The best baseball game in America on Sunday was played on a diamond in the central Pennsylvania town of South Williamsport, the sport's mecca for the preadolescent crowd. Two teams of islanders, one from Hawaii and the other from Cura√ßao, battled in the Little League World Series championship game. Major league baseball had nothing on it. Channel surfers the world over could hear the genuine excitement in the voice of ABC's analyst, Harold Reynolds. Many of the 25,506 fans at Howard J. Lamade Stadium, bombarded needlessly between innings with bland hits of the '70s, were mesmerized. (You don't need a stadium built with retro charm and resounding with head-banging guitar riffs if you've got a real game.) It's amazing what happens when pitchers work fast, when fielders throw to the right base, when sluggers are not under suspicion of steroid use and when teams are playing for nothing--and for everything.
Little League games are supposed to be settled in six innings and are often lopsided. But Sunday's finale took seven innings and was decided by a run. The game could have ended in the bottom of the sixth, with Hawaii trailing 6-5. With the bases loaded and one out, Hawaii's Alaka'i Aglipay grounded into what looked like a game-ending double play. Instead he fulfilled the wish of every Little League coach everywhere by sprinting down the line, beating the throw, sending home the tying run and keeping hope alive. Then, in the bottom of the seventh, Michael Memea smashed a leadoff shot over the fence in right center and raised his right arm in the air as he rounded the bases. Upon reaching the plate, he was mobbed by his teammates as Hawaii celebrated its 7-6 win.
Mike Stanley was rooting for Hawaii. That's the Mike Stanley who spent 15 years in the bigs, from 1986 through 2000. Stanley played in the 1995 All-Star Game and in 20 postseason games. But last week he said he had the "best baseball experience of my life" at Williamsport as an assistant coach for the team that included his 11-year-old son, Tanner, a first baseman, and a dozen other boys from Maitland, Fla. (Another Maitland assistant coach was former major leaguer Dante Bichette, whose son Dante Jr. was a pitcher.) Maitland was knocked out in the United States semifinals by Rancho Buena Vista, Calif. "This is pure baseball," said Stanley. "Nobody's getting paid. Everyone's here because they love the game."
In the stands, and on the field, there were excruciatingly few African-Americans, but a family tree of the players in the Cura√ßao-Hawaii final revealed a mini United Nations. Cura√ßao, a Caribbean island, is a territory of the Netherlands; the players were light and dark and in between. The team from Hawaii was from a working-class neighborhood about 21 miles west of Honolulu. The kids claim Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal and Thailand in their collective ancestry. "There's a lot of Japanese influence in them--they have that discipline," said Ronda Morton, an aunt of hard-throwing pitcher Vonn Fe'ao. "They'll practice by themselves, with no adults around. But they also have that kick-back, laid-back aloha quality."
Right now, the new champs are also the new face of baseball, at least among the 12-and-under set. --Michael Bamberger