one for each of these kids. But to have the opportunity to call yourself one of the best players on the best team in your state, region, country, etc., is something nobody can take away from you, no matter how many times you leave your zipper down. Let ‘em play on, enjoy their highs and learn from their lows.

As John said, it’s better than some of the alternatives.

Ricky Doyle, 7:38 p.m., Tuesday

My softball team got thrown out of the league this year if that adds any credibility to my previous statements.

Editor’s note: Thanks, Ricky, but no, it doesn’t.

Ben Watanabe, 8:24 a.m., Wednesday

We need to address three quick things:

1. Rocky Balboa was not terrible. It was hokey and inspirational, like every Rocky movie. And the original Rocky is one of the 20 greatest movies ever made. Maybe it’s the Philly in me, but my eyes always get moist when Rock’s spittin’ knowledge to his kid outside the restaurant in Rocky Balboa. You tell him, Rocko!

2. Contrary to what Dan implies, Chinese Tapei is not a bad team. It was one of the favorites heading into the tournament and the loss to Canada was one of the biggest upsets in LLWS history. Why do I know this? Because I’m a pathetic person with a sad life.

3. Let the record show that unlike my colleagues, I was never a Little League all-star. I was one of the worst baseball players to ever hold a bat. This makes me appreciate everything these kids do.

Michael Hurley, 8:50 a.m., Wednesday

All right, I was about to say “You’re all correct and I’m wrong,” but then I watched the SportsCenter Top 10 plays, and featured was the celebration of the Netherlands team after some kid hit a home run. The hitter jumped on the plate and when he landed, all his teammates around him fell to the ground. These kids are great athletes and their games are fun to watch, and that’s what makes the highlight reels? So we’re encouraging them to be showoffs? We want them to show up their opponents? We want them, at 12 years old, to show no respect for their opponents? What a bunch of losers.

Did I just call a bunch of 12-year-olds a bunch of losers? See — I told you there were problems here.

(The Netherlands, deservedly, ended up losing that game to Rhode Island. Like I said, losers.)

RULING

But look, when you’re beat, you’re beat, and everyone seems to be in agreement that the kids should play. I just hope one day all of you are fortunate enough to have a son make the Little League World Series, and I hope he blows it for his team — No! I hope he blows it for America – and then we can bring up this topic once again. We can also bring it up when LLWS becomes synonymous with NCAA in terms of corruption and exploitation. Yeah, I said it.

Next week, it looks like we’ll have to debate the merits of Rocky Balboa (my vote: horrible), though I’m not sure we can settle that one without resorting to fisticuffs.

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