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The Little League World Series bubble shows it: Without parents, the kids are all right

Hamilton, Ohio center fielder Krew Brown (8) and right fielder JJ Vogel (23) a win on Thursday. (Tom E. Puskar/AP)
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Gavin Weir, the left-hander from South Dakota and latest teenybop sensation in the sports world, was three outs away from throwing his second no-hitter of the Little League World Series, and his teammate was about to commit a baseball sin.

Just before ESPN went to a commercial break during Wednesday’s game, the camera focused on the South Dakota dugout and caught Gunnar Alfson playfully pushing Weir in the back of his head. Imagine that — little Gunnar wasn’t just talking to a pitcher who was on the verge of a no-no, he touched him. Then the two boys, smiling while completely ripping apart the volumes of baseball’s unwritten rules, turned to one another and spread their fingers wide to prepare for what appeared to be a secret handshake.

Some grown-up must have forgotten to teach them proper no-hitter etiquette, and the kids are much better for it. In fact, there has been little obvious parental interference during the 11 days in Williamsport, Pa., where these ballplayers have giggled after beating a tag, cried after getting pulled from the mound or shimmied their hips and danced as if no one was watching.

The pandemic has limited interaction between these players and their biggest fans, their parents. Concerns about separation are real. But in a sport often known for parents behaving badly and in a summer when grown-ups have turned school grounds in battlegrounds, how refreshing it feels simply to keep the focus on kids being silly, delightful and innocent.

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The LLWS returned this year after being shelved in 2020 because of the coronavirus, but this version has mirrored a baseball bubble. There are no international teams in the field because of travel restrictions, and the 16 teams that advanced to the LLWS have been sequestered. The event was closed to the general public, and instead of distributing 3,000 daily tickets to the complex, organizers limited the crowd almost entirely to the 250 passes given to each team. The protocols in place to mitigate the impact of the delta variant have kept well-meaning moms, dads and family members at a distance. They stand and cheer behind the fences and nets that separate the stands from playing field.

The kids, in other words, have autonomy to just be. This summer, we already have heard enough from parental figures who have stepped out of bounds. As schools have reopened, some parents have waged wars against administrators and teachers, using their children as pawns in their fight against masks:

The violence from the Florida dad arrested for child abuse against a high school girl who was not his daughter.

The misinformation amplified by the Louisiana mom who threatened to move to a mask-free utopia such as Florida because “the kids are not getting sick” there. The truth is, Florida led the nation in pediatric covid-19 hospitalizations earlier this month.

And the spittle projected by the Tennessee mob that protested a school board’s mask mandate by pointing angry fingers and shouting profanities at anyone it deemed an enemy.

There are other stories of grown-ups behaving boorishly — a father in California allegedly punched a male teacher after growing heated when he spotted his daughter wearing a mask while some teachers were not — all in the name of protecting their children’s freedom. Their actions — and the motivation behind them — have seemed self-serving, about advancing their own cultural and political beliefs.

Their helicoptering will teach impressionable minors only that cursing and right jabs are the default response to conflict — and those parents aren’t limited by any barriers.

The moms and dads behind the fences at Williamsport — whether willingly or unwillingly — have shown what happens when you fall back and let the kids run the show. It wouldn’t hurt to see even less of them and their awkward in-game interviews, but the bubble has helped keep the spotlight largely focused on the main thing: the kids.

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Even so, ESPN, which has aired most of the games, could use a lesson in balancing celebration and exaggeration. The channel remains obsessed with comparing Weir to major league pitcher Chris Sale and even superstar Shohei Otani. The lanky southpaw has overmatched his peers, at one point striking out 114 of 132 batters he faced. His catcher winces every time one of Weir’s fastballs smacks his glove. Major League Baseball tweeted after Weir completed his fourth no-hitter of the summer. And yet he’s still a middle-schooler who counts root beer as a secret to his success.

Only Kyle Peterson, a former major league pitcher who is providing color commentary, has shown the willingness to pump the brakes on the hyperbole.

“It’s fun to make comparisons to major leaguers and kids of this age, especially when physically there are similarities,” Peterson said during Thursday’s broadcast. “I think we also need to be a little bit careful at the same time because in this case you could be comparing him to a guy that could end up in the Hall of Fame some day.”

Just like adults didn’t get in the way of the pure moment between Weir and Alfson in the dugout, no one should try to accelerate him into attention that his 12-year-old mind and body might not be ready to take on. If only there was a permanent protocol to keep all overzealous adults at bay.

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