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This is the story of how 12-year-old Cody Webster and a small group of school friends from Kirkland, Washington reclaimed America’s national sport when they won the Little League World Series in 1982. BT Sport 2, Thur, Nov 15th 12.00am
Webster and his team-mates were hailed as national heroes, but the attention they received afterwards proved too much for some and life has never been the same since.
America was a country in flux back in 1982. Issues such as the Vietnam War, the oil crisis of the late 1970s and the Iranian embassy hostage drama had left a deep scar on the national psyche. Violence and drugs plagued the streets at home, while anything associated with the stars and stripes was a target abroad. With its president recovering from an assassination attempt, it was no longer sure of its place in the world order. The American dream, it appeared, was slowly becoming a nightmare.
This was the context when Webster and his team-mates took the field in August 1982 to wrest the World Little League title from a Taiwan side who had dominated the tournament for the best part of a decade. It wasn’t much, but it was a victory and the American press and public seized upon it with gusto. Suddenly these youngsters, star pitcher Webster in particular, were national figures. It was the beginning of a very difficult journey.
The first section of Little Big Men deals with the team’s progress through the tournament that year before looking at the aftermath and how it has impacted their lives ever since. It serves as a salutary lesson to parents everywhere about the dangers of living vicariously through their children’s achievements. For everyone else, the message perhaps is ‘be careful what you wish for’.
This message is summed up by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Al Szymanski who directed the piece for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. His inspiration came as he remembered his own dreams and ambitions at that age and compared them to those of his baseball-mad son. “Early in 2009 my 12-year-old son asked me one of those 'now-how-do-I-answer-this' questions,” he explained. “It's not that an advanced degree or some sort of technical expertise is required. No, the issue is honesty ... knowing that your response will likely chip away at an innocent view of the universe.
"Dad, do you think I'll make it onto TV this year?"
“I knew exactly what Aedan was talking about: the Little League World Series. It was his last year of Little League eligibility. If he didn't make it to the championship this year, he never would. That's tough stuff for a 12-year-old.
“I thought about my own Little League experience. I remember lying in my bedroom, tossing a ball at the ceiling, while dreaming of playing at Williamsport. Forty years later, I realized that my clearest memories of that time didn't have anything to do with what I did on the field or what field I played on. My Rockwell moments centred on that ball - how close could I get to the ceiling without actually touching it - and peddling my bike as fast as I could with an infielder's glove dangling from the handlebars.
“So, I told my son the truth: "Anything is possible." I believe that – and I told him a story as best I could remember it of a group of schoolyard friends from Kirkland, Washington, of when they made it to the championship game back in the early '80s.
“My son responded to the tale the way I'd hoped - with promise and dreams still intact. But I found myself considering Cody Webster and his friends. Where did they go? What did they become? What if that moment in Williamsport turned out to be the highlight of their lives? Whatever happened to the kids from Kirkland?”
In Little Big Men we discover that many of that winning Little League World Series team struggled to cope with the attention they received as a result of their exploits that day more than 35 years ago. For most, it remains the defining moment of their lives. They didn’t know it at the time but they were carrying the hopes of a disillusioned nation on their shoulders. That’s a tough cross to bear, especially for a bunch of 12-year-olds.
It took star pitcher Webster many years to come to terms with it all. He was a target wherever he went for other kids and even parents who would call him fat and hurl various other insults his way. He eventually gave up baseball when he was 19, disillusioned by the scale of the vitriol he was forced to endure. His crime, he reveals, was that he was a good player for his age when he was 12, but only average by the time he reached 19.
His is not the only sad tale, although most of the players claim finally to be happy with their lot. It’s just a shame about the three decades in between…….
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