SLWS thrives amid fine-tuning, new features

Old Town's Ryan Hoogterp dives safely back to first past  Holmes County's Noah Sommers during their Senior League World Series semifinal Thursday night at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. (Ashley L. Conti/BDN)

Old Town’s Ryan Hoogterp dives safely back to first past Holmes County’s Noah Sommers during their Senior League World Series semifinal Thursday night at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. (Ashley L. Conti/BDN)

The Senior League World Series has carved out a substantial niche on the summer sports schedule in Eastern Maine.

And if Little League officials have anything to say about it, little will change in the foreseeable future.

“We’re very satisfied,” said Steve Keener, Little League’s president and chief executive officer, during a visit to Bangor’s Mansfield Stadium for the SLWS championship game last weekend.

“(Executive director) Mike Brooker and his staff have been doing a great job.”

Keener cites several reasons for his organization’s positive outlook on staging the Little League Baseball world championship tournament for 14- through 16-year-olds in the Queen City, particularly the way the tournament is run and what he described as the “world-class” quality of the host facility.

This year’s tournament, the 14th held in Bangor, thrived through significant changes in both when it was held and its format.

The tournament was moved up approximately 10 days from previous years, in great part to gain additional television exposure through Little League’s contract with ABC/ESPN.

And while no additional games were broadcast live — through the semifinals may be a possible target in the future — Saturday’s championship game between West University Little League of Houston, Texas, and Holmes County, Ohio, was televised live on ESPN2 rather than the previous finals that were aired live on ESPNU.

As of February 2015, ESPN2 was available in approximately 93.4 million pay television households in the United States compared to 73.5 million for ESPNU, meaning this year’s game — won by the Texas team 8-1 for its second straight SLWS championship — offered the potential for significantly more exposure for the game but also for its host city.

“This year it’s nice because we’ve finally been able to get this championship game over on ESPN2,” said Keener, “and that’s only going to help further promote this division and this World Series.”

The shift from pool play to a modified double-elimination format — with double-elimination play until the single-elimination semifinals and championship games — for all Little League Baseball World Series and regional tournaments was designed in part to bring the tournament into conformity with Little League’s best-known 11- and 12-year-old baseball division.

There also was an additional competitive implication in mind.

“Pool play opened itself up to possible manipulation of the game in terms of advancing based on the number of runs you give up and the number of innings you play (defensive run differential, which previously was used as a tiebreaker),” said Keener.

“The overwhelming majority of people go out and play the game with the integrity that it’s meant to be played with and approach it the right way regardless of what the outcome of that game might be. But we’ve had a couple of instances, and we felt if (modified double-elimination) was good enough for what we’re doing in Williamsport we can use it here. The only way you’re going to advance now is to win, and we should be consistent all the way throughout our programs.”

The new format seemingly produced the best teams from each bracket to compete in this year’s championship game but wasn’t universally endorsed.

“I hate the format,” said West University manager Clint Sauls after the semifinals. “I’ve said to our parents and anybody who asks me, I can’t stand it. In my opinion the pool play was the best way to figure out who the two best teams were, and with this format it can be almost the luck of the draw.

“I don’t think that’s in the spirit of Little League … That’s just my humble opinion.”

Under a publicly held blind draw used to place this year’s field into a pair of five-team brackets, the five most historically successful regions in the SLWS since the tournament was relocated to Bangor in 2002 all were ticketed for the same bracket.

As a result, such traditionally strong regions as the U.S. West and Latin America lost their first two games and were quickly out of contention this year — with Latin America representative Curacao losing its opener in 10 innings while the U.S. West team from Nogales, Arizona, fell to West University, Texas, in a first-day game that lasted 12 innings and ended on a controversial double play.

“Depending on where you fall in the bracket can have a lot to do with certain things playing out,” said Sauls, whose program has now won two SLWS titles via pool play (2009 and 2014) along with this year’s crown through the modified double-elimination format.

“I just think if everybody plays everybody on your side you figure out real quick the two best and that’s how it should be. This format, I’m just not a big fan of.”

Old Town, the tournament’s host team, had a solid showing in its first SLWS appearance, advancing to the semifinals and finishing with a 2-2 record.

But the Maine District 3 champions played just two different teams during its tournament stay, defeating the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands twice and falling twice to Holmes County, Ohio.

Among the other semifinalists, the U.S. Central played just two different teams (Old Town and Canada) to earn its berth in the championship game, while the U.S. East (Upper Moreland, Pennsylvania) also played just two different foes within its bracket (Latin America and U.S. Southwest).

And the eventual champions from Texas played just three of the teams in their bracket — including the U.S. East and U.S. Southeast (Dumfries, Virginia) twice each — to advance to the final.

Under the previous format, each team played all four opponents in its pool once before semifinalists were determined.

Local tournament officials already have discussed introducing a crossover element within bracket play in order to expose the teams to a greater variety of opponents.

Keener said he wasn’t sure if tinkering with the current format was a possibility but said Little League officials would review all of this year’s tournaments at some point after the completion of the Little League World Series, which runs through Aug. 30.

Another point of emphasis that might prove helpful to future Senior League World Series concerns pace of play.

While the semifinals and championship games were briskly played — the final required 1 hour, 54 minutes for the seven-inning contest — several early round games lasted much longer.

Of the tournament’s first 10 contests, the eight that didn’t extend into extra innings lasted an average of 2 hours, 25 minutes thanks in part to lengthy in-game conferences and hitters frequently stepping in and out of the batter’s box.

That placed a strain on the daily four-game schedule, which was set up in most cases with a three-hour window between game starts.

But there’s so much more to smile about.

Local fans turned out in solid numbers again this year as the host team, this time the Old Town Senior League all-stars, went 2-2 and qualified for the semifinals.

Maine District 3 teams are now 14-12 overall in the last six Senior League World Series with one trip to the championship game (Bangor, 2010) and two berths in the semifinals (Bangor, 2014, and Old Town, 2015).

Another activity added this year, Friday’s Major League Scouting Bureau showcase workout, proved immensely popular with the participants — up to five players from each team went through drills administered by major league scouts.

The continuation of that event in future years as Little League and MLB endeavor to enhance their relationship only bodes well for the tournament atmosphere as well as the dream every participating player has to make it to the big leagues.

That it’s all likely to continue being held at Mansfield Stadium merely adds to the marketing value of having a world championship event in Bangor as well as the memories of the city the players and their families will take back home with them.

Ernie Clark

About Ernie Clark

I'm a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, my coverage areas range from high school sports to mixed martial arts.