ESPN announcer Crawford high on Little League

Jay Crawford remembered thinking he’d play in the Little League Baseball World Series while growing up in Ohio in the 1970s. His dad coached the team, and they knew the lure of Lamade Stadium so well that they ended every practice by saying, “Williamsport.”

Every win was one step closer, Crawford said during the annual Ray Keyes/Williamsport Kiwanis luncheon on Thursday at the Genetti Hotel. It was a really good team but it fell short, he said, and an injury the next year hurt his plans as well.

Those memories returned to Crawford a few years ago when ESPN asked him to cover his first Little League World Series, and he thought of his late father and those teams. He said it was the first time he’d covered an event where he realized it truly was where he needed to be.

“I said to myself, ‘Dad, we made it,'” Crawford said. “I almost started to physically cry. My best friend was my father and he taught me everything.”

Crawford came to ESPN in 2003 after his role as a TV station sports director in Tampa, Florida. There, he covered the Buccaneers Super Bowl title, and he’s also covered Olympics, World Series and other major events. But he said the Little League World Series, more than college, high school, and Olympic events, wasn’t over-commercialized.

“ESPN puts its best people here. These shots you see that are jaw-dropping, they’re the same cameramen shooting playoff games, the best of the best,” Crawford said. “And the conversations we have are exactly along those lines. We understand the tradition and its great history and yes, ESPN taking something that wonderful and sometimes an unintended consequence of sharing it is that commercialization.

“We try very hard to be sure we don’t do that. We don’t want to be part of the negative side of covering an event like this,” Crawford said. “We don’t want it to be all about commercialization. At the end of the day, yes, we are a for-profit organization, and there is a financial stake here, but more than any event we cover, this is the only event where that is even discussed.”

The plus side, Crawford said, is presenting stories such as Midwest Region champion Johnston, Iowa’s J.T. Garcia hitting a home run at the exact same moment his mother, Jen, was being interviewed from the stands by sideline reporter Jaymee Sire. Jen Garcia is a pancreatic cancer patient. All announcers went quiet as J.T. rounded the bases while Jen watched from the stands and clapped for her son.

“At that moment, I’m with a former major-leaguer in our green room and you’d have thought everyone got grabbed by the throat. It got dusty really fast,” Crawford said. “No one could speak. When I could, I said that feeling in this room is the same one as across America right now. You don’t have to be a fan of Iowa, you don’t have to be a fan of J.T. Garcia, but his mom made great sacrifices to be here to watch her son. They’re always going to have that memory and that’s what this is about.”

That was an early-week afternoon game, but Crawford also will remember the sights and sounds from nighttime games when Little Leaguers play on national television in prime time.

“I asked the driver to stop the car for a second, and we could take in the view,” Crawford said. “The hill was there, the sun setting to the west and the image of this field of dreams nestled between the most gorgeous landscape you could imagine.

“Right here, this event, this perfect slice of Americana, and I hope it never changes. I trust it won’t,” Crawford said. “The people of this community and those in charge with running it understand what it means when a person comes here and is moved by it.”