Friday, August 28, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Cody Webster?

For anyone who was old enough to experience it as it unfolded, there has never been - and nor will there ever be - another event in the world of sports that will generate as much nationalistic pride in this country as the 1980 Olympic hockey did.

If you're younger than, say, 35, you can't really imagine what it was like to watch a team of American college hockey players win the gold medal and defeat the Soviet machine along the way. Beyond the sport aspect, you also need to understand what happened in terms of the political climate of the times.

It was like "Hoosiers" and "Rocky" added together and then taken to a power of 10.

Now, if you want to ask TigerBlog what is second on the list of sports moments that have impacted American national pride, he can come up with a few for you. And either near or at the top of that list is the name "Cody Webster."

Taiwan first appeared at the Little League World Series in 1969, and the tiny island nation (now called Chinese Taipei for the purposes of international athletic events) proceeded to rip off 10 championships in the next 13 years. One of the years that Taiwan didn't win was 1975, when Little League banned foreign teams from participating.

Heading into the 1982 LLWS championship game, Taiwan had won 31 straight games in Williamsport. By then, it was a familiar ritual for the American sports viewer. The final, and only the final, would be televised on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," and every year it'd be a different random town from somewhere in the U.S. that would get pasted by Taiwan.

This was our game, our national pastime, and a bunch of kids from Taiwan routinely crushed us in the final? Every American began to say the same things: The kids from Taiwan were too old or they had to be drawing from more than one area or they were cheating in some other way. It couldn't be because Taiwan was simply better than we were at OUR game.

And then along came a chubby little kid from Kirkland, Wash., named Cody Webster, who wiped out the Taiwan lineup as the American team won 6-0. It was a win that became a tremendous source of national pride, and it made a Webster into an American hero.

Fast forward to now, and the Little League World Series is nothing like the quaint, charming sporting event it was back then. Back then there were four U.S. team and four foreign teams that advanced to Williamsport for a single-elimination tournament. Today, there are eight American teams and eight foreign teams in two round-robin pools, and every game in on ESPN or ESPN2. Even the regionals are televised.

The LLWS opens the door to all kinds of questions. Is it a good thing or bad thing for 12 year olds to be playing baseball on national television? Is it a good thing or bad thing for them to be doing it in games that routinely run past 10 pm.? What is the downside of realizing that for most, if not all, of these kids, there will never be another opportunity to play a sport with this kind of attention?

Then there's the TV coverage aspect, and it's one that carries over to all TV sports coverage. There's a fine line between being able to see as many games as possible (the whole tournament vs. just the final) and oversaturation of the product so that every game starts to look the same? It's a problem for college football and college basketball especially, where there are dozens of games on every night.

The 12-year-olds themselves are so over-hyped as "playing for the love of the game" that after awhile the phrase doesn't mean anything. The prize that is out there – a trip to Williamsport, a chance to play on ESPN and ABC, the chance to move further along in the tournament – is so great that it's hard to imagine 12-year-olds (and their parents, by the way) are equipped to deal properly with falling short.

On the other hand, the only thing worse might be winning it all. How do you go from that level of success, of national achievement, of endless autograph requests, and then have to start school a week later? Or play baseball again in games that are back to being a few parents in attendance?

Or put simply, is it good to have the best experience of your life come when you're 12 years old? Is it good to know that you're not going to match that two-month run to the Little League World Series that you had when you were 12?

Cody Webster went from being a national hero to being a pretty good high school player to having a short career at Eastern Washington University. To be the best at age 12 does not in anyway guarantee that you're going to be the best in high school, let alone college.

TigerBlog Jr. is a 12-year-old, one who never got into baseball. As an aside, TBJ spent some of his summer playing in lacrosse tournaments with and against hundreds and hundreds of kids who would have been playing Little League baseball had this been 10 years ago or so, but that's another story.

TB has told TBJ that if he wants to be the best lacrosse player he can be (and best saxophone/bassoon player he can be) that he's going to have to devote himself to it. He's going to have to put in a lot of time practicing (sports or music) to make himself the best he can be, to see how high a level he can reach in either (whether that is high school, college, whatever).

But TB has also told TBJ that he's too young to do that now. He's getting close to that time, but he's not there yet. For now, TigerBlog tells him, you play for fun, because you like to play the game and you like to play with your teammates. Too much intensity now, at the age, of 12, would probably mean no interest in playing later.

TigerBlog can't help but think of that when he watches the LLWS.

