There will be a celebration of baseball and Little League Baseball in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday night, at what is known as Historic Bowman Field, on what is being called the MLB Little League Classic. Bowman is the second-oldest Minor League ballpark in America, but for this one night in front of the country, it will be transformed into a big league ballpark for a game between the Cardinals and the Pirates (airing 7 p.m. ET on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball). There will be players from the current Little League World Series in attendance, and players from the Cardinals and Pirates who are Little League graduates will be acknowledged. And all of this will not just celebrate this summer in baseball. It will celebrate all the summers.
Little League Baseball doesn't matter more because it's on television more than it ever has been before. Doesn't matter because it will be showcased this way on a Sunday night in August. It matters because everybody still remembers the moment in their lives, as my dear friend Pete Hamill says, when the template with baseball was cut. The MLB Little League Classic on Sunday night in Williamsport, the home of Little League Baseball International, will celebrate that, too. It will honor that, as a way of honoring everybody's memories.
"You know what we thought was magic when I was growing up?" the late Kirby Puckett told me one time. "Just finding a green-grass field."
He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in the Robert Taylor Homes, Kirby did. He was the youngest of nine children, and baseball for him as a boy was a bat and a rubber ball and hitting the ball against a wall outside the Robert Taylor Homes. He didn't play Little League or Pony League in his own childhood summers, didn't play organized baseball, he used to tell us, until a semi-pro team called the Chicago Pirates when he was 15 years old. But when he finally did make it to a green-grass field, he was on his way to becoming one of the most famous little big-leaguers who ever lived.
"Growing up where I did, I used to wonder if all those Little Leaguers knew how good they had it," Puckett told me.
You hope they did. You hope they do. I spend a lot of time talking at schools all around the country now because of my books for young readers, and I always tell them about how before every game I ever coached with my own children, I used to gather the players on our team around me and tell them to give a look up in the stands.
"You see all those adults up there?" I'd say. "Your parents and your grandparents and your friends' parents? Every one of them would change places with you, and have one more game like this to play."
And I'd tell them that someday, when they were a lot older, they'd give a lot of money to go back and have one more Friday night or Saturday morning or Saturday afternoon, and have one more game to play with or against their friends. When I'm on one of those fields now in our town, one on which I coached one of my own children, I still feel the exact same way.
We all know the things we'd change about youth baseball, all youth sports. Too many parents are too loud, and it seems as if everything gets more regimented as we go. There are just enough adults who forget that the games are supposed to be about the kids to give the ones who do remember that, and coach in that spirit, a bad name. But with all that, guess what? Mostly the memories, the ones that will be honored on Sunday night in the capital of Little League baseball, are fine ones.
One of the first youth baseball teams I ever helped coach was called the Ontarios. The head coach was a friend of mine named Clif McFeely. And the way he taught and the way he interacted with the kids on the team, my son Zach included, provided a blueprint for every team I would coach after that. The kids on the team were 8 years old. The star was a left-handed hitter and thrower named Willie Ouellette, who later made a name for himself in high school baseball, and who now works as an instructor at Bobby Valentine's Baseball Academy in Stamford, Conn.
This week I needed to get some hitting and throwing and fielding in, as a way of getting ready for a charity softball game -- after a summer of playing hardly at all -- and so I called Willie, and he agreed to work me out at one of the Little League parks in town.
He asked if I still remembered the Ontarios. I told him I still had the key chain the kids gave me at the end of that season.
Then I asked him what he remembered about the team. He smiled and said, "I remember everything."
Willie said, "That was the summer I fell in love with baseball."
It doesn't have to be about organized -- and sometimes overly organized -- ball. It wasn't for the late Kirby Puckett. It's never just had to be about the green-grass fields about which Kirby dreamed at the Robert Taylor Homes. But there is still a place where the spark is lit, on a sandlot or against a wall or in a cul-de-sac. Anywhere where a baseball game breaks out. It's what Major League Baseball's Play Ball initiative is all about. Just get them playing. If you can, the pull of the game is as strong as it has ever been.
Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals played Little League ball in Texas and Randal Grichuk did in Lamar, Texas, and Lance Lynn was a baseball kid in Indiana and Kolten Wong was in Hilo, Hawaii. They will be playing a National League Central game that matters in Williamsport on Sunday night. So will John Jaso of the Pirates, who comes out of the Little League program in McKinleyville, Calif., and Wade LeBlanc, the pride of South Lake Charles, La.
They will all honor their own boyhood summers on Sunday night. They will play a big league game in a modified Minor League park in the capital of Little League. They will honor their memories, and mine, and your children's, and your own. Not just in the capital of Little League baseball. But what will feel like a capital of those memories. Little League Classic. Classic yet current, yet permanent. Green-grass feelings that don't fade.