Sam Donnellon: Little Leaguers should enjoy the ride

Posted: August 24, 2012

ANY TIME I SPEAK excitedly about watching the Little League World Series around sports writers, I invariably am misinterpreted. Someone will quickly point out how few of this week's participants have ever reached the major leagues, as if we should be watching these games with that as our focus.

I watched Panama eliminate Mexico on Thursday, 2-1. Pitching dominated the game, as it so often does, the sharpness of the breaking balls thrown a source of amazement and uneasiness. Eleven- and 12-year-olds, snapping curveballs with their still-developing arms, well, wow, wow.

And . . . shudder, shudder.

Every physician says it. Kids at this age should be throwing the ball straight. Yet every August, we watch 12-year-olds snap curveball after curveball and exalt in their success. Are they costing themselves a chance at the major leagues someday?

Only God knows.

But there's a reason major league teams don't send scouts to this. You might have been able to tell that LeBron James was going to be something at age 12, but baseball is, comparatively, a late-breaking sport. Curt Schilling took forever to develop into the stud he became. Don Mattingly didn't become a home-run hitter until he reached the Yankees. It goes on and on. South Jersey's Andrew Bailey, now with the Red Sox, was headed to Rutgers-Camden until a Wagner coach saw him play over the summer and recruited him late.

Anyway, I have this soft spot for the Little League World Series, because it remains a walk back in time, and because when I was 11 going on 12, my town, Wayne, N.J., won the thing. This was in 1970, before ESPN existed, and the only televised documentation of it was on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" - a show so popular that I believe it is the reason both the Little League World Series and the Olympics are the big deals they are today.

To the surprise of no one who has ever seen me run or hit, I was not on that team. But it was pretty cool when they did it, and the town had a parade and put up a sign at the edge of town welcoming visitors to the home of the Little League world champions.

Only five international teams made the Williamsport segment, but, in 1970, Wayne broke a string of three straight champions out of Asia and was the only U.S. team to win the thing from 1967 through 1974. Steve O'Neil, who never even pitched in high school, had a big arm. Len Fruci had one, too, but he hurt his along the ride. Not all those kids played baseball for the town's two high school teams or the Catholic one, and by the time we were all seniors, the two biggest sports names from our era were a couple of football players, Tommy Vigorito and Penn State's Vyto Kab, both of whom played in the NFL.

No one from the Little League champs made it to the majors. Only one, Craig Kornfeld, really even tried. He played six minor lague seasons, made it to Double A with the Cubs, once beat Orel Hershiser with a playoff hit, and eventually got a job in scouting.

He now works for the Nationals organization out in California, where he lives.

I found all this out by Googling his name and "Wayne Little League."

I also ran into this quote, from June, talking about his job.

"It's the most humbling, challenging job there is," Kornfeld, now 54, told NorthJersey.com. "No matter how much you know about the game, when you're watching kids, and trying to predict the future . . . there's no black and white, it's all gray."

That's high school. That's deciding whether a pitcher with arm trouble like Cole Hamels is worth drafting in the first round the way the Phillies did. High risk. High reward.

That's not what the Little League World Series is about. Never was. There are 2.4 million Little League baseball players in the United States and another 200,000 international players. I hate that the most successful pitchers throw benders, but beyond that, this remains a pretty neat thing, something to celebrate the spirit of unlimited possibilities, especially in the minds and hearts of children.

That's what Fruci told NorthJersey.com when they held a reunion of that Wayne team a couple of years ago. Forty years later, it was not the games or the victories they clung to. It was the ride.

"I watched Taiwan win it in 1969 on television," Fruci said. "I thought they were Supermen. Then we were jumping up and down on that field the next year. We had a lot of fun with those kids from Taiwan. We played Wiffle Ball with them - I guess we weren't getting enough baseball. We couldn't understand them and they couldn't understand us. But we realized they were nice kids."


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon. For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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