Princeton has 1,000 student-athletes, all of whom found a way to navigate through the difficult waters of youth sports to reach the college level. TigerBlog has always been fascinated by talking to the athletes about how they got their start in their sport.

For some, they played from the time they were five. For others, they didn't come to the sport they'd play in college until they were freshmen or sophomores in high school. TB remembers Jim Salters, an undersized but outstanding linebacker, whose mother wouldn't let him play tackle football until he talked her into it when he got to high school. Maybe if he'd played Pop Warner from the time he was six, he wouldn't have wanted to play anymore by high school.

Here at TigerBlog HQ, we see the ones who made it through to play in college. The ones here are athletes with the skill to play in college, something only a very, very, very small handful have. Most of the kids you see in the LLWS this week will not have that skill six years from now. In that case, maybe it's good that they have this experience now.

On the other hand, if it's too much now, maybe having the skill later won't matter. It's a difficult balance. And who's to say what's right?

Still, TigerBlog can't help but lean towards the line of thinking that 12-year-olds should be in bed at 10 pm, not playing baseball on ESPN.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

You can't really compare the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" with the achievement of Cody Webster and his teammates. In 1980, the Cold War was still very frozen and the steroid-amped Soviets and East Germans were dominant, cheating sports powers.

Conversely, by 1982, Little League officials had thoroughly investigated the Taiwanese and concluded that, no, they weren't cheating in any way. The secret to their success was exactly what you described later about premature burn-out. THEY were the kids who had been spending six hours a day, seven days a week since they were eight years old on fielding drills and batting practice.

Beating the Taiwanese kids was a commendable athletic achievement. Defeating the Soviet Red Army hockey team unleashed a flood of latent nationalistic pride that, given the fall of communism, may never be duplicated.

Anonymous said...

Besides, isn't this blog supposed to somehow be related to Princeton University athletics. Granted, you make a very oblique attempt at connecting Cody to student athletes.
But why don't you do us all a service and port your blog somewhere else, since it is clear that this blog is full of the personal musings of TB-- rather than a blog about Princeton athletics.

Princeton OAC said...

TigerBlog is a supplement to goprincetontigers.com and the soon-to-be release video channel. TB is about general issues and how they relate back to Princeton Athletics, as much as it is about specific Princeton athletic stories. Having said that, the one about the Little League World Series did push it a little.

Princeton '91 said...

Obviously, this isn't where Princeton is reporting its results and such. This is something extra, and above and beyond. Enjoy it for what it is.

C. William said...

Saying Mr. Webster was a "pretty good high school player" doesn't really give him justice or tell the entire story. He was a dominant 3-year letterman in both football and on the diamond; a starter on the 1985 Juanita High Football team (as a Sophomore) finishing as State Champions and ranked #4 by the USA Today. The 1987 team finished second in the state and the 1988 team was a top 10 USA Today ranked team before an unexpected early playoff loss. Mr. Webster was a nationally recruited linebacker, as well as pitcher and infielder before multiple shoulder surgeries. He won multiple all-conference awards in both sports. He was also a 3-year letterman in baseball winning another state championship in 1987 with a second place finish in 1988. His Pepsi sponsored Pony/Colt league teams competed nationally at the highest levels with Cody being the dominant force in both the batters-box as well as the mound. A true #1 starter.

He could have been a professional golfer if he had the time and funding. Professional baseball without the injuries? Unequivocally.

Too many injuries, too much pressure to live up to others expectations but really the injuries; hard to throw 90+ with a multiple-repaired right wing.

Looking forward to seeing him next week on ESPN's 'Little Big Men' airing Tuesday.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blog. I forgot about Cody and his LLWS heroics. I'm also looking forward to the ESPN film.

As a dad of a 14 yr old pony league player, I see it every year. Select teams, All Stars, private coaching from former "Big Leagers" along with the parents that make youth baseball as the center of their family universe.

For the rest of us, it's about having fun, staying busy, and learning a little about life.

Anonymous said...

I am an immigrant from Taiwan and my 8 year old just started playing baseball this year (I also have a 5 year old that will play T ball in the fall). I remember LLWS was like a national event back home back in the 70’s and early 80’s. Parents and kids like myself would get up in the middle of the nights just to watch Taiwanese teams played in the finals live on TV.

