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An international look at the 2022 Little League World Series

 On Aug. 25, the Mexico Region team (Matamoros, Tamaulipas) faced the Caribbean Region team (Willemstad, Curaçao) in an international quarter final match. Pictured is Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport.
Tom Riese
On Aug. 25, the Mexico Region team (Matamoros, Tamaulipas) faced the Caribbean Region team (Willemstad, Curaçao) in an international quarter final match at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport. Mexico is pictured at-bat while Curaçao is on defense.

Mexico Region: Matamoros, Tamaulipas vs. Caribbean Region: Willemstad, Curaçao (Aug. 25)

It might have been hard to tell that the Aug. 25 game in South Williamsport between Mexico and Curaçao was played in Pennsylvania.

The Mexican fans at the 75th annual Little League Baseball World Series cheered and sang in a language recognizable to many in the United States. Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the U.S., a country that only trails Mexico in terms of total Spanish speakers by population.

But cheering from the Curaçao team’s family and friends was in Papiamentu, a Creole language. That's a mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and a handful of African dialects. The island of Curaçao sits just over 40 miles north off the coast of Venezuela, a part of the nicknamed “ABC Islands” including Aruba and Bonaire that share a Dutch colonial history. They’re no strangers to the tournament, having won the championship in 2004 and making it to the final in 2005 and 2019.

Since 1976, the tournament has featured two brackets with the best United States team facing the International finalist. Prior to that year, all teams competed under one bracket, and it was mostly U.S.-based clubs that competed for the first 11 years of the tournament’s existence.

Historically, though, international teams have won more Little League World Series title games than teams from the United States. More than 62% of the time, international teams win when they’ve been included in the final.

There were 20 teams competing in 2022, a first for the series. For the last 21 years, only 16 teams were included. A bump up from 8, the U.S. now has 10 regional tournaments that determine who makes it to the yearly series in Pennsylvania.

In a move to include more teams from the powerhouse Caribbean and Latin American regions, home to nations that send plenty of players to U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB), the Little League Organization began giving an automatic berth to teams on a rotating basis.

This year, those teams were Puerto Rico and Panama. Although Puerto Rico is a part of the U.S., the team competes under the Caribbean Region. Next year, Cuba will get its first automatic placement in the Little League World Series.

Speaking after the Aug. 25 international quarter final match, Zaino Everett, the Curaçao team manager used a great command of English, only sometimes relying on an interpreter.

Everett said he wished Curaçao would be in that international rotation for a fixed spot in the series. Right now it’s just Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

“I want to come stay, too, because we win so many times,” Everett said. “We have to play, we have to play.”

 Two players, the manager and interpreter from the Curaçao team speak at a press conference after their match with Mexico on Aug. 25. Pictured left-to-right: Jaydion Louisa (#12), the an unnamed team interpreter, Zaino Everett (manager), Jay-Dlynn Wiel (#7).
Tom Riese
Two players, the manager and interpreter from the Curaçao team speak at a press conference after their match with Mexico on Aug. 25. Pictured left-to-right: Jaydion Louisa (#12), an unnamed team interpreter, Zaino Everett (manager), Jay-Dlynn Wiel (#7).

Just three days later, a tournament winner was crowned.

The Western Region team from Honolulu, Hawaii beat Curaçao. Hawaii stormed through the series, winning each of their games and out-scoring opponents by 55 runs.

Curaçao made it to the final game after beating a strong Taiwan team, officially known in the tournament as Chinese Taipei. Taiwan boasts a staggering 17 Little League World Series titles, the most of any team, with Japan holding a distant second 11 titles. California rounds out the top three winningest teams, with a total of 7 wins.

An international pastime

Dave Kaszuba is an associate professor of communications and the director of the sports media program at Susquehanna University in Snyder County. He said there could be a few reasons that international clubs are besting American teams in the yearly Little League tournament, 2022 excluded. For one, baseball – and watching the pros play – has been an international phenomenon for quite some time.

Kaszuba said as far back as 1889, Albert Spalding, one of baseball’s pioneers, took a team of all-star players on a world tour.

“There are pictures of baseball players alongside and standing next to the Sphinx in Egypt,” he said, referring to a photo that is housed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It’s not just in the last few decades that Major League Baseball in the U.S. has been creating a buzz around the world. This has been happening for 100-150 years.”

Kaszuba said that during World War II, baseball got even more popular in Japan. In fact, the Japanese league – Nippon Professional Baseball – was founded in 1950, just a few years after the war ended. He said that the popularity of professional baseball worldwide adds to the allure of younger competitors taking the game seriously.

“A lot of these countries too once they have a breakout star who succeeds in Major League Baseball, I think that just energizes the home country and those kids there even more,” Kaszuba said.

As an example, Kaszuba referenced Andruw Jones from the Atlanta Braves as a star player from Curaçao.

Jones joined the MLB in 1996, more than 10 years before any of the current Curaçao team members were born. Only players ages 10-to-12 can compete, according to the Little League Organization.

Lastly, Kaszuba said, baseball might not be as important to American youth compared to earlier generations.

“Baseball’s popularity I think in the U.S. is … splintering somewhat,” he said. “There are a lot of things in the United States that vie for the attention of young people.”

Kaszuba cited the rise in popularity of other sports like professional soccer, basketball, football and even esports. Youths can compete for cash prizes as professional video gamers, something that’s catching on with high school and college campuses.

“Baseball is not the automatic go-to national pastime that it used to be,” Kaszuba said, “but it seems like international players are certainly stepping up to fill that gap.”

Curaçao beats Mexico 2-1 (Aug. 25)

Back at the end of August international quarter final matchup, Mexico hoped for a win to continue their stretch, to no avail. After their loss, friends and family of the Mexican squad gathered outside of the stadium along the third base line, waiting for the 10-to-12 year olds to exit the locker room.

 The Mexican cheering section files out of Lamade Stadium after Curaçao beats their team 2-1 on Aug. 25.
Tom Riese
The Mexican cheering section files out of Lamade Stadium after Curaçao beats their team 2-1 on Aug. 25.

Tears aren’t uncommon in a tournament that features such young players.

But, José Gómez said he hopes his son, Jesús, who plays first base, will see it his way.

“[We] didn't make it to the final, but the children are a source of pride for us,” Gómez said. “Simply getting here to this competition is already an achievement.”

Gómez said he expected Taiwan to win the whole tournament. His son’s team had just lost to them 5-1 the day before.

Gómez said he’d like to be able to see two international teams face off in the tournament final, something that has never happened due to the tournament’s structure. But he added that a team from the U.S. deserves a chance to win every year, because it’s where baseball was born.

When Gómez heard that international teams have won more than the U.S. overall in the Little League World Series, at least when they’ve participated, he had a simple response.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.