The Little League World Series, which has never endured a players' strike but has had its share of scandal (overaged Taiwanese ringers), is one of those events that turns everyone's cliche machine on full blast: Between the innocence of the players ("Favorite band: Hootie and the Blowfish") and the purity of their hearts ("Favorite subject: math"), these kids and their once-in-a-lifetime quest are awfully hard to resist.
But I'm not sure they want you to think they're kids.
When Spring, Texas, faced Yorba Linda, California, last Tuesday--this was just after Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia!) got beat--I found myself fascinated by, among other things, a lanky twelve-year-old Texan named Wardell Starling III. This budding Doc Gooden--same high, slow leg kick, same rubber arm--came equipped with a 68-mile-per-hour fastball (90 mph in big-league translation) and a steely-eyed attitude he'd clearly expropriated from big-league TV games. Nothing rattled Wardell--not a wild pitch, not the two consecutive homers he gave up, not the ESPN mini-cam stuck in his face. And when his equally stone-faced teammates patted him on the shoulder after a bad inning, he just glowered.
Wardell Starling III was cool. He was also careful to step over the foul line whenever he strode to the dugout. Cool big-league superstition.
In fact, most of Wardell's teammates seemed like mini-grownups too. The team's 4-8, 85-pound shortstop probably doesn't have his home run trot perfected yet, but 5-6, 165-pound first sacker Mike "Spike" Cepeda does. Meanwhile, many of the kids were encased in enough elastic wristbands and leather batting gloves to stock, say, the entire Texas Rangers clubhouse. What's waaay cool, by the way, is to drape the fingers of your two batting gloves out of your back pockets when you're, like, not at the plate. That's what they do in the Bigs.
But posing can present hazards. In the course of one at-bat, a five-foot, 100-pound infielder (sorry, I didn't catch his name... or ask for his autograph) got so tangled up in his paraphernalia--wristbands dangled on skinny wrists, untied shoelaces, too-large batting helmet, too-tight batting gloves--that he finally called time, dropped his bat and simply divested himself of most of the extras.
Despite himself, he also grinned--a big wide, eleven-year-old gap-toothed grin--which is something big-leaguers don't often do. Then he ripped a clean line-drive hit to left field, lurched down the basepath and--we hope--found his childhood waiting for him, right there at first base.