Chula Vista, Calif.'s Nick Conlin (8) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning run on a wild pitch in an 11-10 victory over Warner Robins, Ga., on Thursday. The California team will play San Antonio today for the U.S. championship at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.

Associated Press
Cumberland Times-News

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The small-town charm of the Little League World Series appears to be as popular as ever.

Crowds continue to pack the grassy hill overlooking the Lamade Stadium outfield, and TV viewership is up.

Little League president Stephen Keener is also aware of complaints from those watching from home. Namely, that the event has become too big, or puts children into too many high pressure situations. To those skeptics, Keener issues an invitation: Come, soak in the atmosphere and watch the youngsters.

“I’ll tell you, you’ll see the tears on the field after a loss,” Keener said in an interview at his office overlooking the stadium. “Ten or 15 minutes later, they’re back to being kids, swimming and playing ping-pong and doing the things that kids do.”

Most of the pint-sized players do appear to be having fun, win or lose, though winning can make for a much better time.

Four teams are left in the 10-day marathon of youth baseball. Friday was an off day, with the action picking up again Saturday with a high-stakes doubleheader: Mexico and Taiwan playing for the international championship, followed by Texas and California meeting for the U.S. title.

The winners play Sunday for the World Series crown.

The losing teams can still stick around, take in the rest of the games and have fun at the dorms.

“Once I see that first pillow fight, I know they’ll be all right,” Georgia manager Randy Jones said after his team lost an 11-10 heartbreaker to California on Thursday night. “And I can’t wait to see that first pillow fight.”

If Saturday’s games are anything like many of the entertaining contests that have been played over the first week, they could draw quite an audience.

ESPN, which owns the broadcast rights, has said viewership for its opening weekend coverage was up about 60 percent from last year’s opening weekend. ESPN2 telecasts are up 137 percent.

The increase could be in part due to the tournament not having to compete with the Summer Olympics, as it did last year. Still, viewership is up from 2007, especially on ESPN2.

The 2009 tournament has been aided by some big-market teams making big splashes: the run to the U.S. semifinals by a team from the borough of Staten Island drew a big New York City media contingent.

Teams from San Antonio and Chula Vista, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, are playing for the U.S. title.

Mercer Island, Wash., is a suburb of Seattle. Plus, Warner Robins, Ga., was back in Pennsylvania two years after winning the title.

Keener also theorized the increased attention may be in part due to the economy.

“People are probably at home more than at the beach,” he said. “Maybe it’s the economy that has forced people to something that they might not otherwise do — watching more television.”

The estimated attendance through 28 games in the 2009 tournament is 299,634, already exceeding last year’s total by about 10,000 fans with three more games still to be played this year.

Admission and parking are free, and the concession stand prices are relatively reasonable — though a whole pizza will run $18.

Most seats are general admission and don’t require a ticket, including the expansive hill beyond the outfield that offers an inviting venue to spread a blanket and spend a summer afternoon.

Keener doesn’t anticipate any major changes in the future for the World Series, in its 63rd year.

The tournament appears firmly entrenched in South Williamsport, across the river from the old field in Williamsport where Little League was born in 1939. New additions this year include new video scoreboards, and Little League headquarters just finished a renovation to add more space.

Keener said Little League plans to continue monitoring its pitch count rules installed two years ago, which organizes have said should help save pitchers’ arms from unnecessary injuries.

“The important thing for us, we want the Little League World Series to reflect as much as possible what Little League is in thousands of communities worldwide,” Keener said.

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