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August 30, 2017

Little Leaguers Offer A Big Lesson

The lives of two 12-year-old boys intersect on the ball field to create a special moment.

(Photo: Courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)

Watching, hoping, that somehow the ball would be caught, then realizing it was beyond his outfielder’s reach, 12-year-old Edward Uceta sank to the ground, devastated. A star pitcher for his Dominican Republic club, he had just surrendered the winning blow to Venezuela in the Little League World Series.

He lay out on the grass next to the mound, and anyone who still shivers remembering that long ago Charlie Brown moment – the ball went through your legs or you missed the big shot— could see themselves in Edward, reliving the loneliest-person-on-earth feeling.

But an interesting thing happened last week — an enduring lesson delivered from a Little League field. As Venezuela’s players lifted the boy who connected for that final stunning hit, Omar Romero, to their shoulders in jubilation, their manager and coaches made a beeline instead for Edward, who was sobbing heavily.

Instinctively, these men knew that it was Edward who needed to be lifted. They pulled him up, and when he drew his cap over his face, they told him he had nothing to be ashamed of, that he, too, was a hero.

One by one, the Venezuelan players embraced him. Romero, also 12, with a toothy smile, came over to hug him and pat him on the back as if consoling a brother.

Maybe it’s cornball to find deeper meaning in these simple gestures on a baseball diamond. But if you’re looking for pureness of spirit in our games, if you think sportsmanship has disappeared or you long for grace in competition, then take a closer look at what played out in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that night. Any cynicism will surely fall away.

“What you saw was the heart of the athlete,” Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, told MSG Blog.

We agree. The capacity to appreciate an experience through another’s eyes is an elusive trait. Rarely, no matter the endeavor, are we able to shift our perspective completely, to adopt what might be called the 180-degree point of view.

In the days since that game, we’ve seen a beanball war and an all-out brawl in the big leagues. But the Venezuelan boys, with their coaches as models, were somehow able to break from their revelry to lean out and offer a shoulder to an opponent they had just defeated.

We allow that broadcasting the Little League World Series invites big business and a moon-sized spotlight into the games. But Johnson, whose work centers on the welfare of young athletes, says the benefits offset the intrusion.

“Look at what that moment did for the spectators,” she said. “It was raw and beautiful, and demonstrated why athletics are important. For that, I’m thrilled it was televised.”

After the game, Edward, tears staining his cheeks, sought out Omar in the dugout. Omar, the smallest player in the entire Little League World Series, held his new friend tightly. And following Little League routine, the two teams lined up to exchange hugs and high-fives.

A few days earlier, parents of the Mexico team stayed around for a Dominican Republic game. They knew that the boys had few parents on hand, and so they became the Dominican Republic’s substitute cheerleaders.

Lots of folks bristle at what they see as a softening of our games, at the notion that no one should come away feeling badly and that there are no losers. This misses the point. The bruise of giving up that hit will stay with Edward for some time, perhaps the rest of his life. What’s wrong with easing the sting? Omar’s simple kindness, touching every boy on the field, will likely shape his life as well.

Take a look at Edward and Omar. Would it be so bad to be in a high-five state of mind?

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