Inside the Little League World Series

Christopher Wahl

As hundreds of players and thousands of fans descend on a small Pennsylvania town, a kids’ game gets serious.

Emma March takes a deep breath. Her brown eyes are fixed on her twin brother, 46 feet away. From his crouched position, Evan March signals for a fastball. Emma returns a quick nod. The Venezuelan batter is the only person between the twins. The 6,458 people at Volunteer Stadium don’t factor in. Neither do the hundreds of thousands watching from home.

Emma’s been dreaming about this moment since Grade 5. And for the past two years, she and her brother have spent countless hours on Joan and Phil Lake Diamond in South Vancouver and in their family’s garage turned batting and pitching cage, working for a chance to play on the world’s biggest stage for a young ballplayer. And here they are.

From under a flat-brimmed Team Canada hat, Emma scans the bases. Third baseman Rod Betonio bends his knees and punches his glove. First baseman Joseph Sinclair is poker-faced. The bases are loaded. There’s one out.

The 12-year-old kicks up her left leg and fires a fastball at her brother’s target.


Emma looks skyward.

Nowhere on Earth will you find another sporting event quite like the Little League World Series. In the latter part of August, no baseball seems more meaningful or captures the world’s attention like the tournament in South Williamsport, Pa. The tiny, riverside borough of 6,400, some 320 km from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, swells to eight times its population on game days. During the 10-day tournament, kids who are years away from driving a car and weeks away from Grade 7 are treated like pros—and act the part. Some families travel halfway across the world to be there. That’s because for wannabe major-leaguers—for kid athletes, period—there isn’t a more difficult tournament to reach. For Emma, it’s a historic and unique journey. And as she and the rest of her Canadian teammates will discover, the experience in South Williamsport is the stuff of kid heaven, even if there are tears along the way.

It’s tough to be a child and a pro at the same time. And millions of us watch the Little League World Series because we want to see both the joy of children playing baseball for free to remind us why we love the game, and also a showcase of elite players competing on a world-class stage with high stakes. These are the biggest games of these kids’ lives, the most pressure they’ve ever felt. Many of us look back and say the biggest games we ever played happened when we were in grade school, but they weren’t witnessed by millions. Every kid here—except the 13 winners—will suffer the greatest defeat of their life while the world watches. The Little League World Series is full of happiness and despair. And hope: There are hundreds of major-league dreams here, and in this pint-sized baseball paradise, those dreams feel possible, even likely. But in 67 years of LLWS history, just 41 players have gone on to MLB. This is as good as it’s going to get for most—maybe all—of these kids.

Since the very beginning, the LLWS has been a stage for 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds (the teens here have to be born after May 1). This is not a tournament featuring all-stars across countries or states. A local-area team has to win at every level to qualify; in Canada, that means regionals, provincials and nationals.

Only 18 girls have ever played in the LLWS, including two this year. You may have heard of Philadelphia’s Mo’ne Davis; maybe it was the Sports Illustrated cover or the fact that Clayton Kershaw agreed to a pitching duel. She’s the No. 1 attraction, the ace of the Taney Dragons with a 71-mph fastball. Canada’s got the other female ace in Emma, a first baseman and pitcher with the South Vancouver Little League All-Stars (SVLL) who’s the second-most-recognizable player here, easily picked out with her long brown ponytail. Emma is articulate and instantly likeable. She loves country music, which her brother thinks is weird. The first word the straight-A student uses to describe herself: competitive. “Especially with my teammates,” says Emma, who also plays volleyball and soccer. “And I stand up for what I believe in. The girls in my class, if they say something mean, I will stand up to them. If you’re the victim of bullying, you’d want someone to stick up for you, right?”

No Canadian player has more interview or autograph requests than Emma, but every player here—the two girls and the 210 boys—is celebrated. To kick things off, the teams are paraded through downtown on the backs of flatbed trucks in front of more than 30,000 spectators. Their travel, food and accommodations are taken care of, and the games are broadcast worldwide. And the tournament is huge: Nearly five million people watched Mo’ne pitch against Nevada in a must-win game (spoiler alert: The Dragons lost). Last year, ESPN paid Little League International $60 million for broadcast rights through 2022. It’s celebrated in part because it’s so hard to get here. Consider this: Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan and George Brett are among the Little League alumni who’ve gone on to World Series–winning and Hall of Fame MLB careers. But they never made it to the Little League World Series.

