I was 9 the first time I completely choked during a competition. The gag was epic and unforgettable, and I’ll let you know if I ever live it down.
It was the fourth-grade classroom spelling bee, and I was certain I’d be one of the last students standing. I’d declared as much, too, to friends and foes alike.
My first-round word was “chief.” Just a warm-up word. A total softball. A waste of time, really. But all eyes were on me, and I suddenly remembered that ”I” comes before ”E” except after “C,” and I’d be damned if “chief” didn’t start with a “C.”
“C-H . . . E-I-F?”
I held it together until I got home. Then I cried. Wait. Creid?
I think about that every time I see children in competitions when the whole world is watching. The Olympics, with its baby gymnasts, divers and so on, is one of those occasions. The Little League World Series — unfolding for the next week-plus on ESPN and ABC — is another.
How do these 11- and 12-year-old ballplayers do it? How do they find the strike zone from the mound, turn two in the infield, stay composed at the plate in an 0-2 count?
Which brings me to my email inbox.
“The Little League World Series is can’t-miss TV,” came a missive heading into the first-round games Thursday in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, “and now people can bet on the action.”
No. It can’t be.
“SportsBetting.ag has set odds for Game 1 of each series, as well as which team will advance from the Hank Aaron and Tom Seaver brackets to play in the LLWS Championship on Sunday, Aug. 29. Additionally, there are overall odds to take home the title. Hawaii is the favorite, followed closely by Pennsylvania and Tennessee.”
Of course it can be. There are odds on everything nowadays. When Japan’s Momiji Nishiya, 13, beat Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, also 13, for skateboarding gold in Tokyo, bettors won and bettors lost. When New Orleans eighth-grader Zaila Avant-garde won the Scripps Howard national spelling bee on ESPN in July, bettors who couldn’t spell the winning word — “murraya” — if their lives depended on it got ready to make it rain. Perhaps others cursed the girl.
“Murraya,” by the way, is defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.” But you probably knew that already.
There were four LLWS games Thursday, and two of them ended in victory for the biggest long shots in the field. Nebraska — at +1400 in the Aaron bracket — beat New Jersey 5-2. Ohio — at +1400 in the Seaver bracket — beat Tennessee 1-0. Why do I suspect Aaron and Seaver, both gone in the past year, are turning over in their graves?
I think of Nebraska’s 4-10, 85-pound outfielder Braeden Dyer and Ohio’s 4-11, 80-pound infielder Cooper Clay and want to throw my old arm around their puny shoulders in encouragement. Maybe buy them ice-cream cones. The idea of having money riding on those shoulders is twisted and unfathomable.
Am I a prude? No. I’ve done a lot of betting in my day — most of it illegal, the way it was meant to be. Through bookies at bars, the frightening sort. And with parlay cards, strip cards and heavy cash pools, all unsanctioned. But I was young and stupid. And then I was not that young but still stupid. I still love a poker game.
Betting is everywhere. PointsBet ads are ubiquitous on NBC Sports Chicago, the home of the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox. DraftKings is so in bed with the Cubs that a giant sports book is planned to go up adjacent to Wrigley Field.
Sports journalists — some of the air-quotes variety — talk out loud in ways they never used to about betting on games, teams and leagues they cover. It at least used to be hush-hush. There was the risk of perceived conflicts of interest, after all. Show me a writer who bets on the team he covers, and I’ll show you a writer whose opinions and work are informed at least somewhat by the results of those bets.
Now? Journalists tweet about their bets. I can’t stand it. But it’s a different time.
PointsBet, to name one outfit, didn’t get into the LLWS action. In a text exchange with SportsBetting.ag spokesman Josh Barton, I got the other side of that coin.
“We offer these odds for a reason,” he wrote. “The games are on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. When fans watch sports on TV, they are often inclined to wager on them in order to make the games even more entertaining.
“At the end of the day, people gamble on sporting events ‘kids’ participate in regularly. College sports have teenagers competing in them every day. You could bet on a 12-year-old playing Ping-Pong or a 13-year-old skateboarding at the Olympics this year. There are professional soccer players around the globe who are barely legal to drive.”
All right, then. Grab a bat, Cooper Clay. You’re up. And try not to let anybody down, Chief.