ABC's Little League profile turns into groundswell of adult emotion

Media Watch

July 28, 1998|By Milton Kent

NEW YORK -- It didn't take long into their visit to Hagerstown last summer for ABC news anchor Peter Jennings and producer Martin Smith to discover that the documentary they were working on was more than just a story of Little Leaguers.

The duo, who serve as the creative forces behind Thursday's "Peter Jennings Reporting: The American Game" (Channel 2, 9: 30 p.m.), found that by pointing their cameras at the kids playing bTC games, they were actually looking at deeper truths involving the adults.

"I thought it would make for good television, but I was surprised at the depth of feeling that was evoked when you started talking about Little League," Smith said. "I think when I tapped into that depth of feeling, I thought, 'We're on to something that's even bigger than I thought.' "

To find those larger truths, Jennings' ABC crew settled on Hagerstown -- where Willie Mays played in his first minor-league game -- because the Western Maryland city of 38,000 had the demographic makeup they were looking for, as well as a girl in the league.

The producers also were looking for some history of baseball success, which Hagerstown had, as the 1950 and 1968 teams reached the Little League World Series. The memories of those teams still resonate in the town, as Jennings and Smith found out, when players from those squads broke down on camera.

"I did not think I would see guys break down," Jennings said after a screening of the film earlier this month at ABC headquarters here. "I was really surprised to see that going to the World Series was frozen in time for those men. Nothing else in life had been quite as big for them."

In the present, the documentary frames the coming together of an all-star team and its pursuit of a championship against the backdrop of racism, sexism and poor sportsmanship.

There are also two rather chilling moments in which a disturbed man, who has pretended to be a member of the Atlanta Braves' organization in order to get closer to the children, is discovered, and where a father intimates, while miked and on camera, that he will beat his child for lack of hustle.

"There are a lot of people who think that there is a really dark, dark, dark, dark side to it [Little League]," Jennings said. "In other words, Little League has a really evil underbelly to it in some respects. I don't think it does, but I do think it has a difficult side and we present some of that."

Course correction

After Turner and NBC dropped their plans to carry games from the men's World Championship of Basketball like a hot potato when NBA stars opted out of the games, ESPN2 swooped in to fill in the gaps -- with a catch.

If the United States' entrant gets past the preliminary round, which begins today in Athens and continues tomorrow and Thursday, ESPN2 will carry two second-round games early next week and will stay with the team for as long as it stays in medal contention.

To the links

While they aren't what you'd call the biggest ticket events on the golf calendar, Fox nonetheless has grabbed a couple of competitions to get into the golf game for the first time in its five-year history.

The network has purchased the rights to the World Cup of Golf, which pits two-man teams from 32 nations against each other. Fox will tape same-day coverage to air Nov. 21-22.

Meanwhile, Fox also will carry the Par 3 Golf Challenge, which finds two coed foursomes competing for a $1 million jackpot for a hole-in-one. Such notables as Justin Leonard, Annika Sorenstam, Gil Morgan and Nancy Lopez have already signed up for the competition, which will be taped on Aug. 31, to be shown on Thanksgiving Day, making it as fresh as week-old turkey.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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