SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pennsylvania — The Little League World Series is back. There won’t be international teams or 22,000 fans in the stands when the championship rolls around, but the tournament in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is set to start Thursday.
The coronavirus forced the cancellation of the tournament in 2020, and this year, the delta variant surge resulted in Little League tournaments for several older age groups being scrapped. But what most fans understand as the Little League World Series, featuring 10- to 12-year-old players, will take place over the next week and a half, with the championship set for Lamade Stadium on Aug. 29.
“It won’t be the same as what they’ve seen on TV and from years past, but I told them, ‘I don’t care if there’s 10,000 people or 10, you shouldn’t have any problem getting up to play here,’” said Dustin Radar, manager of Nebraska’s Hastings Little League team, the top club in the Midwest region.
“I think they’re just really excited for the opportunity.”
Though there won’t be fans packing the hill at Lamade Stadium, those close to the players can still see them in action. Each team will receive 250 game passes to distribute to friends, families and community members.
Instead of splitting 16 teams into U.S. and international brackets, Little League’s championship tournament will feature strictly American squads in 2021 because of COVID-19 and the international travel restrictions the pandemic brought about. Typically, eight teams from different geographic regions represent the United States, with the rest of the world broken into another eight regions.
This year, each U.S. region’s champion and runner-up moved on, instead of just the champ. Though manager Ben Lutwig’s Upper Providence Little League team of Oaks, Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia, won the Mid-Atlantic region outright, he feels good about letting the so-called B teams participate.
“I think Little League is doing the right thing and everything they can do to make it as good of an experience as possible,” Ludwig said. “A 16-team tournament is more robust, so I think it’s great what they’ve done here to expand it out, given the circumstances.”
Ludwig and company are well-prepared for adverse situations. His team lost its second game of the Pennsylvania state tournament, meaning it had to win five games in five days to advance to the Mid-Atlantic tournament.
His group succeeded, leading Ludwig to believe they’re equipped for elite competition.
“Based on what we just went through, it seems like ‘all right, this is going to be nothing out of the ordinary,’” Ludwig said. “It’s going to be something that our kids are ready for, and they’re going to step up to the challenge.”
Other teams, like Florida’s Martin County North Little League, took advantage of the expanded U.S. bracket. Manager Mark Rodgers’ team finished runner-up to Tennessee’s Nolensville Little League.
For Rodgers’ team, preparing for the tournament while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines was no easy chore.
“We practiced on three different fields. We did nothing together as a team, except a little bit of infield-outfield. We kept everybody apart because where we live, COVID was all around us,” Rodgers said. “We were all living the horror stories.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Little League spokesman Kevin Fountain said many of its leagues returned to the field this year, though 2021 participation has not been totaled. Approximately 2 million children played in 2019.
For Rodgers’ team, COVID-19’s effects have been significant, as several players have been infected. Rodgers has practiced law for 30 years and represents athletes such as Baltimore Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini, who missed the 2020 season because of chemotherapy treatment for stage three colon cancer.
Due to his close professional and personal relationship with Mancini, Rodgers connected the 2021 Home Run Derby runner-up with his team via Zoom to serve as a guiding presence as they begin to navigate unfamiliar territory.
“It’s been really cool to do that with him, especially with what he went through last year,” Rodgers said. “We’ve used him as an example of overcoming adversity and how at some point, baseball is not about living and dying -- it’s got to be fun.”
Andrew Destin is a sports journalism student at Penn State.