Kid 'n Play: Little Leaguers set for date with MLB stars

·5 min read
FILE - Former Boston Red Sox player Jason Varitek throws out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays in Boston on July 21, 2012. Varitek was honored for his time with the team in a pregame ceremony. The 50-year-old is headed back to where he burst through on the national scene when the Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022, in the fifth MLB Little League Classic. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Jason Varitek reveled in 1984 in all the quaint traditions that make the Little League World Series a throwback to the simple days of playing baseball. He traded pins, met kids from other parts of the United States and around the world.

Varitek and his teammates played in ping-pong tournaments and Wiffle Ball tournaments and, of course, there were the cardboard box sled rides down the hill behind Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

“The whole atmosphere Williamsport brings, it’s just phenomenal," he said. "The excitement, the buzz, it’s all amazing. And that was back when there was only one game on TV.

“The community, the people that go there to support that series in the final game, and all the games, is what makes it so unique. It’s a high-intensive gathering of baseball fans.”

For most 12-year-olds, reaching the pinnacle of youth baseball is as good as it gets in a playing career.

Varitek is one of the fortunate ones. He led Altamonte Springs out of Florida to the ’84 United States championship, took Georgia Tech to the College World Series and, most notably, helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series in 2004 and ‘07 as a tough and savvy catcher.

Now Boston's game-planning coordinator, the 50-year-old Varitek is headed back to where he burst through on the national scene when the Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday night in the fifth MLB Little League Classic.

The game is played at 2,366-seat Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport, just a six-mile trip from the complex where the Little League World Series is underway with kids full of big league dreams, many of whom will attend the game ready to mingle with today’s stars -- and maybe talk Xander Bogaerts into a TikTok.

“I heard some of the kids are going to be riding on the bus with us to the field,” Orioles outfielder Austin Hays said. “I’m sure that’ll be a cool experience. We’ll see what kind of questions they have for us, what kind of cool stuff they have for us. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The game is MLB’s latest experiment to try and attract new fans -- and re-ignite the passion of lapsed ones -- through offbeat settings. The last one was a hit -- Major League Baseball’s second “ Field of Dreams ” game last week came straight out of the cornfields of Dyersville, Iowa. More than 3.1 million viewers watched Fox Sports’ broadcast of the game, the most-watched regular-season baseball game on any network this year.

ESPN is on-deck and promised all the added features that make the game a more appealing watch to kids. Much like other Sunday night telecasts, the telecast is expected to include a mic’d up player to talk to the broadcast booth. There’s also an all-kids broadcast team on ESPN2.

“I’ve never been there. I’ve watched the Little League World Series since I was a kid," Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. "I remember that Saturday afternoon. I’d watch growing up. To be able to go to see what it’s all about is cool for everybody.”

The Red Sox and Orioles were scheduled to play in the 2020 Little League Classic, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We always need to reconnect and grow our sport,” Varitek said. “It’s dying in the youth level compared to what it was 20, 30 years ago. We need to do our job in promoting that.”

Little League counts 2 million boys and girls ages 4 to 16 that play in more than 80 countries and in all 50 states. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first Little League World Series. After no tournament in 2020 and no international clubs in 2021, both due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth baseball tournament has expanded to 20 teams from around the world.

Baseball fans are watching.

Long before his 15-year career with the Red Sox, Varitek played shortstop, first base and catcher for Altamonte Springs. Varitek -- who noted on the 1984 championship broadcast that his favorite team was the Detroit Tigers -- showed why in the series he was, well, more of a natural catcher.

He bobbled a high chopper at short ( “a little too anxious,” said Curt Gowdy ) on a ball that was scored a hit. Varitek -- who recalled the thrill of meeting Hall of Famer Willie Stargell in the series -- then let a ball slip through his legs for an error.

“Bad time to make my first error,” he said, laughing. “But it was my first error of the summer, so that’s good.”

Varitek was 1 for 7 during the Series and Altamonte Springs lost 6-2 in the championship to a South Korean team.

“We had a great group of young men with great leaders in our coaching staff,” Varitek said. “They spent a lot of time in development and teaching fundamentals. We created a huge camaraderie during that. We were a very talented group.”

Varitek, Ed Vosberg and Michael Conforto are the only three to play in each of the Little League Baseball World Series, College World Series and Major League Baseball World Series.

Varitek’s advice to today’s players is much the same as what he received 38 years ago: Enjoy the moment, the traditions -- and yes, even the time away from parents.

“You’ll remember them the rest of your life,” he said. “I do.”

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AP freelancer writer Todd Karpovich contributed to this story.

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