Serendipity: Stumbling upon a beautiful game

Lamade Stadium from the hilltop above.

Lamade Stadium from the hilltop above ] Travis Waldron


THE easiest way to find the Little League World Series is to stumble upon it, because there aren’t many signs of its existence otherwise. That’s how I found it Saturday as I wound up Route 15 along the Susquehanna River on my way to Rochester, New York to cover soccer: by accident. The signs for South Williamsport started about 20 miles out, or at least that’s when I noticed them, but there wasn’t anything delcaring it as somewhere special, as the home of the Little League World Series or anything else. It seems like just another town tucked into the central Pennsylvania foothills.

Of course, I knew differently, because like so many other boys I grew up dreaming of doing what a bunch of 12-year-old boys were doing Saturday when I drove past: playing baseball at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, a place that’s so recognizable Sports Illustrated named it one of the 20 places sports fans had to visit. And yet unlike so many of the sports meccas that dot our landscape, Lamade isn’t even visible from the road above it. So someone who’s never heard of Little League or Lamade would be forgiven for missing it. Outside of the two or three cops “directing” traffic down a straightforward stretch of three-lane road, a half-dozen “$5 Parking” signs at the houses nearby, or the Little League museum, you’d never know this place existed.

I didn’t stop Saturday but made a point to make it to the third-place game between Mexico and Westport, Connecticut Sunday morning, and when I did, I managed to weave my way through the complete lack of traffic and park about 100 yards from the front gate in somebody’s backyard. I meandered toward the museum, which presumably led to the not-yet-visible baseball mecca below it, and after going through a metal detector (quite odd that of all the sporting events I’ve ever been to, this is the only one where that’s required, but the tickets were free, so who am I to complain?), I saw it.

Crowd on the hill behind the Lamade Stadium outfield.It’s a beautiful place, one television doesn’t begin to do justice. This is the place where kids and their families from four other continents and all around America show up for two weeks each year to play baseball in a stadium that looks like a miniature Major League park and on a field nicer than any local sandlot could be. They play with new pearly-white baseballs and wear brand new uniforms and fitted hats and cleats — even when some of them have never had cleats before. There are concession stands selling fried dough and grilled cheeseburgers, a merchandise tent, a set for ESPN, and thousands of people crowded onto the hill that rises from behind the outfield fence. Back at the top of the hill, go a few hundred yards in either direction and it isn’t obvious this is happening. Down here, though, it’s a real-life Field of Dreams.

It’s easy to find people declaring youth baseball as a refuge of purity, but I expected to be blown away by the spectacle of it, so it amazed me that it didn’t feel much like a spectacle at all. How can that be? ESPN broadcasts every game and people travel from around the world. The kids become mini-stars for two weeks, telling us their favorite players and their best subjects and the video games they play. They do it all in a big stadium on a bigger stage than many of them will ever reach again.

Somehow, though, the entire place still manages to feel organic and pure, like it’s any local youth ballpark on any old Sunday afternoon. There’s no missing the grandstand and the TV cameras and the crowds, but there’s also no feeling of manufactured spectacle. Grandstands and TV cameras and crowds turn so many games into events, and so many now are designed specifically as spectacles. We need storylines and characters and sponsor tents and luxury suites, fireworks and pirogi races and everything else. All of that exists in some way in the broadcast of the Little League World Series, but in South Williamsport, it feels mostly absent.

The place is as simple as two dozen 12-year-olds playing baseball because they love baseball, and on this afternoon, they’d be doing exactly this the exact same way, with the smiles and the floppy hair and the improperly-bloused pant legs and the crying after strikeouts and awkward slides and home run trots, even if they weren’t playing on the softer dirt and better-manicured grass in front of thousands of fans here and millions more watching on TV around the world. They’re playing here because this is where the game was scheduled, and because we gave them bats and balls and gloves and they only know one thing to do with those. So they hustle the way they hustle in the backyard or on their local field, they cry the way they cry when they lose there too.

That doesn’t make the Little League World Series better or worse than the professionals, because the professionals operate in a business and they act like it and that’s fair. But it’s a reminder that not everything about sports has to be a business, even when it’s broadcast on ESPN. Somewhere out there, there are kids dreaming of hitting the Game 7 walk-off home run or making the diving catch, and for them, professional sports are just sports, just pitches and catches and hits and runs and a dream, not contracts and negotiations and appeals and arbitration. None of that can be or should be taken away from professional players, but sometimes it is nice to remember that at the heart of all that business is just a game, and what a beautiful game it is. An endless parade of steroid allegations and scandals and labor disputes couldn’t make me quit loving baseball, but the kid baseball fan inside me needed a couple hours in this oasis, where baseball is still perfect if imperfectly played. It wasn’t a grand epiphany. Just a little reminder.

I found the Little League World Series by accident, and it’s almost like that’s how it’s designed. I can’t even tell you if I’d recommend going — I enjoyed the two hours-plus I spent there and I’m glad I can cross it off my bucket list, but I probably won’t ever go back unless I end up on Route 15 near the end of August sometime in the future. But it was a nice way to break up an six-hour drive on a beautiful afternoon in the same way that stopping to watch kids play ball on the sandlot is a nice way to break up any random Sunday afternoon. That it wasn’t anything more was weirdly refreshing.


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