Home Run

Three Strikes, You’re Out

Baseball, or America’s pastime, has been part of United States culture for a long time. Its origin dates back to the mid-18th century. By the late 1800’s and 1900’s baseball was widely recognized as the national sport of America and has grown to be a summer time favorite of sports fans throughout the nation.

If you played baseball growing up, chances are you might have played Little League, an organization that was founded in 1939 by Carl E. Stotz. Little League is one of the most popular and most recognized youth baseball leagues in the world. Every year since 1947 Little League honors the best Little League teams in the world by hosting a tournament called the Little League World Series in the town where it was founded, Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

It’s not an easy road to Williamsport. First, All-Star teams are selected from each Little League to compete in district, sectional (in some states/countries), divisional, and regional tournaments. Currently, the Little League World Series features 16 teams (8 American and 8 International) of players ages 11-13 from various regions across the globe. The U.S. regions are comprised of New England (made up of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts), Mid-Atlantic (made up of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC), Great Lakes (made up of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, and Wisconsin), Southeast (made up of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee), Midwest (made up of North/South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Missouri), Southwest (made up of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas East and West), Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska), and West (made up of Northern and Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii). Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Europe and Africa, Asia-Pacific and Middle East, and Latin America are the international regions. With the long road to the Little League World Series making it to South Williamsport is an accomplishment for any team.

Once in Williamsport, the teams stay in dorms on the Little League complex. The players and coaches compound known as “The Grove” has been described as a little leaguer’s dream. It has a game room, pool, and all the food any kid would want. No one other than the players and coaches can go there either. The Little League complex in South Williamsport features more than just player dorms. There are two Little League stadiums, Volunteer Stadium, which opened in 2001 when the World Series expanded to include 16 teams instead of just 8, and the legendary Howard J. Lamade Stadium, which opened in 1959. Through the years Lamade has expanded and grown along with Little League Baseball. It went under an expansion in 1971, added lights in 1992 so night games could be played, and in 2006 the fences were moved back 20 ft to allow for more doubles and triples. The complex also features numerous practice fields and a museum dedicated to the past and present of Little League Baseball and Softball. During the week and half long tournament at the end of August, the players are treated like star athletes. They sign autographs and take photos with fans and receive media coverage from ESPN.

Since 1963 the ABC network (which is now in association with ESPN) has covered the Little League World Series. Until the late 80’s only the championship game was televised. Then slowly more games received coverage by ABC and ESPN. By 2007, all but one game was to air live on the networks. Now even the regional tournaments are getting major coverage. As of 2014, all regional tournament games can be streamed live online via ESPN3 with the exception of the Southeast and New England regional which are aired in full on regional networks affiliated with ESPN. The semifinals and final regional games are shown on the well-known sports network.

For those attending the Little League World Series, it never comes at a price. Parking and admission are free. The only time tickets are issued are for bigger games, like the championships or games where large crowds are expected (i.e. if a team within close driving distance like one from Pennsylvania makes it to Williamsport), but even then, the tickets are still free. They’re either distributed on a first come, first serve basis or in a random drawing.

I’ve attended the Little League World Series many times. Since it’s only an hour and a half drive from my home town, I attended annually from 2005-2012 and then once more in 2014. Typically my seat of choice came from bringing a soccer chair and setting it up on the first of the two hills that overlook Lamade Stadium. It’s standard practice for Little League fans to watch the game from either the hill or in the Stadium. The second hill only fills up for major games because it’s usually reserved for sliding down on cardboard, which is kind of a right of passage at the Little League World Series. During my first few trips to the Little League World Series I spent some serious time sliding on that hill. Before my first trip to South Williamsport, I watched the Little League World Series on TV so I knew what to expect when I saw that hill. Needless to say I was pumped to take my first slide on the short but steep slope. In addition to the hill, there’s a ton of other fun activities for guests like pin trading, merch shopping, sponsorship tents, and plenty of delicious and reasonably priced food. With all the activities as well as the games, the Little League World Series was something I looked forward to every summer after I attended for the first time.

This year’s Little League World Series will come to a close this Sunday, when two teams, one from the United States and one from an international region, meet for the championship. The championship game will air at 3:00 p.m. ET on ABC. First a United States Champion and International Champion need to be crowned. Those games take place tomorrow and will both be aired on ABC as well. The International Championship will feature the East Seoul Little League from Seoul, South Korea and the Aguadulce Cabezera Little League from Aguadulce, Panama, which represent the Asia-Pacific and Latin America regions, respectively. The game takes place at 12:30 p.m. ET at Howard J. Lamade Stadium. The United States Championship will go to either the Maine-Endwell Little League from Endwell, NY or the Goodlettsville Baseball Little League from Goodlettsville, Tennessee. The U.S. Championship starts at 3:30 p.m. ET and also takes place in Lamade Stadium.

For the players, parents, coaches, volunteers and spectators at the Little League World Series, it’s more than just baseball. Memories are made and stories unfold. For the players, the memories last a lifetime, as well as some of the relationships made between teammates or with other kids from all over the world. It’s an experience like no other. The rest who attend make their memories in other ways like sliding down the hill on a piece of cardboard, catching a foul ball, creating an environment for the players to have the best week ever, spending the day with their kid(s) or even watching their own kid hit a home run. It’s easy to see why the Little League World Series is a special place and a place that anyone who’s ever worn the Little League patch should visit.

