30 for 30: Little Big Men

“It’s a vey happy memory for me, you know.” Driving the streets of Kirkland, Washington, Cody Webster points out the places where he went to school, where he lived, where he played ball. He’s remembering when his team — the “kids from Kirkland” — beat reigning champion Taiwan to win the Little League World Series in 1982. It was, according to ABC’s Jim McKay, “the biggest upset in the history of Little League.” It must have been happy.

And yet, as Cody drives and talks his way through Little Big Men, his story gets away from him. It never was wholly his story, as he insists here: the team won the title, the team played the game. But as newspaper photographers and television reporters picked up the story, they focused on Cody, blond and cherub-cheeked, and not incidentally, a terrific pitcher. Now he’s 40, and he’s still in Kirkland. “Everything was worth it,” he says, “It’s worth me going through all of the stuff. It’s just part of the deal, I guess. It’s okay. I made it through it. It’s okay.”

“The deal” is what Al Szymanski’s documentary — premiering 31 August as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series — gets at. On one hand, the deal is growing up, losing innocence, and coming to terms with limits. It’s a familiar story. But the deal is also the denial of that story, or the recycling of it, so that the innocence can be recalled again and again. It’s the story of how a nation might depend on little boys to represent courage and skill and dedication. In the early ’80s, the narrator says, America was in need of inspiration. A montage of images recalls the national “malaise” owing to the murder of John Lennon, the recession and oil shortage, the Iran hostage crisis. Surely, the Miracle on Ice was helpful, but still, the country needed more.

Here the strokes are so broad, you begin to get the idea that the film’s sense of nostalgia is self-aware, that by invoking the cliché of a ” a Rockwell-like glow,” the narrator is underscoring not only the historical context, but also drawing attention to the generic formula: the very concept of Little League, abstract and sun-kissed, sets up the dramatic story to come.

This set-up includes Cody’s self-presentation, his bittersweet, self-effacing address to the camera, whether driving in his car or hunkered down for an interview, a dark green-lit room stretching behind him. The current Cody remembers the child Cody, the innocence that he embodied or at least represented. But that nostalgic Cody is a construction, and he was then too. The images of then appear in an explicitly artificial frame — a television in a den, where the décor is fashionably brownish, a sofa, lamp, and coffee table. This is the America of Dreams, not exactly accurate but perfectly evocative.

“I trust in God, I love my country,” recite freckle-faced Little Leaguers, framed one by one. The camera cuts to a U.S. flag waving against a clear blue sky. Another kid continues the oath: “I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose, I will always do my best.”

Cody and the kids from Kirkland fill in some details: “I don’t remember ever really doing anything else. My dad would play baseball with me every single day,” says Eric Johnson, known back then as EJ. “I remember pitching to my dad over and over and over again until it got dark darn near, because I couldn’t throw the last strike and I never wanted to ever leave our pitching session without having struck out the last batter.” EJ’s memory stands in for those of all the kids: baseball gave them an identity, a family structure and a community, a sense of purpose and direction. Bill Swartz, a local radio reporter still known as the “voice of the 1982 world champion Kirkland Little League baseball team,” puts it this way: “This was pure innocence, this was amateur athletics at its finest. You went out and just played ball.”

But though Little Big Men emphasizes this seeming “pure innocence” — the boys’ working class backgrounds, their earnest commitments — it goes on to show how all that changed after the team won the championship. The change is manifested in a difference between kids’ dreams and adults’ behaviors. The film charts their run to the big game in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in standard fashion, with photos and news clips, Jim McKay’s voiceover describing the daunting Taiwanese team (they’d won 31 games in Williamsport over more than a decade). The crowed was huge — some 40,000 people — and the win was brilliant. Cody not only struck out batters but hit a home run to boot.

And then, Cody remembers, after the game, as he was handed his home run ball, he became aware of the context for the first time. “The cameras, click, click, click,” he says. “That was my first inkling, this is gonna be weird.” The ensuing celebrity reshaped his experience: he appeared on TV (the team’s leaping celebration on the mound appeared weekly as part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports‘ Thrill of Victory montage from 1983-1988), and soon, being known, he was treated differently. Not so much by the other kids, he says, but by their parents. It wasn’t all of them or every game he played after Williamsport — he went on to play high school baseball — but some of them called him names. The game became less fun. The expectations became burdensome. And Cody saw himself differently. His story got away from him.

RATING 7 / 10