MY FIRST VISIT to the ludicrously charming town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series, came in 2015, an assignment several colleagues guaranteed would be a career highlight, which it was, and so much more. One of the many wonderful traditions at the LLWS is to slide down The Hill at Lamade Stadium on a piece of cardboard, which shouldn't have been stressful but was because I am old and little -- and so terrified of heights, I'm not even comfortable being as tall as I am (5-foot-4). And yet, there I was, clutching a sheet of cardboard the shape of a king-size bed, looking at the bottom of The Hill.
"Don't worry,'' a child holding his cardboard surfboard told me. "I'll show you how.''
"How old are you?'' I asked.
"Four,'' he said.
And off he went headfirst, safely down The Hill.
That's how it works at the Little League World Series. It's all about the kids; the kids are kings; the kids show you the way, not the other way around. The pandemic canceled the LLWS last year, perhaps the biggest loss in the sports world, but now, gloriously, it is back. And even with COVID restrictions, there's still nothing better than kids playing baseball.
"It's the passion and love for baseball in its purest form,'' said Cubs manager David Ross, who covered the LLWS for several years for ESPN. "To see the kids just going out and trying to win, not trying to take the limelight, to have no pressure from a contract, that's what makes it so great. All their friends get to see them on TV. It's the back end of the summer. They get to stay in the dorms. It's all so real there.''
Angels manager Joe Maddon grew up in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, but had never been to Williamsport until 2019, when, as manager of the Cubs, his team played in the Little League Classic.
"It's magical,'' he said. "I didn't know what to expect. I went to that little village, fittingly built on a mountain, and I just said, 'Wow! Magical.' I was blown away by it. I had no idea about the scope of it. You don't have to be a kid to enjoy it. If you've not been, it is worth the trip. If you have been to Fenway and Wrigley, you have to go to Williamsport.''
Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove played for the Pirates in that LLC game against the Cubs in 2019.
"It's all about the simplicity and the joy of the game in Williamsport,'' he said. "It was so cool to be with those kids and think back to when I was a kid.''
"It's magical. ... You don't have to be a kid to enjoy it. If you've not been, it is worth the trip. If you have been to Fenway and Wrigley, you have to go to Williamsport." Angels manager Joe Maddon
Third baseman Todd Frazier made two All-Star teams, played in the postseason three times, won the Home Run Derby at the 2015 All-Star Game and just finished playing in the Olympics. But winning the LLWS in 1998 for the Toms River, New Jersey, team remains one of the biggest thrills of his athletic life.
"Williamsport is the mecca for a 10- or 12-year-old; it's like playing in a big league ballpark,'' he said. "It's the coolest place ever. Nothing was cooler than playing against kids that couldn't speak English. The differences in culture is what makes it so great. The friendships you make there last a lifetime.''
Indians manager Tito Francona grew up in western Pennsylvania.
"When I went to ESPN [as a broadcaster in 2012], there was some bartering about my contract, and I said, 'I want to do the Little League World Series,' because I'd never been,'' he said. "It was one of the most encouraging weeks of my life. It was all that is good about baseball. They treated the kids like kids. ... It's the county fair meets baseball.''
WILLIAMSPORT IS THE happiest town in America for nearly two weeks starting in the middle of August. It opens with The Grand Slam Parade the night before the games begin, the kids riding down the street with their team, next to other teams that have come from thousands of miles away. They don't all understand the same language, but they know a party and a parade when they see one. Most of the town is involved in the parade. The town is integral to all aspects of the Little League World Series, and that involvement makes it all work so perfectly.
It will not be perfect this year. There will be no international teams; some of the regions, including Japan, haven't even played baseball this year due to the pandemic. The field will include 16 teams, all from the United States. The number of fans allowed in the ballpark will be limited: Each team will be provided 250 friends-and-family stadium passes per game, but once the game is over, they must leave to accommodate the fans for the next game. The plan had been to allow about 3,000 fans per game from the general public, but Little League officials decided against that on Friday, citing updated guidance from the CDC. Normally, on a packed night, there are 25,000 at Lamade.
Still, there is nothing like Williamsport. The tickets are free, the food at the concession stands is great, especially the fried dough, and affordable, the level of play is remarkably high and the two main stadiums where games are played are completely covered with protective netting, meaning there's no chance that anyone, especially Nana and Pop, is going to get hit by a line drive while watching the grandkids play. Virtually everyone who works the Little League World Series is a volunteer, including the umpires and the grounds crew. The fields are immaculate -- most kids have never played on a field that good and some might never again. Some days, games are played all day and night at Lamade Stadium and Volunteer Stadium, which are next to each other. When Lamade is packed for a night game, as it often is, it is a stunningly beautiful, festive and human scene, fans from across the globe sitting on blankets on The Hill, watching kids play baseball.
