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ABC show focuses on Hagerstown Little League

July 09, 1998

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Peter Jennings greets Harry BottorfBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

NEW YORK - An ABC program that will air later this month examines the past and present of one of America's most enduring institutions through the eyes of the players, coaches and umpires of Hagerstown's National Little League.

"The American Game," one of six annual specials hosted by "ABC World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings, follows the National Little League players as they reached for the Little League World Series last summer.

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Filmed in Hagerstown over a period of months, the 90-minute special explores the game of baseball and how it is played by 11- and 12-year-olds. National sportswriters got a sneak peak at the special during a private screening Wednesday at ABC's headquarters.

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Jennings describes the game as a metaphor for America and the program depicts the racial tensions that have marked Hagerstown in years past and the parent-child strains that mark it today.

"It is often said that in the major leagues, the men are playing a kids' game. But for the boys and girls of Little League, the opposite is true. This is their first grown-up game," Jennings says in the opening segment. "We're going to see what makes Little League so exciting and occasionally terrifying."

One of people in the documentary is Steve Cromer, a Hagerstown City Police officer who coaches the AMVETS team. He praises the character that the game builds in youth and the opportunities it provides.

"I think it's a big part of what's right with this country. I think ... it's part of what's saving this country. It's so important," he said. "What would those kids be doing?"

But later in the program, Cromer limits the playing time of the less-talented kids on the all-star team and makes clear the importance of winning.

When Jennings asks if he believes in the adage: "It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game," he answers: "No I mean I'm supposed to believe in that, but if I want to be honest about it, no, I like to win."

To some adults, it seems that winning is even more important.

The program shows Andy Hoffman, the manager of the Hartle's sub shop team, yelling at umpires, arguing with league officials and getting tossed out of games.

In one gripping moment, the cameras show Chris McAfee scolding his son, Jeremy, for laziness during warm-ups.

"Jeremy, listen to me, I'm gonna kick you. I don't care, you didn't even wanna bend down (to catch a grounder). Jeremy, Jeremy, I'm on camera with a microphone, but I'm gonna get you tonight because you're letting me down, brother."

The program mentions that baseball legend Willie Mays played his first professional game in Hagerstown as a member of the visiting Trenton Giants. He was roundly booed by the local fans, who gave him a rough time. He had to stay in the black section of town.

It wasn't just Mays who felt the sting of racism, according to the show. Black youngsters who tried out for Little League teams were rejected.

Like his friends, Vernon Stoner and other black youngsters were forced to form their own teams in their own parts of town, the program says.

Stoner recalls playing - and beating - the white teams.

"When we started winning, I mean that's the greatest satisfaction that you receive and (the) reward as a youngster is when you play teams that you were rejected (from) at one point " he said.

It was not until 1959 that Stoner and other black children were allowed to play Little League baseball, the show says.

But the program shows another side to Little League.

Sharon Eichelberger tells Jennings that Little League helped give her mixed-race son a feeling of belonging after he had be ostracized elsewhere. Nathan Steelman has endured racist taunts at his mostly white school and has been shunned by his maternal grandmother, Eichelberger says.

Today, the battle for equality is more over gender, not race, the show says.

One of the league's best players, the program says, is Danyela Asaro, who works in her family's pizza shop but dreams of playing for the New York Yankees.

But Asaro, who goes by Dany, faces some resistance to her playing baseball with boys, the show says.

Cromer, who admits he is sexist, says he would never bar his daughter from playing ball. But he says he wouldn't encourage it either.

"I'd encourage her to be a cheerleader, I'd encourage her to be a ballerina," he said. "But I'm not going to encourage her to be an athlete. Unless she gears toward girls sports."

One of the reasons ABC selected Hagerstown for the program was its Little League history. The special includes footage of the teams in 1950 and 1968 that made it to the Little League World Series tournament in Williamsport, Pa.

Several players and coaches fondly recall their experiences.

The Nationals in 1997 came up short in a similar quest, losing their final game to an all-star team from South Mountain Little League.

As the camera captures their dejection, Jennings sums up: "For these kids, it's not just summer that's ending, but part of their childhood. Someday, they'll look back and wonder - why did it have to be so short?"

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