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Book Review: Little League, Big Dreams by Charles Euchner

Charles Euchner, Little League, Big Dreams- Inside the Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played
Sourcebooks Inc, 2006.

First, a confession. I'm not really interested in the world of children and I don't seek out additional pathways to it as an adult. My exposure to children is primarily one of annoyance, an annoyance bested only by their parents most times, who've found a way to ruin nearly everything that requires close physical contact and a modicum of civility: restaurants, churches, planes, etc. As Philip Larkin once wrote, "the realization that it was not people I disliked but children was for me one those celebrated moments of revelation, comparable to reading Haeckel or Ingersoll in the last century". Is there anything worse than that large segment of children who seem to live only on their own cruelty, surliness, arrogance and self-importance? Free from life's harsher winds, the suburban districts of this country are teeming with some of the most evil, spoiled, perpetually dull creatures on the planet. For other children and the adults who aren't bound to love them by biology, their childhood is something to be endured in silence, rather like an illness or an evening without electricity.

Which brings us, indirectly, to the just recently completed Little League World Series. One of the sad facts of life is that those most talented (or lucky) are almost singularly unable to remain decent people. The world hands them attention, adoration and, eventually compensation until that is all they know. Then, surrounded by the glittering beauty of wealth, they choose one of two paths: an appearance on E!/Vh1 smarmily discussing their nerdy status before, which is both usually untrue and a cruel reminder to the plebes about how they've entered a fairy tale while we haven't or they get religion, be it secular or spiritual, and begin instructing us on how to better ourselves. In this light, could there be anything worse than highly talented children being marketed in a sappy light of innocence by an already annoying network?

Charles Euchner's Little League, Big Dreams, an account of the 2005 LLWS, is perhaps the most heartening book I've read this year, simply because it takes an honest look at the increasingly weird annual production at Williamsport, PA. While Euchner would definitively not agree with many of my sentiments voiced above - his book ultimately celebrates the joy and adventure of childhood sports - Little League, Big Dreams exposes us to our culture's ability to take something simple and relatively harmless and transform it to a horrifying spectacle of greed, self-righteousness and mindless intensity.

One of Euchner's central claims is that the LLWS is a poignant example of a sinister process he labels "the professionalizing of childhood". We see this easily enough in the proliferation of sports-related, parent driven play-dates, growing and perpetual expenses and pressures in the old-world of hobbying, as well as in the increased pressure to specialize. Beyond those truly physically gifted (think Lebron James), to compete at the highest level a 10 year-old needs to make a decision between his sports and ride that horse as far as it will take him. The brother of this phenomena is of course the dedicated, motivated and borderline insane parent, and Little League, Big Dreams touches on something called "Achievement by Proxy Disorder", essentially a complicated way of saying something simple: parents living vicariously through their children.

We might pause here and note that the more culturally-minded parents aren't much better, although actual cultural contests are rare. The audition and pageant moms seem to really be chasing fame and fortune than some kind of actual achievement, which in a strange way makes them less strange. Still, while the local level child sports competition is relatively anonymous, thanks to ESPN/ABC/DISNEY's curious insistence on showing every game of the LLWS the last two years the noxious effects of the TV camera have most certainly made a largely boring event unbearable.

Euchner provides an interesting account of Little League's modest beginnings and TV-fueled rise to the top youth sports brand in the country. Essential to the development was the role played by ABC's Wide World of Sports which for decades broadcast the championship game. Baseball's dominance among the generations of mid-century certainly played a large role, as did Little League's ability to create a nationwide corporate structure. Still, we might ask what exactly ESPN is aiming for with the ceaseless LLWS broadcasts? What exactly is the appeal of watching kids play a game at a freakishly high level, all while adopting adult mannerisms? I'm loath to neglect the power of nationalism, but beyond the Championship Game with its US-WORLD format, who cares about a Taiwan-Japan or Maine-Iowa game? To be sure, there is an unacknowledged freak show element, although the inherent sappiness of ESPN usually overpowers it. For two years running Aaron Durling of the Saudi Arabian team has had the misfortune/good fortune of endless attention due to his size. However, we should note that it's the "Saudi Arabian" team only in the purest sense of geography, as the team is from Dharhan, an oasis of largely American oil company ex-pats in the middle of the Arabian Desert. As Euchner also points out, the LLWS is fraught with a curious and possibly unfair district system prone to producing oddities and accusations of unfairness from all sides.

Ah, Little League parents, the purest devotees of fairness in American society, whole-hearted believers in fairness, as long as it benefits them.

