ESPN's coverage of the Little League World Series playoff games has me hooked.
I think it's the best escape viewing on the teevee.
Maybe it's just a male thing, but I can't watch the teams from wherever battle for a berth in Williamsport, Pa., without thinking back to my own days as a kid baseball player. No, I can't call it Little League because it wasn't part of the official Little League baseball.
Anyway, I'll take the ESPN Little League coverage any day over Major League Baseball. The youngsters -- at least so far -- don't squabble over how many millions they will make. It's sports in its purest form. And sportsmanship generally is admirable. Even from the parents, at least from the way it appears on TV. You never know what it might be like behind the scenes because the stakes are high for those parents who might have visions of big league contracts for their sons.
Back in the '50s in Topeka, Kan., where I grew up, youth baseball was focused around the Cosmopolitan League. We called it Cosmo baseball. I think an organization called the Cosmopolitan Club provided the basic funding.
Sponsors for each team bought players a T-shirt. Uniforms? Are you kidding. We were lucky to get the white T-shirts with blue lettering. Players provided their own caps.
The team sponsor my first year in Topeka's Cosmo League was Capper Publications. That's fitting since Capper Publications turned into Stauffer Communications, which later became Morris Communications, the current owner of the Brainerd Dispatch.
There was no ESPN back then. But I was on TV. Once a week a different team would get to parade by the camera of the local TV station, which happened to be owned by our team sponsor. So they made sure we got on one of the sportscasts. The sports announcer and I years later became professional colleagues after I started my sports writing career in Topeka. (And he provided my Big Eight basketball highlight when one night broadcasting a Kansas State University game he said, "Roy Miller went in for a dunk" when he meant to refer to the Wildcats' Roy Smith.)
Back to my lone TV appearance as a great baseball player: I'll never forget how I froze when it was my turn to tell the viewers my name and my favorite baseball player. I meant to say Ty Cobb but in my nervousness I said Stan Musial like most of the other boys. Mind you, that was so long ago there was no major league team in Kansas City. Most of the Midwest pulled for the St. Louis Cardinals. And, no, I never saw Ty Cobb play but I read about him.
Like many young boys, I lived baseball. I was sure I would become a famous big league player.
That was before I realized I was afraid of the ball. At bat I would "step into the bucket." Loosely translated, that means I would step one foot back away from the plate when the pitch came toward me.
I was an easy strikeout for the enemy pitchers. My only hope of getting on base was getting hit by the pitch or getting a walk. I don't think I was ever hit by a pitch. And I usually swung three times before the ump could register four balls.
Hustling gave me a reputation as a good fielder. The highlight came one year during a playoff game. As I remember it -- and it gets better every time I tell it -- it was the last inning. We led by a run or two but the other team had the bases loaded. There were two out.
I heard the crack of the bat.
I must have been praying that the ball wouldn't come my way in right field.
But it did.
I ran in toward the infield to catch the sinking line drive.
I spun around as I caught the ball. I held onto it. We won the playoff.
No one asked for my autograph. And I think we lost at the next level of the city playoffs.
After a couple of years of being the strikeout king I was more than ready to change my career choice from baseball to newspapers. The sports writers, I noticed from reading the juvenile sports novels, always got to see the games and be friends with the stars. And right then and there, somewhere around my fifth- and sixth-grade years, I decided to make journalism my career.
So now, 50 years later, I watch the Little League games and think back to what might have been. If I could have hit on the field as well as I did in my daydreams, who knows what would have happened?
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