Why ‘Little Big Men’ seems so strange to see on ESPN

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Next up on ESPN’s “30 For 30″ documentary — a film that seems to find blame in how TV and fame made live miserable for a bunch of 12-year-olds from Kirkland, Wash., nearly 30 years ago.

This latest cautionary tale, which ESPN actually ran over the weekend during its Little League World Series programming and re-airs it Tuesday at 4 p.m., goes back to the 1982 LLWS that featured Cody Webster and his buddies upsetting Taiwan for the national title.

This wasn’t very long after the U.S. hockey team knocked off the USSR in Winter Olympic hockey to become national heroes. Yet these kids from Kirkland obviously weren’t ready for their close up. Today, it’s still painfully obvious.

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Back then, Taiwan had won 31 in a row at Williamsport, Pa. This was when just four U.S. and four international teams qualified for the finals.

Webster, now 40, is again the focal point of how he never wanted to be the center of attention, but ended up as such because he was, well, the biggest (5-foot-7, 140 pounds) and best player. There’s the clip again of ABC’s Jim McKay putting a mike in Webster’s face after the team beat Taiwan and asking him if he could explain the magnitude of what just happened.

Webster, of course, couldn’t.

“Innocence — as valued as it is vunerable,” says the voice over.

Webster’s dad holds up a copy of the local paper with his son’s photo from the parade the city had upon the team’s return. “He’s not quite sure what’s going on,” dad says.

There’s a clip of Webster and his coach on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when the host Joan Lunden asking: “What are his chances of becoming a professional baseball player?”

There’s a clip of Bob Costas as part of NBC’s MLB World Series from St. Louis, tossing to an interview with Tom Seaver and the kids live in the stands. Webster had pretty much nothing much to say to Seaver, either.

“I just wanted to be teammate,” Webster says today about all the attention heaped on him back then. “I wanted to be the offensive lineman, not he quarterback. I’ve always been uncomfortable. It’s bothered me. It’s not fair.”

Too bad. As the end of the documentary points out, ABC used the Little League World Series celebration of Webster and his teammates as the “thrill of victory” clip on the “Wide World of Sports” introduction from 1983 to 1988.

What this doc does — again, ironically since it has been ESPN and ABC leading the charge in televising the LLWS — is question again how intense fame is for kids 11- to 13-years old, no matter how media savvy you assume they might be.

One of the things brought up is how much abuse Webster took in his baseball career from that point on, quitting the game several times because he couldn’t handle the taunting (jealousy) from the opposing players’ parents.

“It was the parents, (the) adults,” Webster says today, almost incredulously. “If it was kids, I could handle that my own way.”

Adds Webster’s dad: “It’s a sick thing when grownups swear at a 13-year old kid.”

Webster’s teammates actually tear up thinking about how he was treated, and how those unrealistic expectations put him in such a horrible position.

Webster ended up winning a state baseball title with Juanita High (a team that included six others from that Kirkland Little League team). Webster also won a state football title. He ended up playing college ball at Eastern Washington less than a year, a shoulder injury from football forcing him to quit.

“My heart wasn’t in it,” Webster says now.

So, what do the Kirkland bunch — Webster, Erik Jonson, Shawn Cochran, Bill Cook, Mike Adams, David Keller , Brian Avery and Mark Peterson – want America to know now about them that they didn’t before?

“Today, parents, kids, they all think that the college scholarship is the way to go (for success in baseball),” says Avery. “I personally think you play sports for the fun of it and you can’t put that kind of pressure on little kids.”

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“I tell parents, ‘Give ‘em a chance. Let ‘em succeed. I can guarantee if you push ‘em too hard, they’ll be done in a year or two’,” says Webster, who now coaches baseball in the Seattle area (linked here) (a story linked here in the Seattle Post-Intellegencer wrote in 2001 that Webster was working in a warehouse for a container story). “I’ve seen it. It’s just not worth it. It’s a game … always will be.”

== The Sports Illustrated story on Webster and Kirkland, Wash., winning the Little League World Series, written by Steve Wulf (linked here).

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