Friday, August 10, 2007

Lord of the Pop Flys

In the days and weeks ahead, I suspect I'll find myself actually pining for ESPN's tedious night- by-night coverage of the Barry Bonds home run saga. The boredom of watching a 43-year-old steroid enhanced left fielder with bad wheels drag a last-place team along with him as he staggered to the finish of his pursuit of a once-great record can't hold a candle to the stomach-turning exploitation of the Little League World Series.

The expansion of television coverage of the event continues unabated, with more games being played by child amateurs than adult professionals scheduled for this month on ESPN. Why? Well, for one, it's infinitely cheaper for ESPN to show Little League, a popular but not quite marquee event, than Major League Baseball, for which ESPN and other entities pay billions of dollars for a limited slate of national TV games. That's why you see so much taped poker and billiards and boxing, among other less attractive content, on ESPN these days -- it costs next to nothing to show them, and the coverage is almost universally welcomed by these fringe leagues, who would never dare to ask for something as unaccommodating as a rights fee.

There's a rights fee of a few million involved for Little League, but that's nothing compared to big-boy sports, and you would scarcely know it from the way the small-town neophyte baseball legends throw themselves at the camera ... or more precisely, how the parents of these Little Leaguers throw their kids at the camera.

Sports is full of stories about parents who lived vicariously through their budding athlete offspring, most often to disastrous results. My own father sent me out to practice baseball for an hour each day when I was 5 or 6 so that I could one day become the third baseman for the Phillies. I showed about as much interest and aptitude in the game as current Phillies third basemen Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez do, so my dad eventually scrapped the idea.

But what if I actually did have talent? What if, despite my obvious lack of desire, I had the makings of a sweet swing and a rifle arm? Then I may well have had no choice but to do as my father told me and ride the wave as far as it took me, even if it took me to Williamsport, where a few of the (un)lucky baseball prodigies will have their preadolescence beamed across the country for all to see. It's tough enough to just be 12. It's downright cruel to be 12 and have the entire world listen to ESPN analysts dissect what you did wrong as a slow-motion instant replay shows a bad-hop grounder rolling between your legs and past you into left field.

It might be even crueler still to be the guy who's locker is next to the kid who hit that grounder, who won the game for his team, who was interviewed by Erin Andrews, who got on SportsCenter, who was the talk of his town, who was on the cover of the local newspaper and who, despite still being on an allowance and unable to sleep alone after scary movies, has a head and an ego the size of Barry Bonds'.

It used to be that in small-town America, where no story is beneath a news-starved local daily bugle, one's popularity wouldn't peak until they were seniors on the high school football team. Now, those iconic autumn days are a mere second act for some. Sometimes you can almost hear Springsteen's "Glory Days" on the stereo of the 16-year-old kid in his first car next to you at the stoplight, a far-away, nostalgic look in his eyes right before he rear-ends the van in front of him.

I'm exaggerating here of course, but the effects of Little League mania on children and the people around them is not a good one. ESPN should be commended for limiting interviews with the kind of nutjob parents who prevail over local newspapers and other media outlets with less of a backbone, ramming the accomplishments of their screwheaded children into game stories, onto TV highlights and down people's throats with the aggression of a Major League manager on a tirade.

But that same network should be chided for tacitly giving into their demands that their children be given the greatest amount of attention possible, no matter the consequences. We're social creatures as human beings, and we all crave attention, but even as adults, there are limits to the beneficence of notoriety. Just ask Salman Rushdie.

No comments: