MLB

The Lost Summer of Williamsport

The small Central Pennsylvania city is grappling with its first summer in 73 years without the Little League World Series.

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Standing between these two youth sports cathedrals is usually all it takes to make children, family members and fans alike weep with wonder.

Here, at the center of the youth baseball universe, is where kids from the Far East and American Southwest trade pins; little ones from the Caribbean and Australia, cloaked in their older siblings’ jerseys, weave around the grown-ups in a game of tag; Venezuelans and New Englanders listen to live music together as they stand in concession lines.

For 10 days in August, the Little League World Series transforms this concrete concourse into a Central Pennsylvania cosmopolitan city.

Except this year.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Little League canceled its international tournament for the first time in its 73-year history. Thursday, Aug. 20, would have been the start of the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, but instead of a rousing chorus of languages and laughter, silence fills the premises of Lamade Stadium. Emptiness echoes all around.

The Lost Season of Little League didn’t just crush an entire group of international 12-year-olds. In a Thanos Snap, the identity of this Baseball Heaven in the middle of Pennsylvania vanished, leaving those who live here to grapple with the social and economic consequences that come with making a necessary sacrifice during a global pandemic.

“It’s just eerily quiet,” says Stephen D. Keener, the President of Little League International. “It’s no different than any other day of the year, other than the two or three weeks around the World Series. It’s just that it shouldn’t be like that at this time of year.”

***

For the last 75 years, the Little League World Series has been as important to the Williamsport calendar as any non-religious holiday. It marks the end of summer, signals the beginning of the school year and allows this small city of less than 30,000 people to welcome folks from all over the world.

Time here is measured in relation to Little League. An older woman working the front desk at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott says the final stretch of the summer is divided into three seasons of its own: Before the World Series, During the World Series, After the World Series.

“Is it Little League time already?” she asks me when I check in a few minutes before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, the 19th, one day before the World Series would have begun. Without the weeks leading up to the World Series and the influx of people from all over the world, she had forgotten that this afternoon—with the annual Grand Slam Parade—would have been the Little League Solstice.

The Grand Slam Parade is held in Downtown Williamsport and is Little League’s version of the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Players from all 16 teams ride on floats and march through the city, coasting from Susquehanna St. to Fourth St. and ending at Market St. in the late afternoon and early evening. Residents and visitors meet in the streets to welcome them, eat at restaurants and shop for souvenirs. The sound of bar bands covering classic rock hits lasts on through the night.

Years ago, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona described the atmosphere to Keener as “the county fair meets baseball.” It’s an appropriate analogy. Baseball is the purpose of the event, but it’s far from the only reason people attend.

“The community is missing it,” says Barb Miele, who owns Gustonian Gifts, a local boutique, and has lived in the Williamsport area her whole life. “Even for the people who don’t ever go over to the games, it’s still just the ambiance of having all the people here.”

This year, there are no festivities. The sidewalks are empty, except for a few people walking dogs, riding bikes or grabbing a quick bite. No music is playing, the traffic is almost non-existent, and, most strikingly, there is not a Little League-aged boy or girl in sight.

Some, if not most, of this inactivity can be attributed to people staying home during the pandemic. However, a noticeable percentage of people here don’t seem to care much about it, even though COVID-19 is the very reason the World Series was canceled.

At around 9 a.m. the next morning, about the time when the 16 teams would have been gathering for the Opening Day ceremony at the Little League World Series complex, a middle-aged man entered Julie’s Coffee. He pulled out a crumpled mask from his pocket but didn’t actually put it on. Once he saw a sheriff at the counter without his mask, he decided this was a safe place to be unsafe.

I was sitting in the corner near a window with black coffee and some eggs when another man, likely in his 20s, approached the counter and asked the blonde-haired, middle-aged woman working if they had to wear masks inside. “No,” she said. “And if someone came in and told me I did, I still wouldn’t wear one. I can’t stand them.” The woman, Tanya Redman, owns the coffee shop with her husband, Eric.

There was a steady stream of customers that morning, mostly retired regulars and police officers—four of the six were maskless—along with a few adults stopping in on their way to work. About one third of the men to eat at Julie’s on this Thursday morning were older and slightly hunchbacked.

At the table nearest to me sat an old man and woman, presumably a couple, drinking coffee with empty plates in front of them. The man was reading a special “John Wayne” edition of a magazine and four different times told a person leaving to “have a crappy day.”

The scene at Julie’s is quintessential Central Pennsylvania, where the demographics typically fluctuate by age, not race. Instead of Opening Day of the Little League World Series, that morning felt like just another day in Williamsport.

When most of the crowd drew out, I asked Tanya Redman about the impact of the World Series’ cancellation. “Like most restaurants,” she said. “we see a boom in business during Little League.” However, she said Julie’s was doing fine financially because it gets a steady enough flow of customers throughout the year and doesn’t have to rely on the World Series.

“I’d imagine the hotels are hurting,” she said.

The Little Leaguers do not stay at hotels during the World Series. Instead, they lodge in barracks at the complex in South Williamsport with their teammates and coaches, as well as the players and coaches from the other teams. Their families, though, along with media members and visiting fans stay at the hotels in Downtown Williamsport.

When reached by phone last week, Holly Kremser, the general manager of the Chartwell Hotels in Williamsport, said the properties she oversees are “normally 100% full” during the World Series, but were not this year. She declined to comment on the financial state of her hotels and on the cancellation’s impact on them.

