Tuesday, August 16, 2005

One Winner, No Losers

Triumphant Newtown

A GREAT GAME. We thought we'd watch an hour of Little League championship play before switching over to the Eagles-Steelers preseason game. It didn't happen that way. We stayed with the 11- and 12-year-old ballplayers who were giving their all to win the Mid-Atlantic Regional Final. And even though we were rooting for Toms River, NJ, against Newtown, PA, we couldn't be disappointed by Newtown's classy come-from-behind win. Both teams played with heart, skill, and discipline, and they did it before a national television audience:

Hulking TV trucks surrounded the posh Gianatti Little League Leadership Training Center and a red-white-and-blue hot-air balloon hovered above; nationally televised, the twilight game necessitated spray paint on Breen Field's brown patches and the addition of huge banks of portable lights; a spacious second-floor press box was teeming with reporters and photographers; and boisterous clusters of fans in Toms River red and Council Rock blue lined the walkway connecting the field with the player dormitories, from which the two teams emerged to tumultuous pre-game roars.

The network coverage had to put a lot of pressure on the youngsters, but they delivered the best game we'd seen all year. It featured good sportsmanship, crisp uniforms, and a little of everything that's best about baseball, including clutch hits, stolen bases, a pair of homeruns by the losing pitcher, and multiple star plays in the field by both sides -- a big league catch in the right field corner, a peg from left field that nailed a runner at third, a masterful block of home plate by a pitcher (!) that prevented a critical run from scoring, and an overall level of defensive play that was solid and intelligent. Likewise, the batteries of both teams were outstanding, as pitchers worked through deep counts for strikeouts and catchers called smart games while keeping most of the errant pitches in front of them. One pitcher, relieved of mound duty after four-plus innings of fine work, became the catcher for his reliever.

ESPN's microphones were frequently able to pick up the interaction between coaches and players, who were repeatedly told to lay off the high fastballs... and have fun.

You can read full accounts of the game from the Pennsylvania side and the New Jersey side, but neither quite captures, well, the fun of seeing good kids performing like champs with their parents and friends cheering them on, with none of the ugliness we've come to expect from the stands and from spoiled superstars on the field.

The play is moving to Williamsport now for the national championship games. If you need some cheering up about American sports, American kids, and American families, look for the games on one of your ESPN channels. You'll be glad you did.

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