- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

ABC and ESPN, Disney buddies, have embraced the Little League World Series, lending an increasingly professional veneer to a kiddie event, assuming all the participants are kids.
ABC and ESPN do not mean to sully what is supposed to be an innocent exercise, played by innocents who dream of reaching the big leagues after they stop off at the ice-cream shop.
The conduits who filter the information for ABC and ESPN desperately want to believe in the Little League World Series, because God knows, they have become jaded by the real thing at the professional level.
It's nice to be around the wholesome fun in Williamsport, Pa., to see the game in its unadulterated form, to recall those times playing catch with dad in the backyard.
Yet inadvertent or not, the national eye inevitably spoils the object of its desire, because the cocktail of television, money and celebrity is fairly potent stuff.
In Staten Island, N.Y., it causes a group of parents and coaches to question the ages of the players from the team in the Bronx, notably the star pitcher, Danny Almonte. The group spends more than $10,000 on private investigators to find the dirt. None is found, possibly because a birth certificate is a negotiable document in the Dominican Republic.
Many of the Bronx players, including Almonte, are from the impoverished nation in the Caribbean. Baseball is their ticket out of the grinding poverty, and age, as with the youth-obsessed set in Hollywood, is sometimes a relative matter. You can be as young or old as you like, as long as it is within reason, of course. Older is sometimes preferable in the Dominican Republic because of the baseball academies that set their minimum age at 16.
Almonte played considerably older than his 12 years, which prompted the charges that he drives to the ballpark each day and shaves between innings to hide the stubble.
This is not fair to Almonte or the team from the Bronx, but with the trappings of professionalism come professional problems. Little League officials could ask the NCAA suits.
The suspicions come wrapped in a fundamental principle, which is: The need in humans to be validated is powerful, and to some, television is as validating as it gets, stupefyingly so. You can tell by Jerry Springer's list of dysfunctional guests.
A Little League team from the Philippines confirmed the suspicions in 1992, winning with players who had receding hairlines.
The level of sophistication at the Little League World Series is eerie on some level, related in spirit to beauty pageants for young girls. The boys chew and spit just like the big leaguers. They also dispense the same all-for-one inanities, as if they have been prepped by handlers.
The year-round urge to be in Williamsport undermines Little League's dwindling notion of structured fun, requiring immense sacrifices from both parents and players alike. The three-sport youth is being replaced by the highly focused 10-year-old specialist.
This is a counterproductive development, sapping the joy out of what is intended to be a carefree pursuit. The early fuss can be particularly cruel if an athlete's gene pool does not cooperate. Today's 12-year-old phenom is sometimes tomorrow's 16-year-old has-been, consigned there out of body type and stunted hand-eye coordination.
Williamsport has come to be the home of a high-stakes game involving seasoned players who neither act nor play their age. All the grown-ups are determined to say the appropriate things. It's for the kids, after all. But don't be fooled by the words or television's antiseptic eye.
Williamsport is a scaled-down model of a grown-up game that refuses to let kids be kids. Are you crazy? If you want to be the best, you have to practice like the best. You have to be as committed. You have to want it.
Here's the funny part: Baseball's next Mark McGwire, in all likelihood, probably never steps foot in Williamsport. He is wherever he is, perhaps awaiting his growth spurt.
Growth spurts can be tricky stuff, as the Little League World Series demonstrates.

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