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August 25, 2005

A Modest Proposal

What MLB Can Learn From the Little League World Series

by John Erhardt

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It's that time of the summer again. Time to reach into the back of your fridge for the two lonely, hardened hot-dog rolls you forgot about. Time to be hyper-aware of the day getting shorter. Time for the minor-league seasons to wrap up, and time for Kyle Peterson, Tony Gwynn, Harold Reynolds and Gary Thorne to bring us the Little League World Series. You know what that means: it's time to wait for your wife to go to the bathroom before running to your out-of-date atlas so you can quickly learn where Curacao is before matter-of-factly displaying your geographical acumen a few innings later.

I cannot really explain my one-month fixation on Little League. My wife has noticed that I'm now far more likely to watch two six-inning games involving Little Leaguers than I am to turn one channel leftward from ESPN2 to ESPN to catch the Cardinals game occurring in that same time slot. I have never heard of the players or most of the towns, and by next year's Series I will completely forget who I enjoyed watching the most this year. The players are 11 and 12 years old. Some of them look funny when they run. They are simultaneously thrilled to be there and nervous as hell, and every camera shot confirms this. I am drawn to the Little League World Series and, until this week, I could never articulate why that was the case.

Little League has history, but it doesn't have History in the sepia-toned sense. There are no grainy films of Sandy Koufax mowing down eight-year olds with a prepubescent but recognizable curveball, no surviving home movies of little Markie McGwire's first home run against the big kids. Instead, we have continuously jostled footage of that Drury kid who went on to the NHL, and a quick closeup of a young Sean Burroughs sitting in a chain-linked dugout (with the implied optimistic wishes for his eventual re-promotion to the majors).

Because there's not a whole lot to draw from historically that plays well on TV ("Just listen as I read this list of names of former Little Leaguers who went on to play in the majors..."), and because future speculation is a bit dry and pointless, the announcers can finally sit back and enjoy the baseball game being played below them. There's nothing else to talk about, mercifully. No steroids. No stock exchanges between announcers about contract talks, about impending free agency for someone on the field. There's no opportunity for an old-timey player to be invited into the booth to denounce the selfishness/greediness/not-as-good-as-in-my-dayness of today's game.

The aforementioned Little League announcers don't take themselves too seriously while they're in Williamsport. The romantic irony on display is wonderful. It may be that they are constantly aware that they're speaking the names of kids who will never become professional players, but who charmingly present that dream like it's merely hours from being reality; it could be that they think the whole thing's "cute"; it could be that they are finally able to sit down and watch a game without having to sift through endless press packets of meaningless statistics and homogenous biographical data. There isn't any armchair management to speak of. Gary Thorne doesn't lean toward Harold Reynolds and say, "they brought in Hanks in this situation. Would you have done that?" The whole thing is about enjoyment. It's a game. Everyone has to play.

They delight in describing the way the kids scamper around the field, and jump at the opportunity to explain the unfamiliar pinch-running rules. Yes, the fundamentals aren't there, most defensive plays are awkward acts of heroism, if it's a blowout the losing team's kids are crying by the fifth inning, and the 70 -mph fastballs prompt me to say "I can throw harder than that" more often than I should. Maybe it's the fact that their big-league dreams are still alive and mine aren't. But it's the most perfect celebration of baseball in a Halberstamian-sense. These kids are ecstatic. They have never been prouder to show off their curveballs that they threw against the garage for two years before any noticeable break showed up. They actually celebrate when they succeed. And last year, when that pitcher from Mexico beaned a kid, then walked to first base to shake his hand? I get chills about that even now.

And for a few weeks in August, Little League baseball is also the perfect foil for MLB's generally terrible announcing. Maybe it's not the announcing per se, but rather the accompanying information presentation, plus the inane explanatory footnotes that invariably follow every graphic.

So I have an idea.

One delightful feature of the Little League World Series coverage is to share little personal tidbits about each player. So-and-so from Louisiana likes Godsmack, his teammate loves macaroni and cheese. This kid over here likes Spongebob--aren't these kids a little old to like Spongebob? One kid from Maine is a great clubhouse personality because he makes a really convincing duck-type noise.

