SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Justin Lee, the Little League World Series’ budding star, is 12 years old. He uses resistance bands to stretch before a game. He prays during the national anthem. And during his first at-bat, he likes to look out at the pitcher, take a deep breath and relax.
But his first at-bat here in South Williamsport?
“I couldn’t breathe,” said Lee, a pitcher, catcher and first baseman from South Riding, Virginia. “There’s a lot of pressure on you.”
Beyond the picture-perfect field at historic Howard J. Lamade Stadium, thousands of fans propped up lawn chairs on the hill overlooking the diamond. Behind them, children slid down the grassy slope on cardboard scraps. Even farther back, the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains stare down.
And when Lee left the ballpark after his Virginia team’s first game, a combined no-hitter against Rhode Island, many baseball fans already knew his name. The buzz grew after a second no-hitter two days later, one he completed in 52 pitches on national TV.
The players of the Loudoun South Little League from Virginia team are among the boys of summer here in South Williamsport, emerging as a contender on the United States side of the bracket until they were eliminated by Louisiana on Thursday night. For a group 11- and 12-year-olds, it was an exciting and stressful ride.
The games are broadcast nationally on ABC and ESPN. Children and adults seek players’ autographs and ask for selfies. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” erects a set just outside the stadium and interviews the tournament’s stars with equal billing to Major League Baseball highlights and news from NFL training camps.
“You’re like in celebrity status,” Lee said.
It is unlike anything these kids have ever experienced.
The teams that qualify for the tournament needed to win playoffs in their district and state, games played in front of a few dozen spectators on local fields. State champions advance to regional tournaments, which in the United States are televised on ESPN+, the network’s subscription streaming service.
Upon winning that tournament, as players pile atop one another in celebration and coaches hug and parents cry, staff from Little League International shuffle parents into a room and try to convey a simple a message: For the next couple of weeks, life is about to change for you and your kids.
“They said: ‘It’s going to be a whirlwind. Get ready,’” said Bill Thyen, father of pitcher and center fielder Liam Thyen. “They laid out everything, down to the fact that our boys were going to be signing autographs left and right and there’s going to be girls trying to get pictures with them.
“You’re scrambling to book hotels, to get Virginia state championship shirts made, you’re scrambling to get work situated, to get cat sitters, to get people to water your plants and then to take care of your other children.”
Said Dave Obstgarten, whose son Chase bats leadoff, pitches and plays shortstop: “They were trying to give us all these details about hotels and recommendations, but I don’t know how many people really absorbed all those details because we were all like, ‘Holy eff, that happened.’ ”
It leaves parents and coaches grasping at how to prepare their preteens for a game in which failure is common — and you are on display for tens of thousands of live spectators and millions more on TV.
While a player during a regular Little League season enjoys relative privacy to grapple with the emotional development involved in youth sports, players at the Little League World Series experience those lessons while television programmers package the game to look like a professional sport. Coaches can challenge umpires’ calls on video replay. Commentators can dissect plays in slow motion. The scores count.
Off the field, once players leave the dormitory areas from where the press and public are barred, they cannot escape the eye of cameras and fans.
“(Coach) said, ‘There’s a camera on you at all times,’” Liam Thyen said, reflecting on the conversation Loudoun South manager Alan Bowden had with the team when they arrived. “That’s OK. I don’t say anything bad. I just felt motivated.”
Little League deploys professional and volunteer staff all over its 75-acre complex to give players a refuge from all the attention. Each team is assigned two volunteer “hosts” who act as liaisons between media members and coaches. Players and coaches are free to skip postgame news conferences, and media members cannot interview players without a coach or staffer present.
Photographers are not allowed to capture images of the losing team’s dugout after a game, and broadcasters try to nimbly deflect errors on the field into lessons on the game’s fundamentals.
“When one of the shortstops out here has it go through his legs or one of the left fielders has it go over his head, it’s like, ‘OK, well that just happened, and here goes the runner around first and second,’ ” ESPN play-by-play announcer Karl Ravech said.
After games, players meet with parents for 30 minutes before heading back to their dorms, but parents often want to know as much about what is happening off the field — are you sleeping, eating well, making friends, playing kids from other countries in table tennis, Liam Thyen said his mother asked — as much as talking about the competition.
Thyen said when his mom called the next morning to check in, he sheepishly said he had to go to a team breakfast so he could get off the phone.
And in those interactions, mental health experts say it is incumbent upon parents and coaches to stay positive about the tournament experience, especially when things do not go well on the field.
“That’s up to the coach and the parents to frame it as, ‘We’re here to learn, we’re here to play and give it our best effort,’ ” said Shari Young Kuchenbecker, a child development research psychologist in California. “Make every situation a learning opportunity. That’s where it gets dicey because parents and coaches don’t always understand that.
“It can be a dynamic, life-changing, positive experience for these kids, but that depends on the parents and the team and the coaches.”
While concerns are in the back of his mind, Bill Thyen sees this experience as one of huge growth for his son.
“We’re so happy for Liam because we’re trying to create an independent person,” he said. “I’m trying to get him ready for college and to take care of himself. It’s a great steppingstone for him to become an independent adult.”