In the 2005 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a group of 12-year-olds from Hawaii rallied from a three-run deficit in the bottom of the sixth inning and went on to win the game in extra innings. The losing team from Curacao was on the brink of repeating as champions when Hawaii prevailed in a nail-biter. Charles Euchner, whose previous book, The Last Nine Innings, was an erudite look at the 2001 World Series, uses the 2005 season to probe deep into the realities and myths of Little League baseball. What Euchner uncovers is part Norman Rockwell with all the grassroots “aw shucks” charm and part George Steinbrenner, with considerable shenanigans on the part of some teams to get a winning edge.
Carl Stotz, a twenty-eight-year-old clerk at an oil company, started Little League in 1939. All Stotz wanted was for kids to have the sort of uniforms and facilities that professionals had. When Stotz’s brainchild grew to become a national phenomenon with more than 1,500 leagues nationally, a power struggle revolving around the direction of the organization ensued and Stotz was forced out. In Euchner’s candid narrative, there are no heroes among Little League authorities, who are often accused of professionalizing childhood.
There are not too many heroes among the coaches, either. Dante Bichette played major league baseball for many years with considerable success. When he brings his young son’s team to Williamsport, he intimidates and berates his opponents to give his team an advantage. It is not just Bichette, as myriad coaches overzealously shepherd their teams in the long march to the championship. There is sign stealing, psychological warfare, and overlong practice sessions in adverse weather as adults vicariously relive their thwarted glory by pushing groups of boys toward the zenith.
Euchner’s well-researched book is both a memoir of a season in baseball and a cautionary tale of the repercussions of adult intrusion in a child’s world. Not surprisingly, the kids seem to take both wins and losses with a lot more equanimity than the adults. The book is a must-read for parents and others involved with kids’ athletic endeavors. It is a telling tale of the dark underside of the quest for supremacy that very often spoils what is surely a beautiful game and putatively the nation’s pastime.