August 17, 2011

Around the Bases and Down Memory Lane: The Little League World Series.

I apologize for the lack of posts over the past week.  I have been dealing with what seemed like the Black Plague. I am somewhat better now, although I still feel feverish. But other than that…

This has always been one of my favorite times of the year.  The division races heat up in baseball, football is on a countdown clock, and the weather is gorgeous.  When I was a kid, I used to get excited for school to start; I would organize all of my new supplies and trapper keepers, pick out whatever puff-paint or rhinestone debacle I would wear on the first day, and wait patiently for my schedule to arrive in the mail.  But mid-August was also bittersweet.  It marked the end of summer little league, or the end of traveling around with my best friends for softball tournaments every weekend.  And growing up, each summer started and ended with the same goal – the Little League World Series.
One of my summer softball teams from god knows how long ago.
The Little League World Series has been teaching our nation’s youth to be over-competitive assholes since 1947, when it was first held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  Although a player must be between the ages of 11 and 13 to qualify, the tournament was something I dreamed about since I first entered little league at the prime age of six.  This was, of course, before ESPN started giving the tournament full regional coverage in 2007.  Each summer, little league organizations from around the world select All-Star teams which then compete in district, sectional, and regional tournaments for the chance to advance to Williamsport for the championship.  When I played, only four teams from the United States could make the LLWS.  Now, however, the double-elimination tournament is comprised of 16 teams: eight international teams and eight from the United States. 

I played catcher and hit clean-up for the Commack South All-Stars, hailing from the mean streets of suburban Long Island.  One year, maybe 1994, we rocked bright yellow and navy mesh-like jerseys, with old-school stirrups and socks; we were also decked in maroon and gray at some point.  I wish I could find a copy of the fake trading cards that my team had printed, but they are collecting dust in my father’s attic.  It would have been fun to debate what is more precious: the poof of bangs visible from under the brim of my cap, my sparkling braces, or the fact that my “favorite player” on the back is listed as Frank Thomas (let’s just say that my bangs were definitely a bigger hurt than The Big Hurt himself).  I will never forget how incredible it felt to have my last name plastered on the back of a jersey for the first time.  I was proud of that uniform, to be invited onto that team.  In fact, I still have my original hats; one has “Jill #21” written inside, barely visible 15 years later, while the other has “I heart” and like four different boys names crossed out, along with corresponding dates.  I was apparently quite classy even as a pre-teen.  (I took that photo in my apartment; the others were sent from home, but none are from the LLWS).

In June, during our first few practices, we would excitedly talk about August, how this would be the year we shock everyone and qualify for the Little League World Series.  My blood felt carbonated with summer optimism.  I used to love smoothing out the sun-soaked dirt behind home plate, reveling in the buzz of humidity and the clang of aluminum bats.  When I was younger, it was easier to ignore the weight of sticky shin guards.  After practice, we would play games in our coach’s swimming pool and joke about how our championship banner would be bigger than her.  We were far too naïve to let reality get in the way of our big dreams.  Looking back, it was ludicrous to think we could have made it to Williamsport; we were not a very talented ball club.  Pitching was everything at that level – whether you could pitch “windmill” separated the contenders from the pretenders – and our pitchers were mediocre.  But every year, we geared up for what always turned out to be summer’s last hurrah – the qualifying tournament for the LLWS. 

A young JHop, between innings.
There was something special about this tournament, and not just what was at stake.  We played at Tanner Park, a sprawling complex overlooking the Great South Bay in Copiague, New York. It was the only tournament we played there and it felt…magical.  Like they opened the gates for us only because we were part of this very honorable event.  And we badly wanted to win it.  I have played in hundreds of softball tournaments, most of which are now fuzzy memories, yet I still remember everything about this one.  I remember that the park had big concession stands stocked with softball staples, like Big League Chew and Fun Dip, and towering lights for night games. There was a playground where my brother and his friends hung out while we played ball.  You could see the water from home plate, which I thought was particularly cool as a 13-year-old.  Families would set up blankets along the fence that lined the outfield, and a cool breeze would blow in during the evenings.  The grass seemed greener there, vibrating against the freshly raked infield. I remember bouncing to the parking lot after games, hyped up on sunflower seeds and adrenaline, recapping at-bats with my dad or bitchy coaches with my mother.  I loved going to Tanner Park for the LLWS. It represented the culmination of summer softball, everything a rag-tag group of middle-school girls wanted.

While we never placed higher than third, the qualifying tournaments for the LLWS still hold some of the best memories of my childhood.  It is strange that I can recall certain at-bats.  Once, after a single through the right-side hole, I was called out for tagging too early (which infuriated me; I still remember throwing my helmet and then getting yelled at by my coach).  I remember being in the on-deck circle during a tied game, only to see my arch-rival (I wish I could use her real name here, because it sounds just like the name of a make-believe villain) take the mound after a pitching change. I watched her warm-up, as my pulse kicked up a notch.  And that is when I decided to give myself a pep talk, literally talk to myself outside the dugout, as only a kid can do, which I vividly remember. I am sure to others it looked like I was kneeling down, propped on my bat, praying for success.  Oh, no.  That would be too normal.  Instead, I recall giving myself a speech that involved imagining the outfield as a burning house, which only a hit, carrying imaginary water, could save my family from; how I needed to be a hero, not just for me, but for the city of Commack (and my family’s imaginary burning house).  I wish that I had a helmet microphone to capture what I am sure was hilariously epic (and embarrassing).  I don’t know why this speech came into my head.  But it worked.*  I remember my mom handing me bottles of Gatorade through the fence.  And celebrating an extra-inning win on the infield, jumping around like we were at a New Kids on the Block concert.

