For those who might grumble about professional athletes getting paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game, take notice of the Little League World Series over the next 12 days.
On Wednesday, 20 different teams consisting of players age-11-to-13 years old from around the globe gathered in Williamsport, PA for baseball in its purest form.
The 75th anniversary of LLWS brings an expanded pool of teams – up from 16 in 2019 during the last pre-pandemic international tournament – and with it, even more hopes and dreams.
A trip to central Pennsylvania in late August is the highlight of many careers especially considering only one out of 200 high school baseball players even gets drafted, let alone the longer odds of reaching the big leagues.
For Randal Grichuk of the Colorado Rockies and Cooper Hummel of the Arizona Diamondbacks, they’ve been that “one out of” through every step and level of the minor leagues along the way.
To date, only 64 players have ever participated in the Little League World Series and reached MLB.
Jim Barbeiri of Schnectady, NY (1953-54) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (1966) was the first to do both. Nine-time All-Star Gary Sheffield is the most notable to do it, while Diamondbacks’ Yonny Hernández is the most recent participant (2011) to complete the tandem.
Only eight of the 64 have appeared in the Fall Classic, with Yusmeiro Petit as the only one to win both: LLWS with Venezuela in 1994 and the MLB World Series with San Francisco in 2012 and 2014.
Colorado has had five different Williamsport alumni suit up in purple, including inaugural third baseman Charlie Hayes, who represented Hattiesburg, MS in 1977. Hayes (1996 New York Yankees), along with Jason Marquis of the 1991 Staten Island, is also one of the eight players to reach the World Series .
Dave Veres (Spain, 1978) and David Cortes (Mexico, 1985) round out the Rockies’ small club.
Grichuk, who is one of only four big leaguers to go to the Little League World Series in consecutive years, absolutely loves this time of the year.
“Playing in it was so much fun and I know what it meant to me,” the 31-year-old reflected. “So, I know what it means to those kids that are playing in it now.”
Not only was it a rarity for Grichuk to have come this far in his career, but it was somewhat of a surprise he even made the Lamar National Little League All-Stars that first year in 2003.
“It was kind of an unheard of thing,” he explained. “It created a lot of controversy around the league because some people didn’t think I should be on the team since I was so young compared to everyone else and no other 11-year-old had ever made it. But I put up good numbers and the players voted me on and the president of the league said I deserved to be on it.”
Lamar National went to the quarterfinals in 2003 before reaching the semifinals in 2004 and defeated Mexico for a 3rd-place finish in the tournament.
While his second year went better than the first, it did come at a cost.
“Our coaching staff that year took winning very seriously. So, we didn’t get to swim in the pool. We didn’t get to go down the slide on the cardboard. We didn’t get to do all of the fun stuff that kids get to do, unfortunately,” Grichuk confessed. “But we still had fun, obviously, just being able to play in it and being a participant.”
Hummel, a 27-year-old rookie who debuted with Arizona earlier this season, had a somewhat different experience during his whirlwind experience with Lake Oswego Little League (OR).
First, they enjoyed a miraculous win in the regionals over the undefeated team from Washington that featured Boston Red Sox catcher Reese McGuire. Then, they reached the semifinals before getting knocked out by Lubbock, TX in the quarterfinals of the LLWS thanks to a strong performance by St. Louis Cardinals prospect Garrett Williams.
“We were there to win, but we enjoyed ourselves,” he said of his team. “We went to Hershey Park and did some things like that… We were 12 years old and you saw that fun. And baseball’s fun.”
Besides access to the junior-Olympic size swimming pool, the players have an entire recreation hall equipped with just about everything a kid could want. Arcade games, foosball, ping pong, you name it.
The kids get to be kids and experience the greatest summer of their life while staying in dormitories away from parents who can be far too enthusiastic at times, to put it nicely.
Quite possibly the best detail for children of all ages – and some adults – is the collecting of commemorative pins throughout the complex.
“I’ve got all the pins,” Hummel professed. “I actually got into trading them, too. So I’ve got two binders full of pins.”
“I have a pin book back home in Texas. Pretty big,” Grichuk shared before adding more of his LLWS memorabilia. “And then I have my glove, my helmet, my bat, batting gloves, stuff like that. Team picture signed.”
When Hummel’s parents recently moved out of his childhood home, his mother found an archive of items from that magical summer.
One unusual items was a t-shirt from the Chandler (AZ) Little League team that beat Hummel’s squad in Williamsport and ultimately wound up finishing in third place.
On that 2007 Southwest squad was future 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger.
“’We’re gonna keep that one,’” Hummel’s mother said to him.
The Portland suburb of Lake Oswego is 180 miles away from the Seattle Mariners, the nearest MLB team. Their parade downtown was quaint and welcomed by players, family and the entire Little League community.
For the Lamar National team of Richmond, TX, the nearby metropolis of Houston was only an hour drive away.
Both years brought a tour of Minute Maid Park that gave Grichuk two opportunities to hang with the Astros’ superstars Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
Baseballs were signed, and some witty repartee between the pre-teen Grichuk and the Hall of Famers took place.
“I remember there was an open locker between Biggio and Bagwell and I asked them about it,” he recalled. “‘Why is it empty?’ I didn’t know that once you’re older, you get a spare locker next to you. And Bagwell said, ‘It’s yours. We’re waiting on you.’ It’s pretty funny. Obviously, I still remember that.”
Grichuk had even more back-and-forth with Bagwell since the two had a similar batting stance at the time.
“They put up a side-by-side of me and Bagwell during one of the games. It was pretty similar, honestly,” he explained. “Earlier, Bagwell asked, ‘Who hits like me?’ and I said, ‘I do.’ He laughed and said, ‘It’s not a good idea, really.’”
Meeting your childhood idol is a dream come true for most people.
Returning the favor when you become the idol, well, that’s just good karma.
When Grichuk was still a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he was privileged enough to play in the very first Little League Classic in 2017.
The annual event is played at Bowman Field, home to what was the Short-Season A Williamsport Crosscutters.
The Cardinals took on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the small minor league stadium packed with every participant in that year’s Little League World Series and those living in the Lycoming County area.
Grichuk was able to recall some of the memories from his two summers playing baseball at Howard J. Lamade Stadium while giving back to the next generation of ballplayers.
“They let our team go back in the dorms, the food room, the game room, and hangout with the kids,” he recollected. “It kind of goes full circle and hopefully, I’ll have a chance to play against some of them.”
Hummel is also on board if Arizona gets invited to that special game in Williamsport.
“That’d be sweet,” he exclaimed. “Kind of see where it’s at now compared to what it was in 2007. I know things have changed. I’m sure they’re decked out with more gear than we were when I was there.”
One thing that will never change with Little League is their focus on teamwork and sportsmanship.
In its purest form, that’s the spirit of our national pastime.