"This is really the last time that these kids will play for the front of the jersey instead of the back of the jersey." Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin
The kids come in all shapes and sizes, one of the beauties of baseball on all levels but especially in Williamsport. It is open to all nationalities. There are tiny kids, big kids, loud kids, shy kids. There are boys and girls. Indeed, perhaps the biggest story in the 74-year history of the LLWS was 12-year-old Mo'ne Davis, who in 2014 pitched for the Pennsylvania team and became the first girl to throw a shutout in a LLWS game. She became a phenomenon. Networks and national magazines sent their best people to Williamsport to see the girl who struck out the boys. For those amazing two weeks in 2014, she was the most famous baseball player on earth.
"I loved it,'' Davis said five years later. "I still love it.''
In 2019, Davis, who is now majoring in communications and playing second base for the Hampton University softball team, was part of the team of three teenagers that broadcast a LLWS game. She'll be part of the broadcast team that will call a LLWS game this year, and she will help call the Little League Classic game between the Angels and the Indians on ESPN2.
I was a guest broadcaster for a half-inning of a Little League game in 2019. The first question the play-by-play kid asked me was, "How many players here are taller than you?"
The players in Williamsport stay in the dorms, like big leaguers on a road trip, except everyone has a roommate or several roommates. In a normal year, the kids from the Southeast in the United States might be in the same dorm as the kids from South Korea and Venezuela. When they aren't playing baseball, they're at The Grove, the community center, where they are swimming and playing pingpong and video games with kids from all over the world. No one is allowed in The Grove without permission. It's just for kids to be kids.
At The Grove, and wherever they go in Williamsport, they are trading pins with other players and fans. The pins are all different, all special; some represent the region they're from, others have no connection to the LLWS, but they are meaningful to all.
"Pin trading is the most underrated part,'' Frazier said. "I loved trading with kids from other countries. I loved everything about Williamsport.''
IN 2015, THE Southeast team had a kid named Terrence Gist who hit a 370-foot home run in the LLWS, a cannon shot that nearly struck the scoreboard beyond the left-center-field fence. Terrance was, at the time, 5-10, 185 pounds. When I asked him the last time he was as small as me (5-4, 140), he said, "In the second grade.''
Not all the players in Williamsport can hit the scoreboard, but the impressive thing about all of them is their courage. Fear of the ball runs lots of kids out of the game long before age 12, but these kids stand right on top of the plate, they stick their face in there, they don't bail, even against a kid sometimes twice their size throwing 75 mph. And these kids don't just throw hard, they throw curveballs and changeups. But they are all on a pitch limit: There is no chance a kid's arm will be abused just so his team can win another game.
"He's a better hitter than I was when I was in the big leagues." Cubs manager David Ross on Reece Roussel, who went 17-for-23 in leading Louisiana to the 2019 LLWS title.
The kids are remarkably skilled, especially the middle infielders. You can tell a lot about a team on any level by the integrity of the infield that it takes. And no team annually takes infield better than the Japanese team. The discipline, skill and precision are breathtaking.
"They were just on a different level,'' Musgrove said.
Some of the kids can really hit, the latest star being Reece Roussel of the Southwest team in 2019. He went 17-for-23, leading Louisiana to the Little League World Series championship. "He's a better hitter than I was when I was in the big leagues,'' Ross said with a laugh.
And then there are other players who personify what the LLWS represents, including Trey Thibeault (pronounced Tee-bow) of the 2014 Rhode Island team. He had struggled in the tournament leading up to Williamsport, but he came off the bench in the LLWS and had a number of big hits, prompting the team to call his at-bats "Thibeault Time."
"He was everything you would want in the Little League World Series, the purest of pure,'' said Dave Belisle, his coach. "He proved that dreams do come true.''
The best hitter I've seen at the Little League World Series was a 12-year-old from Pennsylvania named Cole Wagner in 2015. His dad was his coach. His uncle, his father's twin, was an assistant coach. Both played pro ball. Cole had a batting cage in his backyard. He said he hit 360 days a year. Foolishly, I didn't follow up with, "What five days of the year don't you hit?'' Cole took BP against his dad and uncle every day. One throws right-handed, the other left-handed, so it got him ready for both sides. Cole said he used a wood bat and an aluminum bat every day to ready himself for pro ball.
When I told Cole's father that I wanted to throw batting practice to his son for a TV story, I assured Dad that I wouldn't hurt his son, I wouldn't hit him with a pitch. Dad said, "We're not worried about him getting hurt.'' They were worried that I might get killed by a line drive hit by a 12-year-old. Cole's dad told me three times, "Make sure you get behind the screen,'' and he told Cole three times, "Pull everything, nothing up the middle.'' Three pitches, three strikes, three rockets into the netting on the pull side of the cage. It was a quick but wildly impressive round of BP. And no one got hurt.