*So maybe that is actually the moment I became irrationally superstitious and began making weird imaginary side bets with myself, which I continue to do today.  “If there is a strikeout in the first inning, the Yankees will win.”  "If I see three homeless people on the way to work, my client will get his green card." Dumb stuff that makes little sense.  It is sort of disturbing, however, to realize this came about when I wagered my family in a burning house for a base hit, but whatever.  

A young JHop, at bat.
I now watch on ESPN, fondly remembering the way my heart used to pound when stepping into that batter’s box in Copiague.  I smile when I see these little kids slap gloves, execute complicated celebratory handshakes, and pimp their homeruns.  I remember what it was like to think you owned the world, even for a brief moment on the baseball diamond, when only tens of parents are screaming for you in glee.  Like everything depended on that moment, that at-bat, that pitch. At thirteen, it is everything. And I laugh when I see it now, looks of intensity and exuberance painted across the faces of hundreds of kids, playing in the biggest tournament of their lives. We never made it to Williamsport.  We never even made it to regionals.  But even our failed attempts to get there were unforgettable. 

The reason that we took this little adventure down memory lane is because the 2011 LLWS has been particularly entertaining.   We have already seen one team disqualified for immigration issues, another invited in its place, and one pitcher strike out 13 of the final 15 batters that he faced.  The championship begins tomorrow and a winner will be crowned on August 28th.  So gather your friends, make up a drinking game, and tune-in to ESPN.
The craziness of this year’s regionals prompted my very good friend and frequent blog contributor Manhattan Man to email me last week about how his family has “always gotten a kick out of the LLWS.”  He wrote: 
Regional play is coming to an end . . . Check out this regional: Saudi Arabia, Uganda, South Africa, Kuwait and the UAE. Games played in POLAND. And Uganda won, but got their visas denied, and so, Saudi Arabia advances to Williamsport. How do you make this the Southwest region: Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Mississippi, Oklahoma and New Mexico.  Southwest?  Of what? While Italy pounded the Ukraine, 10-0, the Netherlands won their last three to punch a ticket to PA. It’s fun.
He is right – it has been so much fun to watch, especially this year. But in the email, he also mentioned what initially turned his family onto the LLWS; namely, a player named Dalton Carriker.  Intrigued, I asked him to expound upon his anecdote:
I’m a lucky Dad, in that my daughters have become baseball fans.  My elder can truly hit, my younger can fly on the base paths, and track a ball in right center.  While channel-surfing a few summers back, we stumbled on a South region qualifying game of the ’07 Little League World Series.  Warner Robins shortstop/pitcher Dalton Carriker tried to get an early jump from first a couple of times when finally, his coach yelled, “Dalton…..stay on that base!”  The Georgia drawl was so thick and Carriker’s grin so winning as he trudged back to first, the phrase became like a movie line around our home: “Stay on that base!”

A couple of nights later his team made it to Williamsport, and as we set the DVR and watched, his Warner Robins GA club went all the way to the final against Japan.  And of course, we had to attend a school band function that afternoon.  Because the game went to extras, the recording time ran out.  So, I jumped on the PC trying to find a result when my daughter read from the ESPN crawler, “Carriker walk-off home run wins LLWS!”

We saw his interview the next night on David Letterman, read the accounts of celebrations on-line and even sent a note to Georgia, asking for his autograph.  Each year at this time, we catch at least a game or two of the LLWS and remember the fun we had “with Dalton.”
His response defines what makes this time of year so damn special. But more importantly, I can't help but think it captures the magic that the Little League World Series brings to its audience – a memorable experience, no matter how you look at it, how you watch it, or how you played in it.  Whether it is Dalton Carriker or pep talks about imaginary burning houses, waterfront fields in Copiague or visa fraud in Uganda. The LLWS is addicting. And this year’s craziness continues tomorrow night, so please check it out.



(How great is this video? It captures everything the LLWS has to offer - pure happiness, devastation, tears, fist pumps, coaches consoling players, teenage angst and hideous braces, a post-game hug-out, chants of "USA," heads held in disappointment, unnecessary eye black, and parents crying.  Thanks to Manhattan Man for enlightening me to the greatness that is Dalton Carricker shocking the Japanese). 

3 comments:

  1. And, thanks to you, for sharing, remembering, and getting it, so well.
    Not a lot of chores getting done around the homestead this weekend...

    - MM

    ReplyDelete
  2. Best writeup of the LLWS I've ever read, Jill.

    And your pics? While rockin' that Craig Counsell stance is debatable, you are clearly a player.

    Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. You know what's funny? My stance in that picture has been driving me insane since my brother sent it to me the other day! I keep staring at it. I do not know how my stance changed so much over the years, but it most definitely has. I used to arrogantly swing my bat back then - like in small circles while waiting for the pitch - which is the only explanation I can muster for why my hands are so high. A coach eventually told me to stop doing that, because my wrists were in a slightly different position when I set for each pitch. I wonder if that was good advice, since many MLB players still employ the ol' bat swagger; it can't be that detrimental to one's stance if professional coaches haven't eliminated it. In the photo, my back elbow is also dropped, which was a mechanical flaw I fixed later in life. Regardless, I just think it is funny you commented on my stance when it is all I have focused on from this post in the past three days.

    ReplyDelete