SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- You don’t have to speak the same language to become friends.
Ask Zac Cravens.
The Columbus Northern Little Leaguer was all excited Thursday morning as he walked with his team to the batting cages behind Volunteer Stadium.
“I got a new friend from Japan,” Cravens said.
“I forgot his name,” Cravens quickly added.
Somebody overheard the conversation and said the boy’s name was Ginga.
“Yeah, that’s right, Ginga,” Cravens said.
About that time, the Japanese team, with its 5-foot-1, 96-pound third baseman Ginga Maruok in tow, walked beside the hitting cages.
Cravens and Maruok posed for a picture and slapped hands as they headed in different directions.
But it won’t be long before they meet again.
This friendship has been forged at the pingpong table in the teams’ living quarters.
“He’s killing me,” Cravens said.
Knox Carter, not the best pingpong player on the team, was not as kind.
“Ginga is destroying him -- really bad,” Carter said. “He’s making Zac look like me.”
Just boys being boys.
Welcome to Williamsport, where the world comes to play every August.
The wonder of this place hinges on the fact it is a playground for kids playing a kid’s game. Sometimes that gets lost in the glare provided by ESPN’s cameras and the story lines that inevitably will develop.
If you are a Little League baseball player, there is no cooler place on the planet.
Lamade Stadium reeks of history. Every one of these kids has seen it on television before they see it in real life.
What was once a far-off dream, is now home. The players and coaches spend a couple of weeks living in a dorm, on a hill just above the stadium.
They have pingpong tables and great food.
They get new bats, big-league style batting gloves, new spikes, T-shirts and a lifetime of memories.
“Just like Christmas,” said Carter.
This is all fun.
And it is a ride that the Chattahoochee Valley knows a little something about.
In 1999, Phenix City won the United States championship. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus was on that team.
Just four years ago, Northern won the whole thing.
It was a wonderful, magical journey that filled the Columbus Civic Center when the team came home with the world title.
Like in 2006, people back home will be watching the next week or so on ABC and ESPN.
The ride starts Saturday against Hawaii at 3 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ABC.
But as you watch it, keep one thing in mind: These kids are 12 years old. They are playing for our community and state, but, at the end of the day, they are seventh- and eighth-graders.
Some of them likely will become TV stars this week. If you don’t believe that, ask Kyle Carter, the star of Northern’s 2006 championship.
That’s good and bad.
When Carter, now a Columbus High School junior, goes into a game, people know who he is.
Some even heckle him because of that.
That never would happen if he didn’t play seven games on national television before he ever stepped foot in high school.
As this year’s team makes its run, put it in the same perspective that Cravens and his teammates have.
It’s a game. They are making new friends from places like Tokyo and Manati, Puerto Rico.
And they are telling people something about Columbus in the process.
Larry Missigman has been with the team since Monday night. He is one of the “uncles” assigned to Northern.
“I’d keep them,” he said. “There is politeness, and these kids are well beyond that.”
That’s what you want people saying about you.
Northern manager Randy Morris does not take those kinds of comments for granted.
“That means as much to me as somebody telling me how good the team plays,” Morris said. “We want to win, but we want to win the right way.”
Chuck Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org