Notes and Comment
THAT'S BIG: The surprise of the Little League World Series has got to be Saudi Arabia, the team of ex-pats from Dhahrin that went 2-1 in pool play before losing to Japan in its first-ever single-elimination game. Last year, the Saudis were arguably the weakest team in the tournament. But the kids have gotten bigger and stronger. The paucity of baseball in the Kingdom might have helped the Saudi club. Without boys their own age to play, they competed against older boys to get ready for the annual summer march to Williamsport. The biggest story was, of course, Aaron Durley. Last year he set a LLWS record for size with his 6-5 frame. He grew three inches to break his own record. Last year, Durley was awkward; this year he was a force. After going hitless last year, he went three for 11 this year. Another big kid, Andrew Holden, turned in ace pitching performances for the Saudis. He gave up just one hit, in the sixth inning, in his six shutout innings against Venezuela, which won the game 1-0 in eight innings, and pitched a five-hit shutout in the 5-0 win over Canada.
THAT'S DISGRACEFUL: The intensity seemed to be greater at this year's LLWS than in other years. ESPN's miking of the coaches didn't seem to restrain them much from their aggressive barking. They came to the mound and gathered the kids near the dugout and barked at them as if they were the assembly-line workers. One manager reportedly slapped his player when the player, egged on by his hyper yelling, cursed on national TV. Guys! Lighten up! If not for yourself and your kids, than for the image you project on TV!
THROWN FOR A CURVE: Most baseball people -- including the brass of Little League baseball -- say it's impossible to ban curveballs because of the inherent difficulties judging what's a curve and what's a changeup or a slow fastball. Two points: (1) If a curve is no different from a changeup, why not mix up a range of fastballs and changeups, and (2) at a book event last night in Madison, Conn., an umpire at the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament told me he doesn’t allow pitchers to throw curves. "I give them one warning, and if they do it again they get thrown out of the tournament," he said.
AND IN OTHER ACTION . . . : A team from Hilo, Hawaii, defeated a team from Mexico to win the Cal Ripken World Series. In a game televised on OLN (the Outdoor Life Network, soon to be called the Versus Network), Hawaii won, 5-0, despite inadvertently lifting its top pitcher in the third inning. After striking out six batters in two and two-thirds innings, Kawika Pruett left the game when manager Kaha Wong mistakenly made two trips to the mound. Kean Wong, the manager's kid, took over and retired nine of the last ten batters for the victory.
LEAD-PIPE GUARANTEE: Mike Dukakis got in trouble as Massachusetts governor when he broke his campaign promise of a "lead-pipe guarantee" against raising taxes. He jacked up taxes and got voted out of office. But I'm willing to use that same phrase. I offer you a lead-pipe guarantee that Little League will adopt some kind of pitch-count rule after this year's World Series. Why am I so sure? The announcers on ESPN are praising the idea as if it's the answer to all problems facing the world. Hell, if Little League adopts pitch limits, I'd say it's safe to bring the troops back from Iraq. All kidding aside, it's a great idea and Little League deserves all the praise in the world if it goes through. (See articles in USA Today and The Oregonian.)
CRACK GOES THE HELMET: The team from Lemont, Illinois, was alone among the 16 teams in the LLWS to bring their own helmets top the series. Austin Mastela got nailed in the left earflap and went to the hospital with a bloody face and mild concussion. (He was OK and played in the next game.) On impact, the helmet broke. What standards does Little League have for helmets? Even more important, will Little League consider moving the mound back to prevent injuries to both batters (facing major league-equivalent speeds approaching 100 m.p.h.) and pitchers (who can be seriously injured on liners up the middle)?
TOUGH POOL: Curacao did not make it out of pool play for the first time in three years despite having six returning players from last year's team. Like last year, the team from Japan beat the Caribbean all stars. But the kids from the Pabou Little League of Willemstad also lost to Mexico, which plays Japan Saturday for the International championship. The only team Curacao beat was winless Russia. Conspiracy theorists might wonder why Curacao played in such a tough bracket while Mexico played three relative creampuffs (Saudi, Canada, and Saipan).
GEORGIA PEACH: Kyle Carter is the big man on Georgia's team. He has won all three of Georgia's games -- with one inning of relief in the 3-2 win over New York, six innings of one-hit ball in the 4-1 win over Arizona, and six innings of three-hit pitching in the 8-0 win over New Hampshire in the U.S. semifinals. He's also the hitting star -- a player so feared that he's intentionally walked like Barry Bonds. He's three for 10 with two homes runs so far.
ARMPITS TO TOES: Cheers to the umpires for calling a huge strike zone in the LLWS. It keeps the games moving fast. What's scary is the pinpoint control of many pitchers this year -- much more pronounced than in last year's classic series.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS: Mike Hall, the manager from Illinois, rallied his kids with this pitch in its 2-0 losing effort against Georgia: "You're the best Little League team in America." Then he went on, in a hyper-jumbled way, about how Mayor Richie Daley of Chicago, Governor Rod Blagojevich, and President George Bush were all watching. Was this a confidence booster or just more pressure for kids who have already had enough criticism of their travel-team makeup? You make the call.
THE LINE: Japan has to be the heavy favorite to breeze to the LLWS title. Japan has the deepest pitching staff in memory and the only lineup stacked with power. They face a tough Mexican team for the International championship but should be strong enough to win. Georgia has to be considered the U.S. favorite because of its strong pitching. After resting Kyle Carter in the U.S. title game against the surprising Oregon team -- with fingers crossed -- the stud will take the mound on Sunday afternoon.
HISTORY LESSON: Japan has won six titles and appeared in one other title game in 16 previous LLWS appearances. The most recent title came in 2003, when the Musashi-Fuchu Little League of Tokyo manhandled Boynton Beach, Florida, 10-1, to cap a perfect 6-0 series run. Mexico has won two championships and finished in the runner-up position three times in its 21 previous tries. The Monterrey team won two straight titles in 1957 and 1958 -- the first times that foreign teams won the tournament. Only one team from Georgia -- from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta -- has appeared in the LLWS before 2006. But that team won it all in 1983 with a 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic. Oregon has appeared in the LLWS once before. The Rose City Little League of Portland lost its only game in the 1958 tournament won by Monterrey.
PIED PIPER MISSING: Harold Reynolds, who worked as a color commentator the last ten Little League World Series and became a favorite of the players, was fired before the LLWS for sexual harassment. The charge came after ESPN staff members went to dinner together. “It was a total misunderstanding,” Reynolds told the New York Post. “My goal is to sit down and get back. To be honest with you, I gave a woman a hug and I felt like it was misinterpreted.” Brent Musberger, the veteran play-by-play man, delighted in calling Reynolds the “pied piper” of the Williamsport event for his involvement with kids on Kelloggs training clips played during the series.
REAL KINGS OF THE HILL Cooperstown Dreams Park will hold its annual Tournament of Champions from August 26 to September 1. The event in upstate New York is considered by many experts to be the best baseball tournament for the 12-and-under set anywhere. The champions from the Dreams Park’s 10 weekly tournaments—each involving 96 travel teams from across the country—will compete for the title. Here are the champions eligible for the elite tournament: the San Diego Stars, West Boyton Gators of Florida, Miami Force, South Oakland A’s (featured in my book Little League, Big Dreams), Houston Heat, the Hit After Hit Baseball Academy of Tennessee, the O Town Sportscenter Baseball Academy of Florida, the Texas Tarheels, the Chicago North Shore Stars, and the Nevada Wildcats.