And so, the kids are surrounded by cameras, with predictable results. Euchner recounts 2005's noted coach/parent meltdowns, including an epic battle between devoted Christian Marty Miller and ex-big-leaguer Dante Bichette. The Miller-Bichette battle resulted in the 2005 Florida-California U.S. Semifinal devolving into a series of shouting matches, confrontations, camera preening, coach-player taunting and beanballing. Bichette seems mostly to blame, but Miller's Redondo Beach team is hardly likeable. One of the most "Christian" teams in the tournament, Redondo Beach players, parents and coaches consistently evoked their religious beliefs throughout the event. I'm glad that those living in Southern California and spending thousands on youth baseball can also have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Blessed be the children.

It doesn't really get better. Euchner points out that the teams that make the LLWS are by and large carried by a few truly elite players who are of the full-time variety, participating in the endless camps, showcases and travel leagues that form a kind of hellish subculture of perpetual summer. The word Euchner uses is "dominance" to describe these players. The top LLWS players aren't scrappy Billy from Main Street but rather robo-Tommy, a probably detestable little scamp whose parents have spent a small fortune training and traveling. There's also the matter of pitching, the eternal moral quandary of baseball itself, made more terrible by the dual fact of Little League: scarcity and pre-puberty. There just aren't enough good pitchers to go around, and they're all small, growing and weak. Well, someone's got to pitch every game, and we ain't going home, now are we? Will Carroll would flinch reading some of Euchner's accounts, including a story of a boy who "couldn't move his arm" the night after pitching.

To be sure, a critique of stage-parenting is one of the clich?s of our time. Still, unlike the mockumentaries that proliferate, Euchner has something of a coherent argument beyond the easy pleasure we get from gawking. ("Oh my, I'd never do that. Look how petty and stupid our social inferiors are, Harold! Pass the New Republic over, I need to see when Prairie Home Companion comes on") Moreover, unlike beauty pageants, in a different context a baseball game can actually be a normal, enjoyable experience. A pageant cannot: done casually it's a farce, done seriously its pornographic.

Finally, there's Little League itself, a mysterious organization that rigidly controls every aspect of the LLWS event. Marketing the faux-innocence and glee of childhood, LLWS sells merchandise, arranges endless photo-ops and marketing cross-promotions and generally plays the part of corporate control gone berserk by Euchner's account.

I got it (a press pass), but grew increasingly intrigued by the secretive approach that Little League took about its events. Getting even basic information out of the organization proved difficult. You'd think I was asking the Yankees for their scouting reports.

A reporter from the San Diego Tribune named Kevin Gemmell asked Little League officials for a copy of the rulebook. He was told, no, you can't have that. He pressed for three days. (157)

After Gemmell went public about this stupidity, Little League explained that the rulebook was off limits because it could be distributed. Euchner himself was stonewalled by the organization when he asked about player drafts, instead receiving rude legalese and pointless secrecy:

But Van Auken wouldn't answer my question. "The draft options (which cover several pages of a copyrighted publication) have no bearing on Little League Baseball World Series, or the teams that play in it," he wrote in an email.

Then Van Auken warned me about using Little League's trademark: "Keep in mind as well, that any use of the federally registered trademarks "Little League," "Little League World Series," "Little League Baseball World Series," etc. as the subject for a book, television programe, movie, etc require the written approval of Little League International. (158)

What delightful people!

The cure for all this is simple enough: stop sending reporters from San Diego to cover this event and multiple problems might be solved. Until then, the beats will inevitably go on, including last night's story about Columbus Georgia's triumph over Japan. You couldn't get more typical LLWS than this: a Sunbelt, suburban, travel-team based, US representative against Japan, who complainers contend has unfairly large (there's that word again) team districts.

Unlike this reviewer, Euchner positively enjoys and celebrates certain aspects of the Series. The book pays close attention to the 2005 finalists, Curacao and Hawaii, and in many ways both teams are actually likeable in all the predictable underdoggish ways. Euchner does well to expose the evangelizing, militant and crazed adults surrounding this event as buffoons, but also celebrates the event and in particular the specific Championship Game. As Euchner writes, "Little League is both good and bad" (xiii). Nevertheless, one wishes that someone with Euchner's intelligence and perspective - he's worked at Harvard and written on both baseball and urban policy - would have given this event the more sustained shellacking it deserved. In a way, he does, suggesting in the final chapter that adults drastically reduce their involvement in the game, stopping short of jeremiad and instead calling for reform.

Now, with apologies I must be going. Little League's lawyers will be coming soon.