Besides the weather, baseball is the hottest thing about August in North Central PA. Whenever I am traveling, and people ask me where I live, I say, “Near Williamsport, you know, where they have the Little League World Series.” (If I say Jersey Shore, it opens up a very long conversation about where that actually is.) Even after having lived here for well over 30 years, it is still something I get excited about. It is a chance to see some of the best young athletes in the world play a sport without multi-million-dollar salaries or endorsement deals, and it is entirely free to the public.
In some ways, the game of baseball is very different than when I played as a young boy back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
My first year playing, I was in what was then called Pony League. It would have been equivalent to Minor A ball. The challenge for any pitcher and coach was someone hitting the strike zone. The field was hard-packed dirt with enough stones mixed in to be considered gravel. Sliding shorts didn’t exist, so scraped and brush-burned thighs were part of the deal. The bases were clipped onto huge metal spikes, and I was honestly more afraid of tripping on a base than I was of missing one when I got a hit. For equipment, we had an old Army duffle bag that would have a handful of community helmets and old bats that we would share. Occasionally, a player would have a new-ish bat that, if we were lucky, we would borrow for our turn at the plate.
The officials rarely inspected our equipment, but I clearly remember having the umpire look over a wooden bat I had brought from home that had a crack almost clean through it and was held together with electrical tape. I’m not sure why I thought it would be OK to use. I just knew I liked the way it felt in my hands. Of course, I was told to get another bat. I think I was around ten years old at the time and couldn’t understand the problem.
Pretty much the only piece of equipment a player was responsible for was their glove. Originally, I began learning how to catch a ball from my older brother, eight years my senior. I would pick up one of several gloves he used as a kid, and after getting beaned a few times and taking a couple on the chin from a bad hop, I got the hang of things. The problem was that I would have to transfer the ball to my other hand, drop the glove, and then switch back to throw. It took me a minute to realize that a left-handed ball player should actually own a left-handed glove.
After the glove issue was settled, I begged my mom for my own bat. She relented, and we went to K-Mart to pick one out. I ended up with a 31-in. Louisville Slugger, Fred Lynn edition, wooden bat. It was the right length, but the barrel was too narrow, and the handle was too thick. At the time, aluminum bats weren’t what they are now, and composite bats didn’t exist, so there wasn’t much of an advantage regarding bat type. *By the way, Fred Lynn was a lefty center fielder for the Red Sox, Angels, and other major league teams, though I didn’t know that at the time. I just liked the look of the bat.
Our coaches changed every year and were determined largely by which dad drew the short straw. Our goal each season was to win more games than we lost, and we more closely resembled the Bad News Bears than any of the teams playing in Williamsport this month.
Truthfully, none of us had ever heard of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, let alone had any hope of making it to the Little League World Series. What we did know was the sound of the ball coming off of the bat and the thrill of stealing home. The hot, humid summer days and the way the polyester jerseys itched. And, if they were lucky enough, no one who has ever played can forget the feeling of being the hero of the game after scoring the winning run.
These days, things are a bit different, to say the least. A good bat can cost as much as $400, and it isn’t unusual to see a 12-year-old decked out in $1,000 worth of gear. Top players have private hitting coaches, speed coaches, personal trainers, publicists, and personal assistants. Just kidding about the publicists and personal assistants, I think. They can throw and hit like big leaguers and, for some, achieve the same level of fame or greater, if only for a brief moment.
What hasn’t changed is that baseball at this level is still relatively pure. The kids aren’t making millions of dollars in salaries and endorsements. They are playing for the thrill of a big hit and a stolen base. For the challenge of competition and sport. They are playing for friendships that last a lifetime. And above all else, they are playing for the love of the game.