WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Ed Howard plays shortstop for the Great Lakes Region champions out of Chicago. He hit a home run Thursday in his team’s first game at the Little League World Series, a 12-2 win against the Northwest champions from Washington.
Afterward, a reporter asked Howard what his best memory was of the game inside Lamade Stadium.
“The dirt,” Howard said.
The infield dirt?
“Yes,” he said. “The dirt.”
It was an answer that defined in a most memorable way the innocence of Little League baseball, of a young boy who discovered happiness in what most might consider an insignificant point by which to measure a global event.
It was the perfect answer.
But the wide-eyed nature that makes watching these young players so enjoyable has more and more been lost over the years in a torrent of big crowds and bigger expectations.
It is what many consider the dark side of the bright lights that shine upon this town for 11 days each August, whether 12-year-olds are prepared to handle the incredible amount of attention and admiration cast in their direction.
They are questions that have been asked around these parts for some time now: Is it too much too soon? Should any 12-year-old ever reach the point when what they accomplish here becomes difficult to top the rest of their lives? Are we professionalizing children for the sake of millions of dollars in sponsorships and TV ratings?
It’s a lot to take in for kids this age. They arrive here and receive new bats, new gear, new cleats, new sunglasses. They are hounded daily for autographs and pictures. Girls flock to their games and often try to maneuver around security at the player barracks. Hundreds of media credentials are issued annually. ESPN becomes a close and personal friend.
Lee Miller has seen the good and bad of the World Series his entire life, having grown up in South Williamsport and worked the event in some capacity for decades. The past 14 years, he has served as an uncle to one of the participating teams, meaning Miller guides it throughout the process, coordinating schedules and media appearances and everything else off the field. This year, he is an uncle to the West Region champions.
To the boys from Mountain Ridge.
“The first thing we do is remind the kids what it was like before this — they cleaned their rooms, fed the dog, did their homework,” said Miller, 53. “They are treated very special here, and this is a really big deal and a wonderful place, but it’s very temporary. When they began the All-Star process, tens if not hundreds of thousands of kids wanted to get here. The kids who did need to be humble and remember it not only took a lot of talent but some luck and fortune.
“The biggest job for coaches and parents won’t be here, but when everyone gets home to (Las Vegas). All these kids can play baseball. But lots of people will want to get close to them when this is over. Others will be jealous of them and want to prove they’re better in some way. They’ll have to learn how to deal with all of it. It could go on for months and months. At some point, they’re all going to have to say, “It’s time to get back to a normal life.’ ”
Perspective has proven tough for some past Little League heroes to keep. Most kids are resilient and will be fine. Others struggle moving away from all the praise and sudden fame.
The overnight ratings (4.4) for Mountain Ridge’s opening win Thursday were the highest in Las Vegas history for a Little League World Series game. On Friday, more than 15,000 were inside Lamade Stadium, including the governor of Pennsylvania, to watch Mo’Ne Davis of Philadelphia. The first girl to appear for a U.S. team since 2004 threw a complete-game shutout for the Mid-Atlantic champions.
In Chicago, where the Great Lakes team that Mountain Ridge opposes Sunday is from, huge crowds watched action Thursday via big screens from local fields.
Last year, ESPN signed an eight-year contract extension with Little League International worth $60 million to continue broadcasting the series.
It’s a monster, this thing.
“Our kids are definitely getting exposed,” Mountain Ridge manager Ashton Cave said. “The part where kids their age or younger are asking for autographs and pictures or just giving them high-fives is neat. Our players are digging that. But the other part, where we’ve had hundreds of people trying to get to the kids through social media and other ways, can be scary. All of a sudden, these kids have 500 new friends on Facebook overnight. That’s not acceptable.
“We really need to do a good job educating the kids and their parents about what is to come, how they will all deal with it. It’s not really something you can prepare for. It’s our job as the adults to take care of these kids and watch over them and protect them from people who won’t have their best interests at heart.”
Said ace pitcher Austin Kryszczuk: “It’s a pretty big spotlight to be under, but we know our families and coaches, all the people who got us to this point, will be there for us. I think we can all handle it.”
Besides, no matter how far Mountain Ridge advances here, a new school year and more homework awaits upon their arrival home.
“That part,” Kryszczuk said, “sucks.”
The perfect Little League answer.
Every now and then, thankfully, the innocence returns.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.