Miele, the Gustonian Gifts owner, says business at her boutique is down without the World Series, but not significantly. “We ran a report and we’re half down for August,” she says, while noting the cancellation is not the only explanation for the decline. The pandemic could also be keeping some people from stopping in.

Over the last handful of years, she says she hasn’t seen as many people coming in specifically from Little League because there are more amenities now at the complex than there were when Gustonian Gifts opened in 2005.

“They have food there now,” Miele says. “Before they only had the concession stand. People would always leave, come over to town and go to the restaurants and get things… We definitely see some traffic, but we’ve noticed the numbers have dropped over the years.”

For Miele, the social impact of the cancellation is the bigger blow.

“We definitely miss talking with all the people,” she says. “It’s nice to hear their stories.”

***

Lance Van Auken has been involved with every Little League World Series since 1991. That year, he was a reporter with the Tampa Tribune covering the local team that had made it all the way to South Williamsport. The next summer, he returned as an umpire for the World Series, an honor that each umpire selected gets only once. He then became the Little League regional director in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1993, before moving to the Williamsport area in 1996 when he got a job working for Little League International in media relations.

“I’ve seen this event from a lot of different angles,” Van Auken says, the most recent perspective being as the Executive Director of the World of Little League Museum, a position he’s held since 2013.

The museum gets roughly 26,000 visitors each year, with about 10,000 of them coming in the two weeks of the Little League World Series. During that stretch, Van Auken’s daily schedule is “pandemonium,” with the “controlled chaos” beginning when he arrives at 7 a.m. to get everything ready to open at 9 a.m. The museum is a self-guided tour through six galleries—called innings—that take fans through the history of the international tournament. It stays open until 7 p.m. during the World Series, two hours later than normal.

“We gear up every year for what happens in August,” Van Auken says. “To see nobody at the complex when we go there is just really strange.”

The Lost Season of Little League didn’t seem real to him until July. He had known for a few months that there wouldn’t be a World Series, and the museum had been closed since March, when most of the country shut down. Still, it wasn’t until an employee-wide call that the cancelation truly registered.

On the call, someone from the HR department said, “If you would like to request a vacation or time off in August, just a reminder that you can do that if you want to.”

Nobody who works for Little League International takes vacation in August. That announcement, Van Auken says, was “the gut punch.”

“I know people in the community are really down about this,” Van Auken says. “This is what this town is known for.”

Only once before did Little League ever seriously consider not having the World Series in South Williamsport, when Hurricane Agnes struck the Mid-Atlantic states in 1972. A tropical storm when it hit Pennsylvania, Agnes caused terrible flooding and destroyed more than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses in the state, according to “The Times Leader,” a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Little League considered relocating the World Series that year, but ultimately did not.

“The last time there wasn’t a Little League World Series in August was 1946, which was the year before the first series in ‘47,” says Van Auken. “It also occurred to me that 1946 was kinda a rebuilding year for everybody in the world.

“Hopefully, that’s what this is going to be—2020 is going to be a rebuilding year for the whole world—and we’ll get back on track in 2021.”

***

Keener awoke early Thursday morning on what would have been Opening Day and did what he always does on the first day of the Little League World Series—he went right to his office at the Little League International complex.

It was 49 degrees when he arrived, an ideal early-morning temperature in August that promised the heat would not be unbearable that afternoon. He was looking out his office window, which overlooks Lamade Stadium.

“I just kept thinking, ‘What a perfect day this would have been for opening day,’” Keener says. “The field looks spectacular. Our grounds crew has kept it immaculate.”

Without a World Series this year, Keener has spent his time reflecting on his 40 years with Little League International and preparing for future tournaments.

In our conversation, Keener, unprompted, recalls the 1982 World Series championship game between a team from Kirkland, Wash., and Taiwan. At the time, Keener was working as the director of media relations, and he remembers staying up until after 2 a.m. talking with reporters over the phone about the first U.S. team to beat a team from Taiwan, which already had won 10 World Series.

“That was such big news at that time,” says Keener. “In fact, Jim McKay did the broadcast for ABC that day. I’ll never forget what he said. That was only two years after the U.S. beat the Soviet Union, the Miracle on Ice game, and then of course went on to win the gold medal.

“When Cody [Webster] and his teammates got to the fifth inning or sixth inning and they were up 5-1, or something like that, people started chanting and cheering. I remember Jim McKay saying, ‘I know it’s not Lake Placid, but it sure feels like it.’”

Recently, Little League and ESPN extended their media rights deal for another decade. Beginning next summer, ESPN-affiliated platforms will air more than 300 live games. Little League and Major League Baseball also announced the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Angels will be the two teams that will play in the 2021 MLB Little League Classic at Bowman Field, in Williamsport.

Little League is also using this time for construction. At some point in the next year or two, the World Series will expand from 16 to 20 teams, and to accommodate the four extra teams, Little League built another barracks. Two of the practice fields are putting up lights so teams can work out at night if needed. Concession areas, parking lots and bathroom facilities are also being added or renovated.

These projects have kept Keener busy without a World Series, but he cannot help but think about all that’s being missed this year.

“We couldn’t have made a [different] decision,” Keener says. “We had to do what we’re doing right now, but that doesn’t lessen the disappointment that we have for causing others to be subjected to some economic pain.”

He feels for the local businesses that won’t get the World Series boom. Hotels, restaurants, small shops like Gustonian Gifts and even the World of Little League Museum are all going without this summer.

“They count on that,” Keener says. “It’s been taken away from a lot of people and that’s the part that hurts. They will survive, and they’ll get through this, but they were counting on it.

“And when you’re counting on something and something takes it away from you, there’s always disappointment in that.”

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