Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Unpage Is The Source

People who want to follow the long march to Williamsport -- players and their families, coaches, reporters for newspapers covering local teams, broadcasters, even Little League officials -- turn to a spare-looking but fact-filled web page called unpage.com.

The site, run by a 38-year-old business consultant who got interested in Little League when he followed the all-star teams in his home town of Kankakee, Illinois, provides updates on games from the district tournaments to the Little League World Series.

John Welk collects information from newspaper accounts, Little League web sites, and a “loose little koretzu” of 150 stringers. In July, he spends as much as 40 hours a week gathering and verifying game results and writing brief summaries of the top games and player performances.

Welk played for the Kankakee Lions Little League all-star team a quarter century ago. But he got interested in tracking the tournament during hours at the public library. He pulled Champions of the Little League off the shelf one day and was amazed to see his hometown recorded for posterity in the book. “That kind of blew my mind at that age,” he says.

He started to collect newspaper clippings of Little League tournaments. In 1995, he started the web site as an experiment in “open source” data gathering. In addition to surfing the web and taking calls and emails from stringers, he travels to libraries and tournaments to get information. He has been to the Little League World Series ten times. Married with no kids, he started to go to tournaments and travel to distant libraries to gather information.

Even though travel teams play better baseball, Welk has no interest in anything but Little League. “I played Little League, so I have an identification with it,” he says. “the brand quality is so much stronger for Little League, for better or for worse. The experience is so strong for so many people. I got a note from someone in New Jersey who said, ‘You’re missing a piece of information.’ He came back a couple days later with the information and then he started talking about his Little League days.”

Welk keeps his web reports straight. He gives everyone equal treatment and stays away from controversy. Welk wants to do is serve as Little League Nation's newsletter of record, period. But he cares when bad news gets squelched. Last year, when I was working on Little League, Big Dreams, he sent me a bunch of articles from a Venezuela newspaper about an age scandal that disqualified the winner of the Latin America regional tournament.

What attracts Welk to Little League tournaments is not the level of play but the clear sense of mission. He compares the long journey to Williamsport to the many stages of the National Spelling Bee, which is also broadcast on ESPN.

“The parallels are strong,” he says. “There’s really nothing different about working hard to get ready for a spelling bee, studying a dictionary for hours on end, and working hard to become a better baseball player by building a batting cage in the basement. It’s about wanting to do something and wanting to do it well.”

So what if there are better spellers someplace else? So what if there are better baseball players somewhere else?

As he gets his reports from stringers and newspaper accounts, Welk feels the growing drama as some teams advance and others get eliminated. The game scores and summaries, tournament brackets, tell a story.

Names that return to the winner’s brackets year after year—Davenport, Owensboro, Kankakee, Louisville, Trumbull, Cranston, Marietta, and Toms River—take on a sense of destiny.

Amazingly, Little League officialdom once tried to shut down this unabashed celebration of The House That Carl Stotz Built.

Soon after the site went up, League officials sent him a lawyerly letter telling him, in essence, to cease and desist. Stay off our proppity.

Welk told the Little League bigs that his site clearly states independence from Little League. Eventually, he got another letter saying that he could keep the site up as long as he really, really, really makes it clear he's not part of the Little League empire. His web site states up front: "This site is not affiliated with Little League Baseball Incorporated, its international headquarters, or any individual league. Little League Baseball has not in any way endorsed this site or its content. 'Little League Baseball' and 'Little League' are registered trademarks of Little League Baseball, Inc., Williamsport, PA 17701, and are used here for identification purposes only."

Kind of crazy. For all he's done to bring together the thousands of people who want to learn about the long summer of tournaments, Little League should pay John Welk, give him a lifetime VIP pass, honor him on the field. Little League officials often rave about their volunteers, which is great. But people like John Welk are just as important as unpaid groundskeepers or ushers.

Oh, well. John Welk at least knows that his site is the go-to place for results all summer long. And that's reward enough for him.

1 Comments:

Blogger Patrick said...

Unpage.org is unbelievable. I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into the site, and cannot understand Little League's reluctance to recognize it.

7:09 AM  

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