Big Fun in the Little League

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Baseball has done a great deal to turn people off in the past four or five years. It wasn't just the strike that stole away the 1994 World Series, either. It had to do with player salaries skyrocketing, owners wearing their greed on their sleeves and stars that have treated the fans and the media with disdain.

It has poisoned the atmosphere -- although the home run chase being staged by

Mark McGwire

and

Sammy Sosa

has brought baseball back into the spotlight.

I saw last week a vision of baseball that many people have forgotten: the games as pure fun, the spectators as major influences on the players, athletes who are genuinely loveable. It's the

Little League World Series

, and it's baseball the way it ought to be.

On Thursday night, before 28,300 fans, 12 kids from Toms River, N.J., became the American champions with a 5-2 win over 12 kids from Greenville, N.C. It was a well-played game, close all the way until Toms River star

Todd Frazier

hit a two-run homer in the top of the sixth to up the lead to three runs.

But more than that, there was a feeling of sportsmanship. Frazier put it beautifully at the game's end when he said: "This isn't about baseball anymore. I mean we want to win, but this is an incredible experience. Players from all over the world are here. And everyone in those stands just loves baseball."

At a big league park, you rarely see the home fans cheer when there's a spectacular play made by the opposition. At the end of the American title game, even the North Carolina fans showered the kids from New Jersey with chants of "U-S-A!, U-S-A!"

And it gets better. The players were swamped by television crews and media and adoring fans afterward. They smiled the whole time they gave interviews and autographs. And each of the two teams thanked their fans.

When was the last time you heard

Barry Bonds

thank the fans, who coincidentally go a long way toward paying his salary?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that

Major League Baseball

should be like Little League. Not at all. But I am saying that the environment in the big leagues could borrow something. Baseball is filled with a lot of me-first personalities. Wouldn't it be nice for the players to have some kind of rapport with their fans.

And there is something to be said for giving the people what they want.

In Boston, for example, GM

Dan Duquette

appears unwilling to re-sign

Red Sox

star slugger

Mo Vaughn

, even though the fans are begging him to do so. And in return, Vaughn now talks about going to the highest bidder when he becomes a free agent in the off-season.

Things like this are happening in every major league town. And the kids, the biggest fans of the game, are seeing it firsthand.

There's no question one of the biggest stories of the decade is the way that sports has become all about business. I guess it's a small miracle that a scene like the one in Williamsport Thursday night can happen at all.

Handicapping the Heisman Race

Here are

TSC's

odds on who will distinguish themselves as the nation's top college football player this season (and impress the largest number of voters):

1.

Ricky Williams, RB, Texas

(2-1): First they compared him with another storied Texas back, Heisman winner

Earl Campbell

, by dubbing him "Little Earl." Then he shattered most of Campbell's school records. After going for almost 1,900 yards last season, the 225-pounder has a solid line to rush behind and is eyeing 2,000. He turned away millions of NFL dollars to return for his senior season, so motivation is clearly not an issue.

2.

Cade McNown, QB, UCLA

(5-2): The big gun playing in the big market (it can't hurt, right?). This deft passer was NCAA's efficiency leader last year in a passing-oriented offense that helped the Bruins roll up nearly 40 points a game. He reads defenses like mothers read bedtime stories and can all-out throw.

3.

Amos Zereoue, RB, West Virginia

(6-1): Big-time talent will get to show his stuff against vaunted defense of

AP's

preseason No. 1,

Ohio State

. He's the rare combination of power-runner/slasher. Cuts defenses like a chainsaw. Hails from New York area, where papers peddle a lot of influence.

4.

Tim Couch, QB, Kentucky

(7-1): Can a great player win the Heisman playing for a marginal team? Big behind center, some scouts said he has the best intuition of any quarterback in college. Capable of tossing for 500 yards on any day.

5.

Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin

(9-1): At 262 pounds, Dayne hits like a tractor trailer and punishes defenders. His problem? In the

Big Ten

, he'll be staring down a lot of eight-man fronts because the Badgers' passing game is suspect.

6.

J.R. Redmond, RB/CB/KR, Arizona State

(20-1): Slash II. Called the "most dangerous weapon" in the

Pac-10

by one NFL scout, Redmond can kill you a dozen ways.

Worth Noting:

Andy Katzenmoyer (LB, Ohio State)

and

Daunte Culpepper (QB, Central Florida)

don't get a line from

TSC

. Katzenmoyer may be the best backer in the country, but there's too much offensive fire power this year for a defensive player to land the Heisman. And Culpepper? He can run up the passing numbers all he wants, but no way a guy from Central Florida gets enough support to win.

Street Sightings:

Chat with

TSC

Editor-in-Chief

Dave Kansas

at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday night on Yahoo!. Go ahead and register in advance if you haven't already (it's free and just takes a few minutes). The address is

http://chat.yahoo.com

.

Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for the past 10 years. He currently is a staff writer for the New York Daily News

, covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at

Gotascoop@aol.com.