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Jul. 7 2010 - 12:21 am | 599 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Michigan town boycotts Little League playoffs

All over the nation, all-star teams in no-star towns are starting the long road to South Williamsport, Pa., and its Little League World Series. I would ask the fine folks of the Little League in Escanaba, Mich., to throw out the first pitch, except they’ve already taken their ball and gone home.

Escanaba, a city of 12,000 on the Lake Michigan coast of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has elected to sit out the Little League playoffs in a decision its local board ungrammatically said “was not easy but was forced by years of working the bureaucrat system.” Are any of them members of the Democrat party?

So what is the problem? Like India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and you and your little brother over the backseat of your parents’ 1979 Cutlass, the issue is a border dispute.

According to the Daily Press of Escanaba, that city’s Little League started in 1951, and took a trip to the World Series in 1957. However, Gladstone, a city of 5,000 seven miles up the coast, formed its own Little League in 1973, in part because of fiddling with Escanaba’s boundaries so it could keep as much of the city as possible and meet the Little League standard of a population of 15,000. One section was lopped off “because many of the residents were senior citizens and if there were any children they were more likely to be interested in sailing, tennis or golf.” When families in that area complained that their kids indeed like baseball, too, when they weren’t busy being little Newport, R.I., the borders were readjusted, and upset parents in the newly carved-out territory joined forces with Gladstone, where it remains to this day.

(By the way, the territory Gladstone’s Little League serves includes an area my father, a Boston native who came to Upper Michigan when he was assigned there in the Air Force, derisively referred to as “nowhere.” As in, when he was dating my mother, a Gladstone native, my father — used to cities and suburbs that all blended together — while they were driving asked her, “Where are we?” My mom said, “Between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “No, what city are we in?” My mom said, “We’re not in one. We’re between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “But if we died in a car accident, where would they say we died?” My mom said, “Between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “So you mean, ‘Nowhere.’ “)

Funny story: Over the years, Little League raised its population maximum per territory to 20,000, and Escanaba’s population declined to below 15,000 anyway. So there was no need to adjust territories. Also, the territory Escanaba lopped off happened to supply a fair number of players. So Gladstone, with less than half the population of Escanaba, has 402 registered players, while Escanaba has 332.

Escanaba would like its players back, you know, for the kids. A release Escanaba put out in May, announcing its Little League playoff boycott, boo-hooed: “[I]t is very difficult for a coach or a board member to have to tell an Escanaba student that they cannot play ball with their school friends.” It hurts them more than it hurts you, kid.

Of course, this argument is going over in Gladstone as well as a fart in deer camp.

A fart in deer camp, courtesy of Jeff Daniels’ 2001 opus, “Escanaba in da Moonlight.”

Says Gladstone Little League president Mike Gobert, in the Daily Press: “With the program we have, we have a pretty good set-up. I’m perfectly satisfied with the way it is.” Of course.

Actually, the Gladstone Little League is right, and I’m not just saying that because my mother grew up there, and because my grandmother ran the Daily Press Gladstone bureau for years. (In Gladstone, not between Gladstone and Escanaba.) If Escanaba hadn’t tried to game the system decades before, it wouldn’t be in the trouble it is today, like what people say about Reaganism and the state of the present American economy.

I’m not sure what Escanaba thinks it can gain by a boycott. The Gladstone Little League says it is getting calls from Escanaba parents asking if they can enter their kids on a Gladstone all-star team, but that isn’t happening. So the kids are upset, and I doubt the Escanaba parents are blaming Gladstone. Anyway, I don’t think that when Brent Musberger takes the mike for the Little League World Series, he’ll say, “We have some great teams here, but they’ll all have an asterisk, because mighty Escanaba never played.”

On top of that, Escanaba lost the right to host any Little League playoffs. The girls senior division goes to Manistique, population 3,500, while the age 11 state tournament shifts to — ha ha — Gladstone. Given that the Upper Michigan economy was never great even when it was good, the only thing Escanaba’s boycott is accomplishing is preventing people from spending much-needed money there.

I hope the Escanaba bureaucrat system is happy with that.


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    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

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