There are perennial contenders like Japan, winners in 2012 and 2013, and there are teams whose size and power inspire fear. Just ask Emma: “Did you see that guy on the Caribbean? We thought he was a coach.” Puerto Rico’s Erick Figueroa is six-foot-four and 229 lb.—at age 13. There’s at least one big guy (if not quite that big) on most teams. Not on Canada’s roster, though. Fear-inspirer, annual title threat, we are not. No Canadian team has ever won an LLWS title, though we did make the final once thanks to a team from Stoney Creek, Ont., back when the Beatles were touring.

The All-Stars punched their 2014 ticket to South Williamsport after slaying local giants in baseball hotbed British Columbia, winning the province for the first time in the organization’s 56-year history. The SVLL is David to everybody else’s Goliath, with half the number of registered players compared to most clubs they play. Coach Brian Perry, a New Zealand transplant who fits the Canadian coach profile perfectly thanks to a thick, white Ernie Whitt–style moustache, had 14 kids show up to all-star tryouts. That’s the number of roster spots on a Little League team. “That was it,” Perry says, grinning. He did make two cuts, though.

Canada’s roster is a lean 12, and most coaches would’ve worried after seeing it: a girl (gasp!), two sets of twins (this can only mean more fighting) and three players under five feet. That last group includes second baseman Michael Oyhenart, who’s four-foot-eight, though he’s listed at four-foot-nine in the LLWS guide because he went on his tippy-toes when they measured him. “Don’t tell the press!” Michael says. “Michael, it’s OK,” says the team’s left-fielder, Nico Cole. “You won’t get in trouble.” Nico, who’s a legit four-foot-nine, describes his role off the field as “team comedian, magician and massage therapist.” He’s also known as “the pot-stirrer,” because he’s a trouble-maker. When he lost one of his red socks before the LLWS opening ceremony, Nico stole a teammate’s.

At first glance, this squad makes the Bad News Bears look good. But Perry knew what he was getting into. He’d coached Evan and Emma since they were eight, back when they didn’t like each other because, Evan says, “she stole all my toys.” Perry identified the kids in this age group as strong back then. “I start working with these little guys and I see them grow,” says Perry, whose own kids are now beyond Little League age. He has a kind twinkle in his eye, even when he’s yelling. “When you see them develop, you gotta stick with them.” When two aces in Joseph Sinclair and Madjik Mackenzie came on board a couple of years ago, Perry figured they had a shot. Joseph, who has a 74-mph fastball, might be the most serious kid in South Williamsport. “I don’t smile,” he says. His teammates had to convince him to break one out for the TV headshot. Madjik, who plays shortstop when he’s not pitching and is one of the best hitters on the team, is the leader in the dugout—he keeps spirits up when times are tough.

At nationals in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que., in early August, Emma pitched a no-hitter, and Evan, who’s a compact five-foot-one with buzzed brown hair and a near-constant smile, hit a homer. In the final against Ontario’s then-undefeated High Park Braves, Joseph pitched a gem to lead the team to a 3–1 win and a ticket to South Williamsport. That memory actually does make him smile. Evan, the starting catcher and, at 137 lb., the team heavyweight, was playing outfield at the time. (In Little League, everyone plays almost everywhere.) “I can still see that last pitch going into the catcher’s glove,” Evan says, his freckled nose wrinkling as he talks. “I threw my glove in the air and I ran to my pitcher and we all started jumping on him. I’ll never forget it.” That’s a baseball celebration you’ll see at age eight and 28. Here’s one you won’t: After she picked herself up out of that pile, Emma ran over to her mom and asked if she could have a new American Girl doll. (She’s had the old one for four years; the doll’s name is Emily and she has long brown hair just like Emma. “She’s really pretty,” Emma says.) This being a huge occasion, mom said yes. Adds coach Perry, grinning: “A lot of people were pretty happy because we finally won something.”

It’s more than just something. When players first arrive at the Little League complex and the team bus pulls onto Ballpark Boulevard, the first thing they see is the crown jewel: Howard J. Lamade Stadium. It’s a Field of Dreams, the outfield grass and infield dirt manicured to miniature baseball perfection. Lamade seats 40,000, and even more spectators squeeze in on the grass hill beyond the outfield fence. “Have you ever seen a nicer field?” Emma asks.