The Kid

Since January, I’ve been planning to write this blog post at this exact time in July. I’ve actually had a somewhat tough time trying to figure out what to write up until this point (at least from when Coachella ended until now). In the middle of January, I found out my favorite baseball player of all time was going to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame and of course I figured it was necessary to write about him around the time of his induction. I know it seems like for a passionate hockey fan turned women’s soccer fan that baseball shouldn’t really matter. Truth be told, baseball was my favorite sport during my childhood. In fact, from around Kindergarten through 2nd grade, my dream was to be the first female in the MLB (Major League Baseball). Part of the reasoning for that had to do with “The Kid”, better known to the world as Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. was an All-Star center fielder for the Seattle Mariners. He was a clutch hitter with home run power, who routinely hit third in the lineup, and a defensive master in the middle of the outfield, who made insane diving catches and robbed opposing teams of home runs. It wasn’t until around 1995 or 1996 that I really started following him and the Mariners (my favorite team by default). For a few years before that, my favorite baseball player (according to my tee ball cards) was Cal Ripkin Jr., but only because he was my cousin Chris’s favorite baseball player. It wasn’t until I noticed Griffey that I had a true favorite. He was the first athlete that I idolized. I even wrote about him in 2nd grade. We had to write a report on our hero. I chose Ken Griffey Jr. He was that cool in my eyes. I guess I’ll try to channel my 2nd grade report to tell you about him.

George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was born on November 21, 1969 in Donora, PA (he later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio). His baseball influence came from his father, Ken Griffey Sr., a three time MLB All-Star and two time World Series Champion who played for the Cincinnati Reds. Griffey was selected first overall in the 1987 amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners. He began his career at the age of 19 for the Mariners on April 3, 1989 doubling on his first major league at bat. He played with the Mariners throughout the 90’s until getting traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000. He spent 8 1/2 seasons with the Reds until he was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the MLB trade deadline in 2008. He was able to retire as a Mariner after being signed by the team as a free agent in 2009. His last MLB appearance was on May 31, 2010.

Throughout his career Griffey acquired 630 home runs (6th all-time in MLB), 2,781 hits, and 1,836 RBIs playing in 2,671 games. He was a 13 time MLB All-Star, a 10 time Gold Glove Award winner, and a 7 time Silver Slugger Award winner. He even won the AL MVP Award in 1997 and 3 Home Run Derbys. In 1998, Griffey was a part of the home run chase of Roger Maris’s 61 home run record. He dropped off towards the end of the race when eventual record breakers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa pulled ahead. He finished that season with 56 home runs, the same as his 1997 total and (tied) the most of his career in a single season.

On January 6, 2016, Ken Griffey Jr. was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a record breaking 99.32% of the vote. Griffey will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend along with former Mets catcher, Mike Piazza. The ceremony takes place on Sunday and will be broadcast on MLB Network.

Ken Griffey Jr. was always a super star baseball player and an all around good guy, but he was also a cultural icon in the 90’s. He was endorsed by Nike and had his own signature sneaker line. He was the face of Nintendo’s baseball video games. He appeared on Wheaties boxes, in movies, and on TV shows. He was one of, if not the most, notable players in Major League Baseball and I totally bought into it. I, of course, had plenty of Griffey merchandise. I had t-shirts, caps, cards, figurines, posters, and even my baseball glove had a Griffey signature in gold on the palm. I still have most, if not all, of that memorabilia including my glove which I still use any time I play catch because it’s broken in and fits despite having a smaller pocket than what I need. I also still have a lot of the Griffey merch on display in my room making him a subtle part of my life since my childhood.

I stopped following “The Kid” shortly after he was traded to the Reds in 2000. In general, I stopped following baseball. At that point I was in 5th grade and became more interested in basketball than America’s pastime. I heard about Griffey here and there in the following years until his retirement in 2010. I heard when he was traded to the White Sox and when he signed with the Mariners again. I heard when he retired too, but it was already after he stopped playing. His retirement wasn’t a big happy going away party because of team controversies involving poor play surrounding him. He left the team to drive home one night in the middle of a 4 game home series with the Minnesota Twins and released a statement through the Mariners the following day. He chose to retire to avoid being a distraction to the team. However, on a more positive note, his former Seattle team plans to retire his jersey number, # 24, this year.

Fortunately, I was able to see Ken Griffey Jr. play baseball once. It was in 1998 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards with my cousins who live outside of Baltimore. In fact, the day of his Hall of Fame induction will be 18 years to the date that I saw him play (I checked my old ticket for verification and yes I still have it). He didn’t make much of an impact that July afternoon (no homers or anything), but it was so cool to be able to see my idol out on the field. Now, years later, on the wake of Griffey’s Hall of Fame induction, it’s just as cool to be able to think back to when I idolized and followed him and to realize that he will be a National Baseball Hall of Famer alongside the greatest players in the game. It goes to show that no matter how old you get, your childhood idols will always have a place in your heart and you’ll still be happy for their accomplishments just as much as when you were young. Congrats to “The Kid” and thanks for always being my favorite!