The all-stars from Peabody Western Little League play their first game tonight in South Williamsport, Penn., as part of this year's Little League World Series. It's an exciting time for the kids and their fans.
Back in 2005, when I was a sports reporter in southern Maine, I went to the LLWS to cover the team from Westbrook, a bunch of scrappy, scraggly looking guys that captured their city's hearts with unlikely heroics all along the road to winning the New England championship.
It's an eight-hour drive from southern Maine to central Pennsylvania, but my employer -- Current Publishing -- decided it'd be worth it to send two reporters and a photographer to cover the games. We found a cheap motel on the outskirts and stayed for, I think, three days. Westbrook lost their first two games, but bounced back to win one before heading home, eliminated before the final rounds.
I was immediately impressed by the degree to which Little League Baseball does not try to rip anyone off. There is no charge to see any of the games or to park. Refreshments and T-shirts were reasonably priced. Where else in America do you see that? There certainly are questions to ask about putting pressure on these kids -- the games are televised on ESPN -- but the national organization seems to behave quite admirably when most everyone else would be making every dollar they could from such an event.
The press building offered space to work and Internet connections. Plus, there were cold cuts and beverages spread out for lunch every day and hot food for dinner. I spoke briefly with both Gary Thorne and Tony Gwynn, who were calling the games for ESPN. We sent stories and photos back for our Westbrook newspaper, the American Journal, and when we returned we put together a dynamite special section on the team.
A week later, the boys from Westbrook were invited to see a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. I called the Sox front office and got press credentials for me and my photographer, and we drove down to cover the evening. I followed the players onto the field and into the home dugout, where they sat before gametime. Then they were escorted out to left field and into the Green Monster, where the players were allowed to sign their names with a black Sharpie on the grungy inside walls. The last player out turned and handed me the marker, and I thought, "What not?" and signed "EASTIE JIM" in big letters.
When the players were led into the stands, I was able to get into the press box with my pass, where I saw a few reporters watching the game and typing on laptops. Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy was the only one I recognized. Before the action began I went over to the press dining room and ate for free. It was pretty sweet. The Westbrook players were called back onto the field to a huge round of applause and they stood next the the Sox fielders as the Star-Spangled Banner was played. It must have been the highlight of their lives.
So I'm grateful to the guys from Westbrook, who I followed around for a couple weeks and because of whom I got to do a some cool things. Good luck to Peabody Western -- which, by the way, has a player names Matt Correale. Not sure if he's related to me, but it's possible.