When I was a kid, I grew up spending my summers playing Little League. I was on All-Stars every summer dreaming of one thing; I wanted to make the 11-12-year-old All-Stars and go to Williamsport.
Carman Little League in Rotterdam, N.Y., where I played ball, came in fourth place at the 1977 Little League World Series. For my first eight years of Little League, I constantly looked at the board on the league clubhouse that listed all the accolades in league history. I saw that fourth-place finish in Williamsport, and I wanted to add another trip to the mecca of youth sports.
Every summer after baseball finished up in late July, my family took a trip to Williamsburg, Va. for vacation. On the way back, we always stopped for at least a few days in Williamsport.
My first trip in 2001, I saw the Bronx, N.Y. team, led by Danny Almonte, representing the Mid-Atlantic region. I saw Almonte throw the first perfect game in Little League World Series history against the team from Apopka, Fla. Of course, now, all people remember about the 2001 series is that Almonte was found to be too old to participate in the tournament.
In 2004, a team from Harlem, N.Y. was stripped of its wins in the Little League World Series due to ineligible players as well. In both cases, the kids were seen as cheaters and were judged harshly around the country. Now, fast-forward 11 years, and here we are again with the current issue surrounding the eligibility of players on the Jackie Robinson West Little League team from Chicago. The difference? They made the World Championship.
Growing up the son of a league e-board member, including three years being the son of the league’s president, I was always well aware of Little League International’s rules. I knew the birthday rule change that happened when I was 10 that gave me an extra year of eligibility. I knew the age limits for every All-Star division. I knew that even though I lived closer to Rotterdam Little League, I was in Carman Little League’s district.
If a player is a 12-year-old kid without a parent on the e-board, he or she is not going to have the access to knowledge of these rules. Yes, he or she could probably deduce that such rules exist or do some research to figure them out, but, at 12 years old, I, like most kids, was more concerned about just playing the game I loved.
Almonte, a kid who had been in the United States for less than two years, and the kids from Harlem and Chicago, are from the inner city. Adults reminding them of these rules do not surround them. They just know they have talent and that a trip to Williamsport, the bright lights on them and ESPN covering their games is possible. What 12-year-old doesn’t want that? I know I did.
Little League International and the Little League World Series may be an organization and tournament with children as their face, but don’t blame the kids for the scandals. They’re not worried about beating the system. They’re worried about beating their opponent so their summer of dreams can continue.