Starr Gazing: Put The 'Little' Back In Little League

Even before it was revealed that Danny Almonte, the Bronx's now famous (perhaps about to be infamous) "Little Unit" may actually be 14 years old and not just a precocious 12, I was already sorry I watched the Little League World Series. After all, there was a lot of good sports on TV this past weekend. On Sunday alone, there were two stirring golf duels, a college football opener that knocked Georgia Tech out of the top 10, Barry Bonds in Shea and the return of Pedro Martinez to the mound. So I can't easily explain why I, along with millions of other Americans, gravitated over to this kiddie spectacle that has gone prime time.

Even as I watched, I felt there was something just not right about the whole production. Since when do 12 year-olds get the full Musberger, which, unlike the full Monty, requires the recipients to bare more than their bodies. Do we really need to know the nicknames of all these boys from the Bronx, Orlando and Tokyo? Do we need their lifetime stats? Do we really need to know their most heartfelt dreams and ambitions? And could someone please have a word with that youngster from Florida, whose greatest life hope is to someday get to talk with Pete Rose? (Just wait till Pete starts cussing out the youngster cause he had Apopka to win in a parlay with Tiger Woods, the Cincinnati Reds and the WNBA's Charlotte Sting?)

But, above all, what I really didn't need was to see 12-year-olds reduced to tears as their dreams are shattered by their own miscues. I've seen those tears too many times. For five years I coached youth soccer at the very lowest levels. But even the rec-league experience enables you to understand how miserable and lonely failure can be. I've tried to comfort youngsters who've whiffed badly in front of wide-open nets or who have let the winning goal roll through their legs with 10 seconds to go in the game, my words lost in their wrenching sobs. (Pathetic as it may be, my own youthful athletic miscues remain as vivid today-and almost as painful-as they did 40 years ago.)

And Sunday I got to see the whole emotional cataclysm "up close and personal," network style, as the Florida kids, three outs away from the championship, blew the game in the final inning. There was a bonehead baserunning mistake, two fielding errors by the third baseman and, finally, one last brain-glitch as the winning run crossed the plate for Japan. The Florida catcher was already bawling as the Tokyo kid scored, and it didn't take long for most of the rest of the team, stunned by the reversal and their sudden demise, to start the mass tear flow.

Now don't get me wrong: I think crying is a great catharsis for athletes of any age and gender. (I saw my brother's eyes welling up on Saturday when he lined out to center to seal my team's 7-6 softball victory over his-and, oh, yes, I respect him for it.) But 12-year-olds ought to be allowed to live out these disappointments, which in the moment seem so tragic to them, in privacy with just their teammates, coaches and families. I didn't want to feel their pain. Indeed watching on TV felt not just inappropriate, but downright prurient.

The Little League World Series was once a quaint American tradition that fit the small Pennsylvania city that hosted it. Going international was great, giving us true baseball believers the faith that baseball was not a dying sport, but one destined to grow with the infusion of new cultures. And I'm not that big a curmudgeon that I don't think it's neat when a bunch of California parents "adopt" the Russian team and buy them some modern equipment. But now the whole thing is a behemoth, and it has lost its charm under the glare of the media lights.

Of course, everything was ratcheted up by the success of a team from the media central, New York-New York. Once young (however young) Almonte hurled his perfect game, the media frenzy was destined to get out of hand and, inevitably, turn sour. The revelations went far beyond the dueling birth certificates from the Dominican Republic. Rivals of the Bronx team had actually spent thousands on private detectives to try to determine whether the "Baby Bronx Bombers" were violating Little League's age or residency requirements. And that spurred accusations from Bronx supporters that its players, who are largely of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, were targets of racism. Even Pedro Martinez, a native Dominican, chimed in, saying that if these kids weren't Latins, President Bush would be greeting them at the White House. (Pedro seems to forget that the Bronx team didn't win. And, in fact, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did give the lads the key to the city.)

Cries of racism, phony documents, private eyes, devastated kids: is that any way to run what is supposed to be, after all, a baseball tournament for young kids. It's always too late once the genie is out of the bottle, and everybody's got their greedy hands around it. But if I had my choice, I'd try and put a little of the "Little" back in the Little League World Series. And next year, I don't care if the heroics are provided by a kid Pedro Martinez or even a baby Bambino. I'm not watching!