It's all about the kids in Williamsport, but it's really all about the team. Tim Corbin, the baseball coach at Vanderbilt, one of the best college programs in the country, visited the LLWS several years ago. Like everyone, he was dazzled by it all, but he said, "This is really the last time that these kids will play for the front of the jersey instead of the back of the jersey.'' Indeed, after Williamsport, many of these kids -- sadly, the system demands this -- will be focusing more on getting a college scholarship or playing pro ball than on winning a state championship for their high school team. They will be playing travel ball, going to camps and showcase games that highlight individual skills, not what you can do to make your team better. That's why the Little League World Series is so important.
The kids are so good and remarkably well-behaved, as are the coaches. Steve Keener, the president and CEO of Little League International, makes certain, in pointed conversations with the coaches, that sportsmanship and a positive environment is the most important aspect of the LLWS. Everyone is on his best behavior. No one ever yells at a player or an umpire.
"We tell them the consequences of bad behavior. And most of them listen," Keener said.
THE EXPERIENCE AT Williamsport has always been fabulous, but it got even better starting in 2017, the year that major league teams began playing a regular-season game -- the Little League Classic -- on Sunday nights at what's now called Muncy Bank Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, home of the Williamsport Crosscutters of the newly formed MLB Draft League. The first year of the LLC, when the Cardinals and the Pirates got off their respective buses and walked into Lamade Stadium and Volunteer Stadium, they were engulfed by kids, a heartwarming, unforgettable scene that was, in some cases, more rewarding and enriching for the MLB players than for the Little Leaguers because most big leaguers never got to play in Williamsport when they were 12 years old.
"Yes, I'm the guy who gives up all the home runs." Then-Pirates pitcher Chris Archer, laughing as he answered a Little League World Series player's question in 2019.
In 2018, Little League players were allowed to accompany the major league players on team buses from the airport to the complex in Williamsport. Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins arranged a dance contest on his bus for the kids. "Hilarious,'' Hoskins said. On the bus, Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta showed the kids how to grip certain pitches, then spent another 45 minutes in the stands just talking baseball with them. In 2019, the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo had the kids on his bus sing their rendition of "Centerfield" by John Fogerty. And, of course, Rizzo went down The Hill on a piece of cardboard with the kids, saying, "There's no way I was coming to Williamsport and not going down The Hill.''
In 2019, Pirates pitcher Chris Archer sat next to a kid on the bus who, upon recognizing him, asked, "Hey, aren't you the guy who gives up all the home runs?''
"Yes,'' Archer said with a big laugh, "I'm the guy who gives up all the home runs.''
Musgrove's bus from the airport included the team from Venezuela.
"I worked on my Spanish with them,'' he said. "It reminded me of what it's like in the big leagues with so many cultures in the clubhouse. Later, I sat in the stands with seven or eight of the kids and just talked baseball. Then we went to the snack bar and had hot dogs and candy and drinks.''
Did Musgrove pay?
"Yes,'' he said, smiling. "They can pay me back when they get to the big leagues.''
Some of the major leaguers who came to play in the Little League Classic also had played in the Little League World Series, including Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk and Phillies infielder Scott Kingery, who said, "I was so young and small back then, I think I got one hit in Williamsport. But it was fun.''
Frazier was a star of the Toms River team that won it all 23 years ago.
"It was unbelievable, the whole experience,'' Frazier said. "The toughest part for us was getting out of New Jersey. We lost the first game, then we had to win four in a row just to get out of the state. Then we got to Bristol, Connecticut, and then to Williamsport. And when we won it all ... ''
When Frazier and his team won it all, they were special guests at Yankee Stadium. Minutes before the start of a Yankees game, they each were allowed to stand next to a different Yankees player on the field. Frazier got to stand next to shortstop Derek Jeter.
"Derek's last All-Star Game was my first All-Star Game,'' Frazier said. "I don't know if he truly understood what that meant to me. It [the LLWS] kicked-started my career in sports.''
So how would Frazier advise a first-time visitor to Williamsport?
"It is all so great,'' Frazier said. "Go down The Hill on a piece of cardboard. Trade some pins. See the museum on the top of The Hill. Get a hotel early; book it a year early so you can get as close to the ballpark as you can. Don't worry about money. Everything is cheap. Everyone who works there isn't paid a dime. Take it all in. Take four or five days and see everything. Watch a team from another country play baseball. Bring a blanket; put it down early so you can sit on The Hill and not lose your place. It's the coolest thing in the world.''
This year, it will be even cooler because the Angels will play the Indians in the Little League Classic. That means Maddon, a guy from Pennsylvania, will be managing. And, more important, Shohei Ohtani will be playing in Williamsport.
Frazier likely will be going back to Williamsport this year to see his nephew, Carson Frazier, play for the New Jersey team.
"They have a good team,'' Frazier said. "They have four or five guys who are 4 or 5 inches taller than you, Tim.''
There will be no more trips down The Hill for this little, acrophobic 64-year-old baseball writer, but the trip to Williamsport every year remains a career highlight. For it is indeed magical. It is the county fair meets baseball, it is the place where the game is played at its purest level, it is where kids are kids, and kids are kings. And there's always a 4-year-old around to show you the way.