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Documentary on baseball positively gritty

July 22, 1998

Tim RowlandNext Thursday night, ABC-TV will present "The American Game," a 90-minute special report on Little League baseball.

Little League baseball, Hagerstown style.

Last summer, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings and company chronicled local Little League players, coaches, parents and umpires as the season wound its way toward the district championships. I chanced upon an advance showing of the program this week.

Hagerstown is portrayed as a town of sexist, racist child-beaters, but taken as a whole I felt it was a pretty positive piece. There were plenty of snow cones and red, white and blue bunting to cushion the piece with a "So we slap little Chauncey around a bit when he doesn't hustle, at least we respect the flag" quality that may be hard for outsiders to comprehend.

Overall, the piece radiates a quaint, homespun violence that you might have experienced had Norman Rockwell ever been inspired to paint a train wreck.

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A coach, for example, admits to being sexist, but giggles about it, which makes the flaw a little cute, somehow.

Asked if he beats his kid, a parent dutifully responds in the affirmative. Jennings offers him an out, asking if he understood the question. The man asks for the question to be repeated.

Jennings does so. The parent gives him one of those "are you deaf?" looks and says "I said yes."

But of course.

The program also points out that Willie Mays played his first professional game of baseball in Hagerstown, while with the Trenton Giants.

The producers could have stopped there, but no, they had to add that Mays was required to stay at a segregated hotel and was roundly booed by the ever-open-minded Hagerstown audience.

Perhaps here we can use the Lou Piniella defense. Just as Yankee fans weren't screaming BOOOOO!, the were screaming LOOUUU! we can make the case that the fans were screaming "Willie Mays RUUUUULES!" All right, so that doesn't explain the part about the hotel, but hey, one step at a time.

It is always interesting, though, to see how Hagerstown is stereotyped by the big, metropolitan media. I thought ABC might go with the "gritty/industrial" adjective package, which in my view is a little better that the more post-modern "hardscrabble/depressed/blue-collar" group.

In the end though, they went with the "working class/educationally impaired" package which, if you wish to get technical about it, probably does describe the majority, myself included.

As for baseball, there seem to be parallel messages at work here:

1. You can't have a fulfilled, well-rounded, all-American childhood without participating in Little League.

2. If you participate in Little League, your parents will drive you to the fruit and nut farm by the time you're 16, where you'll be swallowing Prozac like mentholated cough drops and telling your therapist how you were locked in the closet for a week because you missed the sign for a suicide squeeze.

I'm guessing, though, that Little League is basically a good thing, because so many kids who played grow up to encourage their own kids to play as well.

If they'd been all that emotionally scarred I doubt they would want their kids to go through the same experience. Unless they were really sick.

In the end, though, nothing can mess up a kids' world faster than a grown-up. It's true about magic beans, Santa Clause, baseball and playing with matches. Playing baseball for the fun of it is far superior to playing baseball for the threat of it. Although I fully admit that, if you have the talent, playing for the money of it is superior to both.

I doubt, after all, that Peter Jennings came to Hagerstown for fun.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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