In Williamsport, Pa., Canada's top Little Leaguers have been fielding fly balls alongside the best young baseball players on the planet. They have paraded through the city like celebrities and given interviews to ESPN. And in a residential compound known as the Grove, where parents are banned and teammates bunk with video-game consoles hidden under their sheets, the Canadian kids are sharing a bathroom with the fearsome California boys of Team USA West.
On the eve of the 2012 Little League Baseball World Series, does Team Canada feel out of their league?
To use the parlance of a tween: as if.
"They're pretty, like, cool," said Team Canada's 13-year-old catcher, Nicholas Williams, of his American housemates. "They just, like, respect us. We just have this unspoken kind of coolness."
It's been 47 years since Canada advanced to the championship game of the Little League World Series, the annual extravaganza where players 11 to 13 compete in front of 35,000 fans in games broadcast on ESPN. Since Ontario's Stoney Creek Optimists finished second in 1965, the best any Canadian team has done is third. On Friday, Canada's representative – the Hastings All-Stars of Vancouver – will aim to break that streak, starting with their opening game against Mexico.
Hastings may have a chance. It decimated the competition at nationals in Edmonton last week, outscoring other teams 74-2 in seven games, and defeating Lethbridge 11-1 in the final. Hastings also comes from a long tradition of West Coast powerhouses. A team from B.C. has represented Canada at the Little League World Series for eight consecutive years.
"The British Columbia championships have been more competitive than the Canadians," said Vito Bordignon, manager of the Hastings All-Stars. He also managed the Hastings team that went to the World Series three years ago. (Hastings won this year's provincial championship game 20-0.)
Compared to the rest of the country, B.C. kids enjoy some advantages. Moderate weather translates to a longer baseball season. Success by Little Leaguers has fuelled the sport's popularity in the province. There's the legacy of homegrown pros such as Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie, of Langley, B.C., and Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, of New Westminster, B.C.
And B.C. programs have a larger selection pool when it comes to picking all-star teams. Nova Scotia's Glace Bay, which lost to Hastings in the national semi-finals, has about 200 registered youngsters, while Hastings draws from about 400, and White Rock, a perennial B.C. powerhouse, has 1,200.
Little League is growing in Canada, Little League Canada vice-president Doug MacKenzie says, but slowly. About 36,000 children played the game in Canada this season, up about 2,000 from last year. Saskatchewan will have its own division at nationals next year for the first time. In previous years, Alberta and Saskatchewan were lumped together under a Prairies division. But Manitoba and Prince Edward Island don't have Little League programs at all.
Dave Jenkins, president of Hastings Community Little League, says the advantages B.C. teams enjoy over the rest of Canada are nothing when compared to those of the United States, where coaches aren't competing against hockey tournaments and soccer practices. The World Series, which is always played in Williamsport, is split into two brackets – one for international teams and the other for U.S. teams. The top teams from each bracket will play for the championship on Aug. 26.
"As you get down into the U.S., it's a whole different ball game, quite literally," Jenkins said.
Maria Porcellato, mother of Hastings second baseman Mateo Porcellato, has been wandering Williamsport's 11.7-hectare compound with her two other children this week, texting photos of Howard J. Lamade Stadium to parents who have yet to arrive. The stadium seats up to 45,000 screaming fans when the tournament kicks into gear. "We're just walking around with big, goofy grins at all times," Porcellato said.
The Hastings All-Stars' home field, by contrast, is across from the Pacific National Exhibition fairgrounds. There's just one diamond that must be split between some 20 teams, so practices are held at area elementary schools. All of the All-Stars' coaches and staff are volunteers. Each family is allocated about $1,200 to help with travel costs to Williamsport, but many have already invested upward of $10,000 on travel this season.
"We planned for this over a year ago," said Rob Buljevic, whose son, Kolby, plays third base. "For me, it's worth it because it's something my son wanted."
Recently, Buljevic found a check list that his son made when his season began last winter. It included things like eat right, work out, and be mentally ready.
The title: "Things to do to get to Williamsport."