Little League, Big Stage

Turns out there isn’t anything little about the Little League World Series.

The annual event, which brings together the world’s best 11- to 13-year-old baseball players, took place in Williamsport, Pennsylvania from Aug. 17-27.

Calgarian Brad Johnston had the honour of being selected as one of the umpires for the event and he worked several games, including the American Championship game between Greenville, North Carolina and Lufkin, Texas.

Johnston was the home plate umpire for that game, a thrilling 6-5 win for the southern Texas team that rallied from a 5-0 deficit to advance to the World Series final (which was ultimately won by Japan).

Alberta Dugout Stories caught up with Johnston mid-tournament to learn more about his experience at the Little League World Series (LLWS). Here’s what he had to say:

Q: The last time we saw you was at the Senior Canadian Little League Championship Tournament in Calgary. How did that go for you and did you umpire any games between that event and the LLWS?

A: That tournament went well for me. I was the crew chief on a good crew and we worked well together. Between then and coming to Williamsport, I was in Medicine Hat as the off-field umpire supervisor for the Canadian Little League Championship.

I have only actually worked one game on the field though. I was behind the plate for game one of the WMBL Western division final in Medicine Hat between the Medicine Hat Mavericks and the Edmonton Prospects

Q: Tell us about arriving at the LLWS. You are familiar with the venue in Williamsport and have been there several times, but what was it like arriving there for the LLWS?

A: It was different because there is so much activity here. You don’t realize how big and special an event this is without being here. I think the largest difference between arriving here this time and every other time I’d been here was the very real feeling that I along with the 15 other guys working this tournament have a significant role to play in this event.

Q: How is the atmosphere? Give people a sense of what TV might not tell us about the tournament.

A: Actually, I think that TV does a pretty good job of portraying the atmosphere here. Little League International works very hard to make this about the full experience and not necessarily about winning. The fact is that you don’t get to do this twice. I know there are some players and coaches over the years that have been here multiple times but for the good majority you get to be here one time so the idea is to make the most of it.

There is a constant buzz around the stadiums and it’s easy to get caught up in it. I find myself enjoying it, but still making sure I work hard to get the job done that I’m here to do.

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Brad Johnston works the 2017 Senior Canadian Little League Championship in Calgary

Q: How are your nerves? How is the pressure on the big stage? Any hecklers?

A: The first time at (Howard J. Lamade Stadium) was a thrill. I was on a baseline which made it a little easier so I was able to relax and take it all in, which is really important to do.

There aren’t many hecklers. There’s the odd comment on balls and strikes, but not much when you consider the crowd and the fairly intimate confines of the stadium. The crowd is constant noise so individual comments don’t come out as clearly as you might think.

I feel pretty comfortable out there. I think that working the WMBL and the numbers that Okotoks gets helped me with how I manage myself and a game in front of a crowd.

Q: Have you experienced any fun or interesting LLWS events, other than the tournament games?

A: I think the most interesting event was the parade through downtown Williamsport to kick off the tournament. I knew there was a parade but I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was. Even though I had been told, I didn’t really believe it. The parade was about a three-kilometre route, and the estimated attendance that I heard was around 35,000 people. It was a great event to be a part of.

The other really cool event was the MLB Little League Classic, which was Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN, where the Pirates played the Cardinals. That happened at Bowman Field, which has less seating capacity than Seaman Stadium. The only ones to get tickets were Little League people and the umpire crew got to go.

 

During the day, the Pirates and Cardinals were on the grounds at the Little League complex and hung out with the Little League teams and took in the games.

The MLB umpire crew also came in and spent some time with us. It was Gerry Davis’ crew and they were all great guys. Gerry worked two innings at second base during the afternoon Little League game. I was assigned to first base on that one, so obviously that was a pretty unique experience.

Q: How are the parents, coaches and players you’ve dealt with so far?

A: All have been good, the parents we don’t really deal with. They are in the stands and just part of the atmosphere. They are very supportive of their kids, which is awesome and some have traveled literally across the globe to be here for their kids. I think there are a lot of nerves from the parents end, probably more than the kids have. I totally get it though, for the parents they know how big a deal this is and want their kids to be successful.

Coaches have been good, too. Of course, they have the ability to use replay to challenge here, so there really aren’t any arguments over anything. I think they had to go through an adjustment period, too, just like the umpires, as most of them have probably not been in this type of atmosphere either.

As for the players, they work hard and make some pretty unreal plays. Little League International does a good job to make sure they have fun and act like 12 year olds, too, so the kids are probably the most relaxed of anyone.

Q: We know how teams advance at the tournament but how does it work for umpires/officials? How do you advance through the playoff rounds?

A: I guess you do your best to have a good game and hopefully the supervisors want to use you …. There really isn’t much more than that to it.

Q: Any advice for umpires who hope to one day get to the LLWS?

A: To everyone in the game you come across – on and off the field – be professional, be respectful and be courteous. Seek feedback from the right sources, implement that feedback and be grateful for it.

Many thanks to Brad for sparing time for Alberta Dugout Stories during the LLWS, and congratulations to all the teams, parents, coaches, staff and volunteers involved in the event. 

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