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Despite being prepared, Little League always ready for surprises

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette The ground crew pulls the tarp off the field during a break in the rain showers on Tuesday at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport.

WILLIAMSPORT – Steve Keener is ready for surprises. In 38 years with Little League International, he’s come to expect surprises during the annual Little League World Series no matter how much the organization prepares for its biggest event.

So as the start of the tournament approaches, Keener is filled with anticipation. The tournament is the organization’s biggest undertaking of the year, one which takes more than seven months of preparation to get ready for. But as Little League’s President and CEO, he also knows not everything can be planned for.

Take for example two years ago when rain at the Great Lakes Regional in Indianapolis forced Little League to bus in the two finalists to play the regional championship in South Williamsport at Lamade Stadium. The preparations for the 10-day tournament are about handling as many loose ends as the organization can while rolling with the punches as they come along.

“This is a major undertaking,” Keener said while visiting the Great Lakes and Midwest Regionals in Indianapolis. “Keep in mind that we also have traveling home from regional tournaments and other World Series as they’re concluding. I think last year at one point we had 54 teams in the air or on the road within just a couple days.”

The fall tends to be just as busy for Little League as they conclude the financial report of the organization for the year and work on budgeting for the next year. Also, Little League holds its annual board meeting in the fall.

A small break comes around the middle of November and through the late-year holidays. But by the time January rolls around, preparation are already beginning for the seven baseball and softball World Series the organization puts on, as well as the regional tournaments to qualify for the world championship.

The saving grace for Little League is there is often little turnover in the administration of Little League. On top of that, so many of the things which need to be prepared for at all the regional and World Series sites are the same each year.

“We have lists of things that need to be done and when they need to be done as well,” Keener said. “People are responsible for their area and know what they’re doing and they just have to execute it.”

With six of the eight American regional finals being played in a span of two days last week, it can leave a scheduling crunch in terms of getting the teams transportation to South Williamsport. And once they get here, scheduling has to be done for practice times as well as team and individual pictures.

Little League also talks to teams to take care of any dietary needs necessary in International Grove where the teams are housed for the week. The travel aspect is potentially the biggest undertaking at this time of year for Little League.

The organization does its best to get the international regions taken care of as early as possible to deal with any potential hold-ups to get players and coaches the Visas they need to come to the United States.

Keener said Little League works closely with the state department and has a number of people they can call if an issues should arrive close to the tournament.

“On top of all that we have to figure out if there’s countries who need an interpreter and where we can get them,” Keener said. “It’s why we try to finish the international tournaments at least three to four weeks before the World Series.”

Keener has watched the World Series expand from eight to 16 teams in his 24 years as the CEO of Little League International. And under his tenure the complex itself in South Williamsport has undergone major changes, including the building of Volunteer Stadium to accommodate the extra games.

But Keener couldn’t be more pleased with the changes in that time, even if it has increased the preparation, because it’s given more kids the opportunity to participate in the World Series. And with ESPN’s extended coverage, which includes a studio set on the complex grounds, the World Series is receiving more exposure than it ever has before.

It all ties in to why so much anticipation and excitement builds up for Keener as the tournament prepares to get underway for the 72nd edition of the tournament.

“All of these tournaments, even the regional sites where it’s a very small regional staff at each location, it’s all put on by volunteers,” Keener said. “It’s done by some really good people who care about the kids and the teams and making sure everyone has a great experience.”

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