Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why We Come

By Mark Rogoff
Special Correspondent

The rolling hills and what seem to be magnetic fields of central Pennsylvania have people coming back year after year after year. Little League built it, and people have come. People have made their endless summer journey to watch, admire and dream. People have come from all corners of the globe to cheer on the kids, recapture their own youth and be reminded of all that once was good.

South Williamsport, site of the Little League Baseball World Series, is a powerful magnet, an overriding magnetic pull. Baseball fans just keep coming back. The good people are just naturally drawn to it, not like a desert oasis but like a favorite restaurant or an ideal strip of beach. The pageantry, the beauty and the innocence of it all are some of the natural forces in play.

In 2008 alone we saw Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage pay a visit. We saw Atlanta Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens take on the scene, visiting with his native Curacao squad. Former big league pitcher Jim Abbott stopped by, as did National Football League Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome.

The not-so-recognizable also found their way to Little League’s hallowed grounds. Dario Pizzano, who starred on the 2003 Saugus, Mass. World Series team, returned for the fifth consecutive year with his grandparents and brother. Dalton Carriker, hero of last year’s title-winning Georgia club, came back to the complex along with a few of his teammates.

Other visitors at the Series over the years include legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight, author John Grisham, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, actor Kevin Costner, and major leaguers George Brett, Ozzie Smith, Torii Hunter, and Ryan Howard.

Why all the visitors? Why do the people who have never been here have such a desire to attend? Why do those who have been once find themselves right back in the thick of it?

The pageantry, beauty and innocence, yes. But also the athletic skills and charming demeanor of the 12- and 13-year-olds, who year after year amaze and inspire us with their play.

Last year, it was Walpole, Mass.’s Michael Rando, who made a game-ending catch reaching over the wall to rob Hamilton, Ohio of a home run and a win. This year, we had Hagerstown, Md. shortstop Ryan Byard make a leaping, draw-dropping catch in shallow centerfield to take away a Lake Charles, La. base hit. His reaction to the play as he sat on the seat of his pants was just as priceless.

The offensive and pitching efforts provided the fireworks as well. Mexico’s Sergio Rodriguez hit a tournament-high four home runs. Teammate Jesus Sauceda tossed a four-inning perfect game, just the fifth sight of perfection in Little League World Series history.

You also had Saudi Arabia’s Zach Ell hit a moon-shot home run onto the top of the first hill at Howard J. Lamade Stadium. And who can forget Hawaii’s breath-taking comeback in the United States Championship, when they scored six times in the sixth to erase a 5-1 Louisiana lead?

The team from Italy shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. For the first time a group of native Italians played in South Williamsport. Sure, they went 0-3 in pool play. They did, however, lose narrowly to Guam after holding a late four-run lead. A mighty effort, indeed. Perhaps most importantly for the Italy club, to most on-lookers it appeared as if they enjoyed the experience more than any other team in the tournament.

All in all, a record-breaking number of Little League supporters – more than 200,000 – came to the grounds to witness these kids in the world’s greatest youth sporting event. Something special went on. You can expect more special twinkling stars for years to come. The beauty of the game is what will bring us all back here next year.

Hawaii captured the spotlight in 2008. Carriker and his Warner Robbins, Ga. team did so last year. Carriker’s moment explains why we want to attend the Little League World Series for the first time, and it certifies why we all keep coming back. Here’s a reminder of what happened last August:

In these few short minutes, there’s a walk-off homer, there’s a victory, and there’s a defeat. There are kids embracing one another, a father and son embracing one another. There’s the importance of team, both in winning and losing. There’s humility, and there is sportsmanship. There’s community pride. There are ear-to-ear smiles and faces of disbelief, or in some cases both. There are tears of sadness and joy, tears of life. It didn’t matter if you played in the game, had a kid playing in the game, or just watched as a fan of the game. It was a moment for everyone, a moment for everyone to share with someone else. This moment may have made you feel good about baseball. But so much more than that, it made you feel good about yourself and the ones you love. Sharing the moment with the people you love. There were 11- and 12-year olds on the field, and 20-somethings, 40-somethings, and 60-somethings watching in the stands and all over the world. They all had the same reaction. Happiness, even in sadness. A moment for everyone. A moment of love.

See you next year.

2008, Little League Baseball Incorporated
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