How the Little League World Series works
Smaller players, smaller field... big-time TV ratings
Everyone's favourite tournament for pint-sized baseball players is underway in Williamsport, Pa. Here are some things to know about the wildly/oddly popular Little League World Series and this year's Canadian team.
Who's in it?
Players are age 10-12, and they're almost all boys. A notable exception to that gender generalization was Mo'ne Davis, the Philadelphia pitcher who became an instant celebrity when she threw a shutout in 2014.
No girls have played in the LLWS since then, but Maddy Freking is set to become the 19th girl in the 72-year history of the event. She plays second base for the team representing the Midwest United States.
Where are the teams from?
There are eight from the United States (each representing a region of the country) and eight international teams. Those are the same every year: Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Latin America, Caribbean, Europe-Africa and Asia-Pacific. Every team got here by winning a qualifying tournament for its specific region.
How does the tournament work?
Think of it as two separate tournaments that meet at the end. The U.S. teams only play each other, and same for the international teams. Whoever emerges from each half of the bracket plays in the championship game on Aug. 25. So that's guaranteed to be a U.S. team vs. an international team.
The format is double knockout — two losses and you're out. But if you make it to the U.S. or international final undefeated, it doesn't matter. That game is a one-off. Same for the championship final.
Are there any weird rules?
Like the players, the field is a lot smaller than what we're used to in Major League Baseball. The fence is 225 feet from home plate at all points — compare this to the Blue Jays' stadium, where it's 328 down the foul lines and 400 to dead centre. The pitching rubber is 46 feet from the plate (60½ in the majors). Bases are 60 feet apart (90 in the bigs). You're allowed to steal bases, but good luck: no lead-offs and you can't leave the bag until the pitch arrives at the batter.
The other big difference is a hard pitch limit. Major-league teams keep their pitchers on an unofficial count to avoid fatigue/injury, but in Little League you have to stop as soon as you reach the limit. That number depends on how many days rest you've had since the last time you pitched. If you pitched the day before, you only get 20 pitches. The limit increases for every day of rest you've had, up to a maximum of 85 for pitchers on four days or more of rest.
Who watches this?
A lot more people than you might think. The LLWS is perfectly placed in a dead spot on the sports calendar, and there's something strangely compelling about watching kids play in high-stakes baseball games. ESPN broadcasts the games in the U.S. (TSN has the Canadian rights) and gets big-league ratings: it says last year's championship game drew 3.2 million viewers. For comparison, ESPN's flagship Major League Baseball broadcast — Sunday Night Baseball — is averaging 1.5 million viewers this season.
Smartly, ESPN figured a way to combine the two. The Cubs and Pirates will play in the third annual Little League Classic this Sunday night. It takes place at a separate stadium in Williamsport that seats about 2,400 — a quarter the capacity of the grandstand where the kids play. Little Leaguers and their families get to attend and meet the pros.
As you might guess with those kind of TV numbers, the LLWS is a pretty big business. ESPN pays an average of $7.5 million US per year for the broadcast rights. That money goes to Little League Baseball and Softball, a non-profit organization that bills itself as "the world's largest organized youth sports program." The players don't get paid.
What about the Canadian team?
They're from Coquitlam, B.C., and they beat the Quebec team in the final of the Canadian championship tournament last weekend.
This is the 14th time in the last 15 years that a B.C. squad is representing Canada in the LLWS. Last year's team, from Whalley, beat Spain and Mexico in elimination games before its run ended with a loss to Puerto Rico. Canada would have had to win that game and two more to reach the championship final. Only one Canadian team has ever reached the title game — the 1965 squad from Stoney Creek, Ont. (near Hamilton). They lost.
Canada's star player has some things in common with Babe Ruth. Like the young Bambino, Matthew Shanley is great at the plate and on the mound: he struck out 13 batters and hit a two-run homer in the Canadian final.
He also seems to enjoy food: his nickname is Beef Dip.
Everybody, here is your introduction to Canadian little league star Matthew 'Beef Dip' Shanley <a href="https://t.co/i1vfxoaDjo">pic.twitter.com/i1vfxoaDjo</a>—@cbcsports
Canada's first game is Friday at 5 p.m. ET vs. Mexico (the start time was changed from 6 p.m. ET after most of Thursday's games were postponed due to rain, causing a bunch of schedule changes).
If they win, they play Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. If they lose, they play Saturday at 6 p.m. ET. Their opponent will be either Japan or Europe-Africa. Read more about the Canadian team here.
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