WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Alex Anderson wants the Yankees to go away.
A die-hard Red Sox fan, the 11-year-old New Englander would like his team's archrival to disappear. Not just from the 2019 American League pennant race, but from baseball. Like, for good.
Last week, I spent two days in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series. My mission? To find out how today's youth feel about the current state of Major League Baseball. To learn what an international cross-section of young stars thinks about the sport most of them dream of playing for a living, but that has come under siege in recent years for being too slow. Too boring. Too dangerous. Too not basketball or football.
"Get rid of the Yankees," says Anderson, when asked what one thing he would change if he could about the big leagues. Standing on a shaded knoll on the campus of the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where he and roughly 200 fellow LLWS participants are indulging in burgers and dogs and playing cornhole as part of a welcome barbecue, he's 48 hours from taking the mound as the starting pitcher for Barrington, Rhode Island, winner of the New England regional. But right now, he's the ad hoc commish of MLB. He's Mini-Manfred. As such, he has the power to do anything he wants. And what he wants more than anything -- more than extended safety netting or automated strike zones, more than faster games or fewer shifts -- is to ban the Bronx Bombers. "Eject all the Yankees players," he says. "And then get all the scrubs on their team, so then they'll never win a game."
"It's like having lots of explosions. It's nice to watch." Lincoln Gruppelaar, 11-year-old from Sydney, Australia, on MLB's home run surge
The Yankees aren't the only part of MLB that Alex Anderson doesn't like. "It's boring," he says of watching his beloved BoSox on TV. "That's why I don't watch 'em very much. It takes too long. Games are three hours, and pace of play is really slow." It's worth nothing that Anderson's favorite baseball team did, in fact, win the World Series last year. On top of that, his favorite player (Mookie Betts) won the MVP. Still, the rising sixth grader and part-time point guard would rather tune in to the Celtics than the Sox. "I like watching basketball better."
When an 11-year-old boy who's really good at baseball and whose team is riding the world champion wave (albeit just barely) would prefer to watch some other sport, it's hard to argue that there's not a marketing problem. Major League Baseball is aware of this, which is why the powers-that-be are experimenting with anything and everything to make the game as fan-friendly as possible. Fewer mound visits and shorter breaks between innings. Revamped All-Star voting and heightened Home Run Derby stakes. Automated umpires and, depending on which conspiracy theories you do or do not accept, doctored baseballs that even your Grandma Goldie would have no problem hitting over the fence. In San Francisco. With the wind blowing in. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
"I think it's exciting," says Justin Labrador of the rise in round-trippers. In fact, the 10-year-old second baseman/center fielder from Elizabeth, New Jersey, is so into Launchapalooza 2019 that he makes sure to end his batting practice sessions with a bona fide bat flip.
Labrador's not the only youngster who's all aboard the tater train.
"It's like having lots of explosions," says Lincoln Gruppelaar of why he's all-in on MLB's current homer-happy climate. An 11-year-old second baseman from Sydney, Australia, Gruppelaar had only been to one major league game prior to Sunday's Little League Classic. It was the beginning of the 2014 season, when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks went Down Under to kick things off with a two-game set in which there were a grand total of two home runs. Five years later, taters are up roughly 60 percent across the league and Gruppelaar is loving it. Leading the charge is Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who as of Monday had hit 62 bombs in his past 162 games, a pace that helped him become the 2018 NL MVP. Not to mention a certain Aussie amateur's favorite player. Says Gruppelaar of the dinger deluge: "It's nice to watch."
Watching isn't the only thing homers are good for.
Santiago Leija came this close to catching a real live home run ball. It was 2017, and the young hurler from Mexico was at Yankee Stadium to take in a big-league game. As fate would have it, New York catcher Gary Sanchez went deep, depositing the ball in the very section where Leija was sitting. "It was right next to me," says the 12-year-old from Monterrey, "but I couldn't grab it." Two years later, with parks across the league preparing to roll out expanded safety netting, the odds of a young fan grabbing a game ball are dropping like a Masahiro Tanaka splitter. And the kids are less than thrilled about it.
"I don't like it," says Leija of the extended netting initiative, a response to the recent spike in high-profile fan injuries. "Because you can't get foul balls anymore."
"Even little people are hitting home runs now, and they're hitting the ball way harder. So that's really going to affect how people get hit and how bad the injuries are." Ryder Planchard, 12-year-old from Louisiana, on extended safety netting in ballparks
Based on the conversations I had with players in Williamsport, Leija's opinion is hardly a hot take. "It's sad because you can't catch foul balls and everybody wants an MLB ball," says Ryder Planchard, a 12-year-old third baseman on the Southwest regional champion squad from Louisiana. "It just really sucks that sometimes you can't get that now."
That's not to say Little Leaguers don't get the big picture. "Even little people are hitting home runs now," says Planchard, "and they're hitting the ball way harder. So that's really going to affect how people get hit and how bad the injuries are."
Even though the spike in exit velocity and homers leads to more offense and a supposedly more exciting product, some of the future leaders of America's pastime aren't entirely sold.
"Lately, the games are a little more boring because everybody's just hitting home runs," says Jonathan Rangel, a 12-year-old Venezuelan whose favorite big leaguer is Rangers second baseman (and fellow countryman) Rougned Odor. "I like it when the game is more fast-paced. When it's 3-2, you know the game is good. But if it's like 15-0, it's boring."
Free passes can be boring, too, which is why Gruppelaar would make that his cause if he were commish for a day. "I'd make it like five balls instead of four because I want more hits to be made," he says. "I don't want everybody to be walked."
"Lately, the games are a little more boring because everybody's just hitting home runs. I like it when the game is more fast-paced. When it's 3-2, you know the game is good. But if it's like 15-0, it's boring." Jonathan Rangel, 12-year-old from Venezuela
Brett Triplett agrees that the more bats on balls (and the more balls in yards), the better. "The best part is watching the players make diving plays," says the 12-year-old from South Riding, Virginia. "And hitting the ball hard up the gaps and seeing how fast they run to get to the next base."
As fate would have it, the last time Triplett attended an MLB game, he got pretty much everything his heart desired. With the Nationals and Royals squaring off in D.C., he got to see several of baseball's blurriest burners, including Washington's Victor Robles and Trea Turner (Triplett's favorite player), and K.C.'s Billy Hamilton and Adalberto Mondesi. He got to see Max Scherzer toss seven scoreless innings during a 6-0 shutout in which the two teams combined for 18 hits, 17 of which were non-homers. As if that weren't enough, he got to see the Nats rocking their throwback Expos unis.
Perhaps most important, he got to see it all in an unusually kid-friendly 2 hours and 44 minutes, one of Washington's quickest contests of the year. Not that he was paying any attention to the time.
"I don't really care that much," says Triplett about the whole pace-of-play issue.
"It can be slow and boring. But it's mostly fun and exciting. Because no matter what happens, like even if the game's going slow and boring, if someone does something good, it feels like having fun. So baseball's always just fun." Brett Triplett, 12-year-old from South Riding, Virginia
Truth is, he's too busy watching the game to be watching the clock. "Twenty-four/seven," he says when asked about his baseball viewing habits. "I watch it on TV, and then I check ESPN on my phone. I look at the scores and the highlights. I go to YouTube and I look at the highlights."
Like many of the athletes in Williamsport, he's a young man caught between childhood and adulthood, well aware that the game he loves is imperfect, but more than willing to accept it for what it is.
"It can be slow and boring," says Triplett. "But it's mostly fun and exciting. Because no matter what happens, like even if the game's going slow and boring, if someone does something good, it feels like having fun. So baseball's always just fun."
Even with the Yankees.