Their game on Monday night against Chicago's Jackie Robinson West will be Cumberland American’s seventh straight on television. It will also be the team’s fourth consecutive appearance on the national networks of ESPN.
Not a big deal? Consider this contrast, then.
The NBA’s Boston Celtics, whose schedule was just recently announced, are slated for only one nationally televised contest for their entire upcoming season. Cumberland’s Little Leaguers beat that slim total in just a weekend.
Since they started their trek through the playoffs, Cumberland’s players and coaches have been been put up on a pedestal for the entertainment of a huge audience -- undergoing a seismic transformation from being strictly a Blackstone Valley phenomenon, to having their favorite foods and major-league ballplayers discussed by an ESPN on-air crew that includes a Hall of Famer (Barry Larkin) and one of the newest members of the Red Sox Hall of Fame (Nomar Garciaparra).
Thanks to the television platform that is part and parcel with the Little League World Series, the CALL team is no longer a local secret. Manager Dave Belisle was asked recently if there’s such a thing as overkill when it comes to exposure for a group of precocious preteens that aren’t accustomed to being on TV with a stat package appearing below their names.
“If we’re just talking baseball, I would say this is way too much, but that’s not the case. I like the way ESPN does it. They do more than just baseball. They do a good job in making people realize that it’s a game,” Belisle said.
“When we won the New Englands and carried around the banner with the Connecticut team, that was something they encouraged. They want to make sure that everyone involved has a good experience, win or lose. I think the presence of TV justifies that.”
There’s no questioning ESPN’s commitment to covering the LLWS. The network gets into the action even before the 16 top teams descend upon Williamsport, Pa., with the airing of regional semifinal games from select parts of the country. And in New England, regional cable giant NESN typically covers the second-to-last-day of regional pool play and concludes with broadcasts of the two semifinal games.
Starting with next year’s World Series, ESPN and Little League International will begin an eight-year agreement that gives the network the exclusive U.S. rights holder of Little League International. According to an August 2013 announcement, the multi-year extension continues one of the longest-standing relationships between a sports network and a rights holder; ABC began running Little League programming in 1963.
“Little League is tremendous, family-friendly programming and a great showcase of what we love about sports – passion, competition and bringing communities together. We’re delighted to continue our rewarding collaboration with Little League International,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president for programming and acquisitions.
ESPN first televised Little League in 1983 and has done it every year since 1987. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of ABC’s partnership with Little League. The present rights agreement, made effective in 2007, expires this year.
The new deal ensures that starting in 2015, all 32 Little League World Series contests will be televised live on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.
“ESPN has been a great partner in helping tell the Little League story to a global audience, and we are delighted to extend our successful relationship,” said Stephen D. Keener, Little League International president and CEO.
Belisle shed some light on how the networks turn such what could be a high-pressure atmosphere into an experience that is actually fun for all involved, most importantly the 11- and 12-year-old all-stars.
“When the announcers sit down with them, they’ll ask what’s going on in the dorms or who the funniest person on the team is. It’s non-baseball stuff just to ease them up and before you know it, their time is up,” said the CALL mentor. “They don’t talk about the games. They want to know about their experiences in Bristol and Williamsport.”
The coaching staffs, and not the players themselves, will typically provide scouting reports to educate the broadcasters on, for example, Addison Kopack’s pitching repertoire.
“They’ll ask me if our pitchers throw a two-seam (fastball) or a four-seam. They don’t ask the kids that because they don’t want to destroy their rhythm so the players end up doing something differently with the cameras on them,” Belisle said. “We’re all mature enough to understand that we’re talking about 12-year-olds, not professionals. If a player commits an error, they’ll critique it by saying the ball took a bad hop or he just missed it. You’ll never hear, ‘Oh, he booted that one.’ If you listen to the broadcasts, nothing ever negative comes out.”
As a manager who is trying to keep youngsters focused on the opportunity at hand, Belisle appreciates how ESPN sets up the television responsibilities several days in advance of the first game.
“It’s not you’re doing an interview and then going to play the game,” he said.
Wearing a microphone that is on at all times during the broadcast has not resulted in Belisle changing his on-field demeanor. ESPN’s own broadcasters were themselves inspired by his words to the CALL team prior to Saturday night’s walk-off heroics, which all came with the cameras rolling. If you’re a regular follower of Cumberland’s summertime success, you know that Belisle is a fountain of positive energy at all times.
“If I changed anything, I would be hypocritical. When I’m out there speaking to my pitcher who’s nervous or my batter who has two strikes on him, they’re nervous enough as it is. As a coach, it’s my job to settle them down,” Belisle said. “There are a lot of people watching when you’re on the mound. In those situations, you remind them that you’re their coach and that everything is going to be okay.”
It’s reached the point that Belisle and his players don’t even remember their every move is being beamed around the world.
“TV is there, but you don’t realize it as much just because of the way it’s presented,” he said. “We’ve played in front of good crowds and that’s enough to bring out a little bit of nervousness and intensity at the same time.”
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