And then it’s baseball-Christmas times a thousand: new uniforms, cleats, batting gloves, dry-fit workout shirts with three different sleeve lengths, Oakley sunglasses, baseball pants, socks, backpacks and fluorescent-green Easton Mako Torq bats that haven’t even hit the market yet. When they do, they’ll retail for more than $350. Evan gets a full set of catcher’s gear in Canada’s team colours, red and black, emblazoned with the LLWS logo. After they get their gear, players go through a Little League media gauntlet that includes team pictures, interviews and meetings with Little League officials, who remind them over and over again that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and to not tweet anything stupid, please). At team practices before the tournament, the kids will sign what for most is the first autograph of their lives. “I love it when somebody comes up to you and they’re really shy and they ask for an autograph,” Evan says. “It takes a lot of guts to do that. I don’t care, I’ll do it for anybody.” Players will see their team gear in the gift shop, the same hats they’re wearing retailing for $25. They’ll see grown-ups in their jerseys. They’ll see themselves on TV. A Little Leaguer can’t help but feel like a big leaguer.

And almost nobody looks the part more than Nico, Canada’s youngest player. The 11-year-old even spits and struts like a pro. Nico has big blue eyes and a cannon for a right arm, despite its pipe-cleaner appearance and the fact that it dangles off a 76-lb. frame. He wears his Oakleys day in, day out, sun or no sun. At the urging of his teammates, who are standing around the dugout staring at Nico and eating doughnuts while he’s being interviewed—”Shhhh, he’s talking to a reporter,” Emma says—Nico will stand up mid-conversation and do his “rap dance,” which involves big steps and looping arm movements. “I like attention,” Nico says, grinning. Asked if he has anything to add at the end of the interview, Nico offers this: “I have a trampoline in my backyard.”

And that’s the thing: For all the big-league appeal of this event and how professional these players seem, they’re kids. It’s why each team is provided with two “uncles,” local hosts who help with everything from fetching food and Gatorade to doling out high-fives and taking players on bathroom runs. Canada’s uncles are Willy, a retired cop; and Dick, who’s been volunteering for 31 years.

Aside from coaches, the uncles are the only other adults allowed in the Grove. That’s the gated, no-parents-allowed area in the Little League complex where players eat and sleep, just up the hill from Lamade. If parents want to see their kids outside of games and practices, they have to arrange a visit through a security guard at the gate. They’ve never been so peripheral. The players’ living quarters are set up for mass bunk-bed sleepovers every night, one team per room. “It’s kind of like if you’ve ever been to a juvenile home,” Evan says. He visited one on a field trip. “It’s just a couple of sheets and they’re all bunk beds. It’s so cool!” Assistant coach Jon Mackenzie stays with the Canadian players. A favourite with the kids, he wears a diamond stud in his left ear (the other stud got lost in a deep fryer) and does a triple low-five handshake with every player before games. He’s as far as adult supervision goes for Team Canada at the Grove. Emma stays in the “girls’ house” along with Mo’ne. Each girl gets her own bedroom, and a local host—an “aunt”—lives with them. “It’s so, so cool,” Emma says. “We even have our own living room.”

All players share an outdoor pool and a rec room with Ping-Pong tables, a big-screen TV and arcade games. In the cafeteria, there’s a freezer full of ice cream treats. It’s an all-you-can-eat situation. Joseph, who’s a lanky five-foot-10, has been trying to limit himself to two a day. “We got here,” says Evan, talking quickly because he’s excited, “and they opened our dorms, gave us our bed sheets and told us we could do whatever we want.” Holy smokes. Before this week, the March twins had never been away from home. Now they’re revelling in a free-for-all of wrestling, Ping-Pong and mini baseball, an indoor game played in close quarters with a full-sized bat and an orange hockey ball. Injuries are common. Of life in the Grove, Evan says: “It’s chaos.”

A headshot—beaming smile, ponytail over the left shoulder—appears on the Jumbotron at Volunteer Stadium. Emma’s eyes widen as the announcer calls her name and she trots out of the dugout. You could slap the kid on an ad. The crowd of nearly 10,000 gives her the biggest cheer for any Canadian player. No. 7, playing first base and batting cleanup, joins her teammates on the field ahead of their opening game against Mexico. Next up is Evan, who almost always follows Emma in the order. He smiles and tips his hat to the crowd. Kid’s a ham.

