As the Olympics come to a close across the pond, here in Oregon, the sporting community has another world championship to celebrate.
Last week, the Little League Softball World Series kicked off at Alpenrose Stadium, just outside of Beaverton. Youth softball players from around the globe took the field. While the tournament stands to decide a champion among 11 and 12-year-old softball players, it also goes to celebrate a sense of community in sports rarely appreciated, taking place in none other than our very own home state.
One of the best things about watching the games isn’t just seeing young and future talent but knowing Oregon’s part in a rather significant event in athletics. With no MLB team, no NFL team, and a struggling NBA team, it’s a rare thing for premier athletes to find their place on Oregon soil. And while most of these youngsters are starting out, Alpenrose becomes synonymous with their first big time athletic success on the field.
While over the years Little League softball has taken a beating from the likes of ASA and now Premier Girls Fastpitch, the spirit prevalent at the World Series, an event televised by ESPN, is one rarely matched throughout youth sports. This year, players and families from as far as the Netherlands, New York, the Philippines, Indiana, and others have rallied support and enthusiasm to make the trip to Oregon for the pinnacle event in Little League. Though softball gets less television time than the boys in Willamsport, Pennsylvania, the attention players receive while at Alpenrose is one few will ever have the chance to celebrate.
The opportunity for young athletes to exchange pins, hear their names over the PA system, participate in a variety of World Series traditions, and wear their region’s name across their chest helps to define so much of what Little League is meant to represent. How many times do players get a chance to feel as though they are in the big leagues? Those who are charged with making the games happen seem to recognize the rarity and special opportunity this holds for young players. If you take the time to catch a game, one will see a variety of volunteers – fathers, brothers, mothers, friends, and other hard working Oregonians - taking part in providing a stage for developing players. The work that goes into making the experience enjoyable is just as much a part of the Alpenrose atmosphere as the games themselves.
Unlike many sports programs’ dominating the time and commitment of young athletes, Little League provides something rarely seen. Rather than following the push for more games, more tournaments, and greater play, the World Series takes a pause to enjoy the camaraderie and community that is too seldom experienced. Too many times, we hear stories of parents pushing their children to greatness, of players completely engaged in hours of practice and games, and dedicated at an age much earlier than decades ago. At Alpenrose this last week, however, evidence of such redundant competitiveness appears less prevalent than usual. Yes, there are going to be winners and losers, and the optimal goal is of course to obtain the title of World Series champion, but a significant pause is taken to enjoy the accomplishment in itself.
At risk of sounding rather cliché, it is hard to deny the transition of sports from the art of the game to a race to the top. Professionals play for more money, collegiate players continue to find a larger stage, and youth athletes are pushed at an earlier age. In many ways, so much of what we watch on the field has become systematic. Tournaments and games become an exercise of repetition. As players and teams spend hours at the field during weekends of games, little stands to separate one experience from any other. Working through brackets, joining travelling and club teams, and committing year round to a sport has become the norm among many developing athletes. While their commitment and skill is admirable, surely something is missing from the aspect of the game that drew them in the first place; the community, the fun, and the excitement.
While every team meeting at the World Series this year has certainly put in their fair amount of work and time, the path to the championship provides a reprieve from the stiff routine many sports have fallen into. Whether these girls win or lose, the tournament itself is a reward and an event they will remember not for its results necessarily, but the opportunity to travel to the grand stage for their age groups. Too few opportunities exist for youngsters to cross cultures and appreciate not just their team and parents but even their opponents. The extra ceremonies, traditions, uniforms, and even the luxury of the field itself are what mark the World Series as a once in a lifetime experience.
Oregon’s title as the setting for such an event is worth being proud of. While it seems like a small part, the trip to Alpenrose is forever burned into young minds as their shot at the big time. As the tournament comes to a close, teams across the country and across the globe practice for another chance to make the journey to the Northwest. Much like Olympians trained with the mantra London 2012, softball players grow up striving for Oregon 2013.