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Little League baseball: Youth sports’ lessons are lasting

Like music recitals or other performances in front of others, sports are productively nerve-wracking for youth.

Here’s a sports story that climbs even higher than Colin Kaepernick’s backside sinks low.

The Little League baseball team from Maine-Endwell, New York, won the 2016 United States championship last Saturday, beating a team from Tennessee 4-2, and then won the championship of the whole wide world on Sunday, beating a team from South Korea 2-1, all in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Mitch Pearlstein
Center of the American ExperimentMitch Pearlstein

I assume I wouldn’t be writing about this if I hadn’t lived only a few miles from Endwell when I lived in upstate New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But I found myself taking chauvinistic pride in how well they were doing, first in preliminary games and then in the final two, at which point I wound up watching more Little League baseball on television – in two nerve-wracking sittings – than I ever have and presumably ever will again.  

And when the last Korean batter struck out, I was even more excited than I was when a beagle by the name of Miss P won the 2015 Westminster Dog Show.  If anyone thinks this slights the boys from Endwell, you just don’t know how much my wife and I love dogs, especially beagles. 

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In addition to being joyous about how Williamsport turned out, the two days of Little League championship games got me thinking again about the value of big-time sports for young people – with “big-time” this time having to do with 12- and 13-year-old junior high school students in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime situation, rather than 18- to 22-year-old college students in the midst of NCAA eligibility.    

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what it must be like to be a newly minted teenager (if that old) to play baseball with over 20,000 screaming people sitting in the stands and on the hillside surrounding the outfield, plus millions more watching on television across the country and other parts of the globe.  What it must be like to play an inherently difficult game when it comes to curve balls and all, knowing the chances of making an error to lose a big game for your team (and your country) are greater than the likelihood of hitting a home run in the last inning to win one for your team (and country).

What it must it be like for a kid’s ego to have swarms of reporters asking questions and photographers saying “just one more.” And what it must it be like to have your hometown newspaper running front-page stories about your international quest.    

One answer to all this is that it has to be extraordinary fun. Another is that it helps boys who are 5-foot-2 feel 6-foot-4, at least for a spell. And there’s nothing like winning a world championship on network television to get boys fantasizing about how impressed girls back home just have to be. 

But what I’ve been thinking about most of all is what a stunning learning experience it can be to deal successfully with rare stress at novice ages. Sports routinely explode out of proportion. But without diminishing academic pursuits, I’ve been thinking about how the fruits of top-tier (and not just top-tier) competition sometimes surpass in importance, when it comes to lasting personal growth, a modest number of points on GPAs, MCAs, ACTs, and SATs up or down. Dealing unsuccessfully with challenges, needless to say, also can be rich in lessons, but I’m in a giddy New York frame of mind and want to stay for a while. 

Of course sports are not the only arenas in which heightened pressures must be overcome in front of throngs; think of high-stakes music recitals, for example. But in my own life, I’m hard-pressed to think of many more productively nerve-wracking occasions than when I pitched a championship baseball game when I was 15, only a few years older than Little Leaguers.    

Many times in tough moments ever since I’ve thought back to how my Police Athletic League (PAL) team was an underdog and how spine-chilling it was out on the mound.  But I also recall how I manned-up and pitched a complete game and how we won (6 to 3, I think). I don’t want to be silly about this, but I still recall that day with genuine pride and have drawn on it for strength for 50-plus years.  I also think about how in the world my body used to be capable of such things, but that’s another matter.

A postscript, which I report in nonpartisan spirit: Our PAL team back in the summer of (I think) 1963 was sponsored by the “Republican Club of the Rockaways.” One might describe this as ironic, as few if any of my teammates’ parents were Republicans or likely knew of many, this having being in Queens after all. And on top of that, our shirts were red. I’m really not making any of this up – just like I’m not making up the fact that the team we beat was sponsored by the “Democratic Club of the Rockaways.” I would love to note that their shirts were blue, but alas they were green. A budding environmental green, if any progressive friends are wondering.

Mitch Pearlstein’s most recent publication is a symposium with 36 writers: “Specifically, What Can We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation?” He is the founder and Senior Fellow of the Center of the American Experiment.


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