If Canada is going to play a third game that matters in this double-elimination tournament, they’ll have to win this first one. In game two they’ll face either Japan or Venezuela, both of whom are very strong. That’s why their ace, Joseph, is on the mound against Mexico, even though his arm is worn out from all the pitching he did to help them get here. The 13-year-old iced it this morning and says he’s ready to go.

Vicarte Domingo, a right-fielder with black hair and blue braces, describes his nerves before the game: “Eeeeeeeee!” He’s 11 years old, known as “The Future”—he signs his autographs that way—because he has two more years left at Little League age. Even his teammate Nico, the team’s joker, is relatively quiet. You can’t blame him. Game day is a big production here. At home, the All-Stars don’t practise before they play. This morning they practised for more than two hours. Teams have to be at the field at least an hour and 15 minutes before their game starts, per tournament rules and broadcast schedules. There are TV cameras in their faces, and commercial breaks. It’s all new.

But it doesn’t take long for the Canadian players to get comfortable. At its heart—and this is why the LLWS, despite all its commercialism, is one of the world’s best sporting events—this is no different from the games these kids play at home. When a Mexican player hits a triple, Canada’s third baseman, Rod, gives him a fist bump. There are no bat-boys here, no ticket sales. Games are free, and the umpires are volunteers.

Mexico scores first to take a 1–0 lead. In the top of the third, Rod, Canada’s lead-off hitter, strides to the plate. He’s “The Muscle” of this team at five-foot-one and 118 lb. Before games, Joseph gets Rod to flex both arms for a “muscle feel.” It’s good luck. After his first at-bat, a bunt to the pitcher, coach Jon talked to Rod about moving up in the batter’s box so he can attack breaking balls earlier. This time, he gets another breaking ball and sends it over the fence. The 12-year-old runs and jumps around the bases, claps and hollers along the way. He’s greeted at home plate by the entire Canadian team for a we-just-won-it-all, jump-on-the-guy, walk-off celebration. Except it’s 1–1 in the top of the third.

The shot leaves a dent in Rod’s new bat. He’ll get the ball later, thanks to uncle Willy, who was on the move as soon as it cleared the green-and-yellow fence, 225 feet away. To retrieve the ball from the fan who caught it, uncle Willy has to produce a new ball signed by Rod (the signature looks like this: ROD) and a bunch of LLWS pins. Willy hands the ball to Rod’s mom so it doesn’t get lost. It’ll join the 10 other home-run balls in Rod’s room, but this one gets a special case. “It means more,” Rod says after the game.

On to the top of the fifth. Canada’s down 4–2, and the bases are loaded with one out for Emma, the cleanup batter. She gives a little smile and a thumbs-up to her parents and grandparents in the crowd before she takes a hard practice swing. The first two pitches come in low for balls. Then Emma takes a strike looking. “Be a swinger!” coach Jon yells. A third ball. “Attagirl, good eye!” The next pitch comes in: “Strike!” Emma takes a deep breath and digs her cleats into the dirt, preparing for the full-count pitch. Strike three. Emma’s frozen down in her stance. She straightens her legs and runs, straight-faced, back to the dugout.

Canada scores one more on a wild pitch with the bases loaded, and that’s how it ends, 4–3 Mexico. After the players shake hands, Emma is the first to emerge from the dugout under the stadium, finally away from the eyes of the crowd that have been on her—”There’s the girl!”—all game. She’s wearing her white-framed Oakley glasses, wiping away tears. Evan follows her out and rushes over to give his sister a hug. “It’s the World Series, the players here are really good,” Evan tells her. “It’s OK if you strike out. Just get ’em next time.” Nico pats her on the back, but it only makes the tears flow faster. Emma runs to the girls’ bathroom. “Suck it up,” she tells herself, looking in the mirror, leaning over the sink. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself, just do better next time.” She takes a deep breath and walks back out to join her team. She can’t shake the feeling that she let them down. Tomorrow afternoon, Canada will play the loser of Japan and Venezuela. The Canadian kids get into a big white van that takes them straight back to the Grove. As they drive by, their parents wave and smile, trying to keep spirits up. There’s no smiling or waving inside the van.

A group of kids with sharpies, baseballs, T-shirts and LLWS programs at the ready are standing outside the fence at the Grove. Emma is in the middle of it, signing and smiling for pictures. Here, a 12-year-old is an idol and role model. “Do you play baseball?” Emma asks one little girl. Emma signs the girl’s program: “Emma M. #7.” For little kids, she adds a message like, “You rock!” or “You’re awesome!” She’s learned to write fast. She can also produce an authentic-looking smile on command—she’s posed for countless other kids’ selfies. As she’s working through the autograph seekers, the twins’ dad, Derrick, yells, “A couple more days of this and you’ll get back to being a normal kid!”

