Little League, major pleasures

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After a long thirsty season of short beers and bad dogs at Veterans Stadium, Joe Sixpack this week stumbled on the undisputed mecca of ballparks.

It’s Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League baseball world series.

Free admission, free parking, cheap eats and baseball the way it was meant to be played.

Frankly, the only down side to this ballpark is its unfortunate refusal to serve beer. Something about how booze-drinking fans sets a bad example for the youngsters.

I won’t get into that argument, especially since the tradeoff is some of the best ballpark grub I’ve ever stuffed into my face.

First, think about those awful, limp, tasteless wieners they slop up at the Vet for $3.25 each. Now imagine plump, gloriously grilled hot dogs that explode their salty beef juices into your mouth on the first bite.

Next, give the concession lady a buck – and get back a quarter in change. That’s right, a 75-cent hot dog that blows away the competition.

You can wash it down with a cup of soda that costs – get this – 25 cents.

I watched a mom load up a pair of cardboard trays with four hot dogs, four sodas, two slices of pizza, two cups of French fries, four pretzels and two boxes of popcorn. She put down a $10 bill and got 30 cents back.

At the Vet, the same thing would have set back mom a whopping $48 – and that’s without the cost of tickets and parking.

Yeah, I know, this isn’t major league baseball.

And the fans love it.

Jim Keating, a 40-year-old dad from Old Bridge, N.J., was there on Sunday night with his 14-year-old son, Sean, to watch the Toms River team win the longest-ever Little League world series game. Though he lives within an hour’s drive of the Vet, he hasn’t been there for years.

“This is baseball the way I remember it,” Keating said. “We’re both baseball fanatics – we’re spending the whole week up here. For us, it’s a chance for male bonding.”

As we talked, tow-headed kids rolled down the steep grassy hill just beyond the outfield fence. Families spread out on blankets and plopped down in lawn chairs to watch 10- and 11-year-olds play the national pastime.

Above the right field fence, Ron Frick, a Philadelphia-area native who lives in Williamsport, told me he takes off the week to hang out at the ballpark. When I asked why, he pointed at his two kids – Michael, 6, who wore a Ricky Botallico shirt, and Matt, 8, who was wearing a Curt Schilling.

“I do it for these two guys. It’s family entertainment,” Frick said. “We went down to the Vet this summer, but it’s tough to take kids there. They can’t get autographs, and everything costs too much.

“These days, it seems like it’s all about money and not about the kids.”

Amen.

The series continues through the week, with the championship on Saturday.

And here’s a note for those who, like Joe Sixpack, favor a brew with baseball. A few blocks from Lamade Stadium, across the Susquehanna, lies the Bullfrog Brewery, a brewpub that serves up an honest pint of fresh ale and has its TV tuned to the Little Leaguers.

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