One thing you need to understand about the baseball environment in Taiwan is that, due to limited space and resources in the country, only the best kids get to play organized sports (especially baseball). So even though baseball is (or used to be) a very popular sports, 99.9% of the kids don’t get to play at all (myself included). For the 0.1% of the kids that are actually good enough, playing baseball is all they do and is considered their future. So, like it was mentioned by a couple of guys here, kids got injured before they even have an opportunity to advance to a higher level. On the other hand, a lot baseball kids do play professional baseball when they grow up, but are often bothered by injuries that were developed in their young career.

Now that I get to watch my son play baseball – something that I could only dreamed of doing as a kid. Given that he had a late start comparing to most other players of his age, I spent a lot of time practicing with him. I was really proud when all the coaches said that he was the most improved kid on the team and watched his batting order went from the bottom of the order to 5th. Like another guy said earlier, it almost became the center of my life. Because of that, I started watching LLWS again this year and I tried to get my 8 year old to watch it with me. Last week I even took the whole family to Williamsports to watch the Taiwanese team play.

After learning Cody’s story(I don’t remember watching that game), I think I need to adjust my mentality towards my 8 year old a little bit – not that I was expecting him to be an MLB player someday, but I wanted him to be really competitive out on the field, and achieve what I couldn’t as a kid. I think I will take it easier with him so he can have more fun with it.

Anonymous said...

We played Cody in the 1984 Pony League zone tourney in Walla Walla and he was nothing like his little league days. I think he did not get past two innings on the mound.

Anonymous said...

Chinese Tai-Pei did cheat.

In 1974, Little League concluded that the Chinese Tai-Pei squad was training out of season and not a true all-star squad selected from a little league program which allowed all children to compete. Essentially, Chinese Tai-Pei fielded a squad of the best 12 and 13 year old kids in their country.

In 1997, Chinese Tai Pei admitted to Little League that they would not be able to comply with the rules/guidelines and withdrew from the Little League World Series.

Anonymous said...

Here is a good link which tells the story of Taiwan baseball. Had the U.S. taken the same approach they would have never lost a game to Taiwan in the 60s, 70s and 80s -

http://www.etaiwannews.com/etn/news_content.php?id=1031017&lang=eng_news&cate_img=240.jpg&cate_rss=news_Supplement_TAIWAN

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately most of the parents of the players from the opposing teams taunted and teased Cody several times during games. That's the real problem - parents living through their kids. When I was young, in the summer, we would play ball all day long. I remember it being more fun than organized athletics. Part of that had to do with the parents. Kids today, well, I drive past empty ballparks everyday. It's sad.

Anonymous said...

Cody currently runs a baseball training facility in Woodinville, WA for young players to hone their skills. He also was one of the driving forces in the creation of the Pat Downs Foundation in honor of his coach on that 1982 team Pat Downs (http://patdownsfoundation.org/).
As for where have you gone Cody Webster? Well things weren't the same for Cody after that amazing 1982 season, in the years to follow the game of baseball started to not be fun, during many many games in higher levels of baseball people would say things to him, or about him, horrible things. These people (adults, and I use the term loosely) changed from a view of admiration of a young BOY who played his heart out for the love of the game, to jealous and vile people! Who in their right mind would hurl insults at a 13 or 14 year old child? Injuries did take their toll, but it was the emotional injuries that took the biggest toll. Every once in awhile I wish I could go back in time to one of those games where some parent is yelling at the top of their lungs about how Cody isn’t that good, or that he was a flash in the pan, or whatever vile statement they decided to hurl at a child, and scoop them up by the scruff of their neck and escort them out of the ball field.
The work he does with his facility and the foundation are truly first class, the time he takes to help these youngsters is amazing. And how do I know all of this you ask? Easy my son plays baseball in Kirkland with some of the children of some of the other members of that 1982 team. So to truly answer the question of Where have you gone Cody Webster, one must simply ask yourself would you be the kind of person that would be jealous of a child with such talent and shout vile things at him, or would you be amazed and shout words of encouragement and support?

Sammy Mccormick said...

Interesting replies. Enjoyed the hour 30 30 didn't want it to end. I grew up in So Cali and it was all baseball although I'm a lady now . My recollection was that little girl playing till the street lights came on. Thank you Cody for your story. It was nice, your team mates and your love for them and the wonderful sport of baseball. I got your story, hoping that more Parents "get it" I here the stories of the patents who vicariously live through their children shaking my head. Shame on those who suck the joy OUTTA the game and ridiculous how they shout at other people kid