In an MLB broadcast, when Manny Ramirez steps to the plate, we're treated to his batting average, his home run total, his RBI total and maybe his on-base percentage. Sometimes you get to see that he's two-for-six lifetime against the opposing pitcher. Wouldn't it be better to swap the two? Wouldn't it be more interesting to have the numbers of the Little Leaguers, and the personal info of the big leaguers?

Picture this: 12-year old bespectacled Little Leaguer Jonathan Goodkid comes to the plate. Runners on first and second, nobody out. His year-to-date batting line comes up: .620 AVG, .734 OBP, two home runs, 40 RBI. Now that's a line. And these numbers aren't available anywhere. I can't go on ESPN and get them. We didn't cover this kid in BP 2005, and Baseball America didn't, either. Somewhere in one of this nation's rectangular states is a father who knows PHP just dying to get his son's league results up on the Web. We have to help him.

For a major-league broadcast, I know how the players have performed. I'm a fan. I follow this stuff. Most of you know it, too. I don't memorize it, but I know where to find it, and pretty easily. When I watch a game on TV, I set my laptop on my coffee table with the Lahman database minimized for quick querying, and I'll set a copy of BP 2005 and Baseball America's Prospect Handbook right next to it. David Ortiz's numbers? Got 'em. Filter his career numbers somehow? Gimme thirty seconds, and top off my whiskey, please. Leave the bottle.

Honestly, when Derek Jeter steps to the plate and we learn that he's 2-for-12 against the Royals this year, isn't that just trivia? I say, if you're going to give us trivia, call it that. Don't put it in the "Stat Report." Don't thank Elias for the "stats," thank them for the filler. Trivia should be called trivia, and this is one way to really do it.

During August, I learn that most Russian kids love Barry Bonds. I learn that most kids' favorite shows are things I've never heard of. I learn that hamburgers are still pretty popular. What do I learn about big leaguers? Other than their media markets' affinity for content-free content, I don't learn much at all. I'd rather learn who Mike Piazza's favorite player is. I want to know if Mariano Rivera watches Sabado Gigante. Who'd win a belching contest: Matt LeCroy, Sidney Ponson or a darkhorse like David Eckstein? What would happen if we put Prince Fielder in the sausage race at Miller Park? Which major leaguer is most likely to be a closet knitter?

Or how about having this come across the screen:

Name: Manny Ramirez
Yesterday: 1-3, BB, HR
Favorite Movie: Sideways

Infinitely more interesting, don't you think? Why does he like Sideways? Deep down, does he appreciate delicate things, like pinot noir grapes? Did he empathize with Miles in some unexpected way? Does Johnny Damon make Manny do all sorts of errands, and never thank him? I have to know. The potential conversation among you and your bar buddies is endless, and can illuminate the game in exactly the same way that paying attention to Pedro's day/night splits will.

Name: David Wells
Today: 4 IP, 1 BB, 2 K
Favorite Album: The Kronos Quartet performs Phillip Glass

Splendid. A maximalist man with minimalist taste. This is the sort of stuff I wonder about as I get spoon fed a player's RBI totals by month, or the number of errors he's made since shifting leftward on the defensive spectrum six whole games ago.

Give me their pant size, their preferred brand of ketchup, their least favorite Bob Dylan song ("Leopardskin Pill-Box Hat," thanks), or what the aroma of pipe tobacco reminds them of. If you're going to have an empty broadcast, make it empty. Give me gossip. Give me rumor. Speculate on whether each player is a cuddler or not. (Shea Hillenbrand, to me, looks like a cuddler. So does Sean Casey, who you just know owns a lot of afghans.)

But please, keep the six AB stats to yourself. Stop asking John Kruk what he thinks. Don't pretend a satisfactory answer to a research question lies in an unfunny story involving your minor-league career. Put the Fan Cam away; the two cute girls aren't going to kiss each other. Just watch a bunt in silence for once, instead of using it as a platform to beat up a strawman version of Moneyball. Because, unfortunately, a player's pickle preference or birth hospital is more informative than this stuff.

Now if you'll excuse me, my boys from Guam are on.

John Erhardt is an editor of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

John Erhardt is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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