Source: South Williamsport, Pa.
Date/Time: Saturday, August 27, 2011
Established in 1989, the Challenger Division is a separate division of Little League that enables boys and girls ages four through high school with physical and mental challenges to play the game of baseball.
Every year since 2001, Little League International has sponsored a Little League Baseball World Series Challenger Exhibition Game, played the morning of the International and U.S. Championship games.
This year’s teams came from Mishawaka, Ind., and Lafayette, La., and the teams represented two firsts in the now-annual tradition. The 2011 exhibition between Baugo Little League and Lafayette Little League was the first Challenger Division game to be televised and was aired live by local PBS station WVIA TV. The game was also carried live on ESPN3 online.
Another first was the connection between the Challenger team from Lafayette, La., and its World Series-qualifying counterpart – the Lafayette Little League team that captured the Southwest regional title. This season marked the first time a Challenger side came from the same Little League as a World Series tournament team.
Lafayette Little League currently has 60 players in its Challenger program, which was founded in 2008, while Baugo Little League has 25 participants in a program that has been alive for 17 seasons. Today, more than 30,000 children participate in more than 900 Challenger Divisions worldwide. No score is kept in Challenger Division contests, and players wear the same uniforms, patches and equipment as other Little League participants.
West manager Jeff Pratto says there is no pressure entering Sunday’s Little League Baseball World Series Championship Game. You see, his team has already achieved its top goal, winning the United States title. And everything else, as they say, is gravy.
“I don’t understand why there should be any pressure,” said Pratto. “We’re just gonna go out and play our regular game, and if we’re the better team, then we’ll win it.
“Japan is a great team,” he continued. “Our thing tomorrow is that it’s a no pressure game. We’re just gonna go out there and have a good time. We’re gonna start with Braydon [Salzman] on the mound and see where it goes.”
It is a unique approach on the hunt for a world title, but maybe, for this chill team from Huntington Beach, Calif., it’s the perfect one, too.
“Our bunch, they’re pretty loose,” Pratto said. “[After we won the U.S. Championship] I was trying to urge them to take a victory lap and they were like, ‘Nah. Ehh. Don’t need to.’ They’re just business-as-usual type of kids.” Like father, like son.
“It just feels like a regular game with different jerseys and cameras,” said Nick Pratto, pitcher and son of the most relaxed manager in the game. “It hasn’t kicked in yet, we haven’t noticed that we’re here.”
One thing that might not have been “business as usual” for the U.S. Champs was defeating a team that has been so close with them since regional play back in San Bernardino.
The West and the Northwest, who the former beat to earn a championship berth, shared bunkhouses at their respective regional tournaments, both held at the same complex. The teams became fast friends.
“Coming in, from the first game here, I had a good feeling we were gonna make it [to the championship game],” said West player Hagen Danner. “And I wanted to play our friends from the Northwest. It finally happened, and we pulled it off.”
What’s a little competition among friends, anyway?
“It’s been a real special thing,” said West manager Jeff Pratto. “We were there together in one bunkhouse, separated by one little door [in San Bernardino]. When we won our game, they were the ones sitting in our dorms waiting to congratulate us. We had a big screen TV with an Xbox, and we were playing together. As coaches, we were always eating together. We took the plane ride and the bus ride here together… Maybe we’ll meet in the middle and play ball again, maybe in Colorado or something.”
Teams from the U.S. West region and Japan are without a doubt perennial powerhouses in the world of the Little League World Series. It seems as though every year it is the same matchup in the title bout.
…Well, sort of.
In fact, either Japan or the West has advanced into the Little League Baseball World Series Championship Game every year since 2001, and the only time they’ve faced off against each other in that timeframe was in 2010, making this year’s World Series a fresh rematch.
Furthermore, since 1987, neither of these two regions was present in the championship game in just five times. Yet for how prevalent Japan and the West have been in the past two-plus decades, before 2010, the two regions hadn’t played each other for the World Series title since 1976 – when Chofu, Tokyo beat Campbell, Calif., 10-3.
Mexico manager Francisco Picos said that he felt their country’s recent success in the Little League Baseball World Series has a lot to do with the influence of current Mexican major leaguers.
“We’ve been very competitive the past few years,” he said. “A lot of MLB players from Mexico have opened the way, so that makes the kids more excited and gives them more of a motivation to compete.”
Mexico manager Francisco Picos said that he plans to coach for several more years.
“I have an 8-year-old son,” he said. “I’m definitely planning to come back.”
When asked if he had yet found a chance to see either American teams play in person yet, Japan manager Akihiro Suzuki had a quick, emphatic response — in English — accompanied by a burst of laughter.