Four hours before Canada plays Venezuela, Emma’s sitting in the dugout, waiting for a session in the batting cages. She’s wearing her Team Canada hat, a Dri-Fit long-sleeve shirt and white baseball pants. “I’ll enjoy the attention while it’s here,” she says. “I know it won’t last.” Emma’s pretty sure she’s the first kid from her school to be on TV. ESPN did a feature on her and Mo’ne called Girls of Summer. “When I see myself on TV, I’m like, ‘What the heck?! Oh my God!’” she says, smiling. Her biggest hope is that her classmates back in South Vancouver are watching. “I want to be famous at school,” she says, elbows on her knees, face cupped in her hands. “They didn’t believe me that I played on an all-boys team. I told them, ‘I’m going to the Little League World Series!’ They said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ Even my gym teacher was mad because I wouldn’t join the volleyball camp in August. I’m like, ‘Sorry, but I’ll be in Williamsport.’”

Emma’s nails are painted with silver sparkles, a change from yesterday’s red. Fresh start. She’s smiling easily now, even mocking herself for crying. “Boo-hoo!” she says. But it’s clear it still stings. “If I perform badly and not to my standard, which is very high, I am not happy,” she says. “I was not happy yesterday.”

She’s still not happy about the third strike called against her. “No offence to the umpire, but I think I got ripped off. I should have gotten a walk.” She knows it would’ve been a game-changer: Canada would’ve been down by one with the bases loaded for Evan. The rope he then hit to right-centre could have been the game-tying RBI. “Very frustrating,” Emma says, shaking her head. “But that’s baseball.” She’s hoping to pitch against Venezuela to make up for yesterday’s performance at the plate. “Usually if I play poorly it ruins the rest of my day because I can’t stop thinking about it,” Emma says. “But this is the Little League World Series, so you can’t stay sad for long.”

Last night, Emma played Ping-Pong with her teammates and watched Japan beat Venezuela. She also chatted with her housemate, Mo’ne. They’ve been swapping stories all tournament. Perhaps no one has a better perspective on 12-year-old boys than the girl on the team. “Boys are so honest,” Emma says. “They are absolutely not fake around me. They’re actually—I want them to be fake,” she says, burying her face in her hands, shaking her head. “Because oh my God, they are so messy. Ugh.” Emma got some solid advice from Mo’ne. “She taught me how to deal with boys who are jealous of you. She said to just keep playing really well so they get more jealous and then just keep ignoring them.”

It’s Emma’s turn in the batting cages. A day earlier, she knocked one over the fence at the practice field. She’s hit two homers in her career, both at regionals this season. “Hopefully I get a good hit today,” she says, smiling. “The commentators said I have a legit chance of getting a home run. And people on Twitter.”

The Canadian team is loose ahead of game two. Nico wants to know if anyone likes putting chips in their sandwich. Evan fields pop flies with a Gatorade bottle in his hand. “U Can’t Touch This” starts playing on the speakers, and the Canadian team busts into dance.

Evan’s up from his crouch, looking skyward like his sister, watching that ball. Nico’s watching from left field, Joseph’s watching from first, Rod’s watching from third. And it’s gone. Grand slam, Venezuela. Emma turns around to face the wall, head down, right hand on her hip. She doesn’t turn back to face home plate until the batter is done running the bases, then she takes off her glove. That’s the ballgame. The 10-run mercy rule means it’s over after five innings. And Emma never got that hit she was after.

The Canadian team shakes hands with the Venezuelans, and they tip their hats to the crowd. Emma emerges from the dugout into the players-only area under the stadium wearing her white-framed Oakleys. There are no smiles from the Canadian contingent, not even close. The team exchanges some lifeless high-fives. Emma’s head is down, and she’s walking toward the van. Then she stops in her tracks. “We have one more game, right?” she asks. Canada plays a consolation game against a team from Nashville in three days. Between now and then, they’ll spend a day at an amusement park. That there’s one more chance on this stage is the only consolation right now. Emma’s in the happiest place on Earth for a baseball-playing kid, but no loss has ever hurt so bad. “OK,” she says, with a small smile. “That’s good.” A few more days in baseball paradise.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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