BRISTOL, CONN. — Patriotic bunting along the foul lines. Grandstands vibrant with popcorn-munching enthusiasts. Green lawn sandwiching groomed base paths. Kids in smart uniforms, spunky and proud, like marchers on Main Street in a Fourth of July parade.
The entire scene could be an idealized museum diorama of the country at peace and at play.
Yet off to the side are several pieces of equipment not typically featured in our cherished images of Little League baseball: TV cameras.
The cameras are focused on highly skilled 11- and 12-year olds competing in the New England Regional leading up to the Little League World Series (LLWS). The regional is a short drive from the headquarters of ESPN, the company responsible for covering the entire event. This week, millions of viewers are tuning in to what Lance Van Auken of Little League Baseball Inc. calls "baseball in its purest form."
If the LLWS is a "marquee slice of Americana," as ESPN spokesman Michael Humes contends, it is certainly no longer an underpromoted one. By the time the series ends, 35 Little League contests will have been televised live, nationally, and around the globe, by ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC. The series culminates Aug. 24, with the championship game between the winners of the US and international brackets.
The broadcast schedule, augmented this year by six additional international games plus the consolation game between losing semifinalists, marks a 25 percent increase in the number of telecasts over 2002, and nearly triple the number of games covered in 2000. There are several reasons behind this phenomenon but the fundamental one, according to Curt Gowdy Jr., ABC's longtime producer of the event, is simply, "the ratings are there."
Last year's Nielsen ratings from the US regional finals (played at various locations) and the preliminary rounds played at Williamsport, Pa., the longstanding home of the LLWS, compare favorably with ESPN's normal viewership for weekend professional baseball games. The championship game on ABC between Louisville, Ky., and Sendai, Japan, earned an impressive 5.9 rating (roughly 5 million households).
Nostalgia could lie behind the rising fascination with the telecasts. Viewers, 49 percent of whom are over 50, according to ABC/ESPN, may yearn for a time when kids were reputedly immersed in simple athletic activities and when teams truly represented the geographical regions inscribed on their jerseys.
"The ESPNs of the world are onto the fact that fans may prefer the so-called purity of amateur competition," says Richard Lapchick, director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. "The irony, of course, is that TV could take some of the purity out of the game."
ESPN/ABC is in the middle of a six-year contract with Little League Baseball valued at a reported $1.25 million per year. (Little League, a nonprofit organization, has an annual budget of $16 million.) So far, the league has not put the broadcast rights out for highest bid, comfortable in a relationship that stretches back to 1963, when ABC broadcast a tape-delayed championship game on "Wide World of Sports."
Projecting "family values" is a key element in the broadcasts, and the league and ESPN/ABC function almost as partners in this endeavor. Shortly after the 16 finalists arrive in Williamsport, Mr. Gowdy gives a seminar to the managers and umpires, using tapes to illustrate the network's desire to depict an upbeat blend of fun, sportsmanship, and competition.
Coaches and managers are furnished with wireless microphones that invite viewers in on real-time scraps of standard encouragements ("Focus, focus!" "Keep your head in!"). Similarly, a microcamera attached to the mask of the home-plate umpire gives viewers a close-up glimpse of batters facing down a 12-year-old's fastball. "You see a level of emotion and enthusiasm and fun that doesn't exist elsewhere in sports," says Gowdy. "People see that these kids are having an experience of a lifetime."
"People see it as the last bastion of innocence," adds Stephen Keener, president and CEO of Little League Baseball.
Yet not everyone hails Little League's move to prime time. "Once the stakes are ratcheted up in an event, its innocence is the first to go," says Jay Coakley, a University of Colorado sociologist and author of "Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies."
Indeed, the product so enthusiastically marketed could prove fragile. "In a few years," asserts Mr. Coakley, "Little League may look like NCAA basketball. Everyone talks about [it being] amateur, but you have to look pretty hard to find any innocence."
Others take a harder line. "This is putting children smack in the middle of adult business," says Brooke deLench of MomsTeam.com, a website focused on the health aspects of youth sports. "They're doing exactly what society says you can't do with little girls. You can't dress them up [as adult women] and put them on TV."
Little League officials deny that the telecasts have any appreciable impact on the players or the storied virtues of the game, beyond broadcasting them to an even wider audience. To those who claim that the broadcasts introduce harmful levels of pressure, Mr. Keener replies that kids who've made it to these final rounds have largely become oblivious to it.
Yet accommodations for television are made. Between-inning interludes are longer, to squeeze in commercials. Players stay in the dugout until an umpire, cued by a producer, gives a signal to take the field. And then there are the postgame interviews. The only media allowed on the field to conduct them are ABC and ESPN, and then only to interview members of the winning team. Other reporters (last year the LLWS issued more than 600 media credentials) must wait in a designated press area, where they can speak with preselected players and their manager.
No aspect of Little League's relationship to TV would seem riper for mistakes or abuse than that direct media-player encounter. But for now, a visit to the postgame interview room behind Bristol's Barlett Giamatti Field reveals that these kids are quickly acquiring, in addition to other skills, big-league media savvy. Pitcher Mike Scuzzarella of Saugus, Mass., beams in front of the cameras after his team shut down a squad from Augusta, Maine, 4-0 for the New England regional championship.
"If I wasn't on TV," he enthuses, "I'd be sky high. Blasting! Jumping up and down!" In other words, he'd be acting just like a 12-year-old.
Some 2.7 million players are affiliated with Little League Baseball Inc., the organization based in Williamsport, Pa. But the number of kids playing youth baseball in the United States is far greater.
A 1998 survey of baseball organizations came up with an estimate of 12 million amateur baseball players, according to USA Baseball, the umbrella organization for the amateur game in the US and the coordinating body for the teams that compete in the Olympics.
A number of programs that are casually referred to as "little league" are in fact run by other organizations - some with different guidelines, objectives, and even infield dimensions.
In addition, many of these programs run national or international tournaments. Among them:
Cal Ripken Baseball If there is a challenger to the preeminence of Little League, this is it.
The league is a division of Babe Ruth Baseball, which has been around for more than 50 years and is best known for leagues involving 13- to 18-year-old players. The Ripken division, run by the former Baltimore Orioles shortstop, claims around 600,000 players ages 5 to 12.
"Growing Baseball Worldwide the Ripken Way" is its stated mission. The league will hold a world series featuring teams from as far away as South Korea and the Dominican Republic at the Aberdeen, Md., sports complex built by Ripken. Its championship game will be televised by FoxSports.net Aug. 24, the same day as the Little League World Series final.
Amateur Athletic Union This venerable organization runs distinct regional and national tournaments in each group from ages 8 to 18 (U-8, U-9, etc.) The championship games are held at different locations, including Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
PONY Baseball The name stands for Protect Our National Youth. Based in Pennsylvania and founded more than 50 years ago, this organization allows lead offs and the dropped third-strike rule, unlike Little League, and expands the length of the base paths to 70 feet (from 60 feet) for 11- and 12-year olds. Its national championship game was held Aug. 12 in Monterey, Calif.
National Association of Police Athletic Leagues Run by law-enforcement agencies, usually as part of a multifaceted and multisport recreation program designed to prevent juvenile crime, PAL offers baseball programs for children as young as age 5, but its national tournament is only for teenage players.
Other smaller regional and national youth baseball organizations include the United States Amateur Baseball Association, Dizzy Dean Baseball, Hap Dumont Youth Baseball, and Dixie Youth Baseball.