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Out of the West: Even the teeny hitters let Dan down

WILLIAMSPORT - If baseball embodies a country's soul, and 'family values' make a superpower tick, then where better for Dan Quayle to have spent last Saturday than in this small corner of Heartland USA?

Normally, Williamsport is a torpid town of 35,000 souls, lost in the eternal time-warp that is rural central Pennsylvania, where the great Susquehanna River flows broad and slow through green wooded hills. But for one late August week each year, that many people, from the four corners of the country, pack a cosy sports stadium here. They have come to attend one of Americana's defining moments: the spectacle of baseball's tiny tots battling it out for the Little League World Series.

Williamsport, Little League baseball and the 'family values' vice-president were made for one another. This is quintessential Republican territory; of the town's registered voters, 65 per cent are Republicans. No 'potatoe' jokes dog Mr Quayle here; nor is the despised 'media elite' waiting to pounce on his every gaffe. Fewer than a dozen reporters and cameramen came with him from Washington.

It was, in short, an ideal spot to test-market the Dan Quayle Mk II who emerged from the Republican convention last month, assertive champion of old fashioned American virtues. No sooner had his plane touched down than he launched into the theme of the hour: 'Little League is the epitome of family values, values like teamwork, courage and hardwork,' he told 2,000 faithful gathered at the airport to greet him. Clearly it was going to be that kind of day.

Little League baseball may be a summer idyll for doting parents and their striving offspring. But its World Series climax is big business, and organised as such.

Across the country, teams of 10- to 12-year-olds compete to be one of the four US regional finalists for Williamsport. Four foreign teams who have come through a similar eliminating process take part in a separate playoff. The two winners meet in the world championship game, broadcast live on television.

For an English intruder last Saturday, the setting was at once familiar, yet utterly foreign: a half-forgotten childhood amalgam of village fete, Scouts jamboree and school sports day - but all wrapped in lollipops, candyfloss and the Stars and Stripes. Indeed, if the Almighty is a patriotic Republican, then Lamade stadium in South Williamsport is his temple.

'Perhaps nothing is more American than Little League baseball,' George Bush once remarked. Certainly few things so embody those twin pillars of the American character, wholesome innocence and ferocious competitiveness - right down to the special pledge recited before each World Series game last week. 'I trust in God, and love my country, and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always do my best.'

And boy, did they strive. The field may be smaller, and the game shorter, than the real thing, while the participants are half the size of the grown-up superstars of the major leagues. But these pre-pubescent amateurs take proceedings no less seriously. Little miniatures of their millionaire heroes, they chew gum, fiddle with their helmets and scowl darkly at umpires who make calls they do not like.

Williamsport's niche in the national heritage may only date back to the mid-1940s. But just like the professional sport, Little League has its own Hall of Fame (into which Mr Quayle was inducted in 1991). A decade ago, Williamsport built a museum to house the holy relics of diminutive heroes past. Today you may inspect, inter alia, the glove worn by young Dan, the 8-year-old lead-off hitter, in Huntingdon Indiana back in the early 1950s.

And what would a baseball game be without its ritual presentations ? Last week's high spot was the award of Little League's 'Mom of the Year'. The recipient was Monique Evans who coaches a team in Riverside, California; her credo, 'School, Church and baseball'. The festival of 'family values' was complete.

But in the end, even loyal Williamsport provided its metaphor for this unhappy Bush-Quayle campaign. After all the hoopla, the wrong guys won. The fancied US team from Long Beach, California, was slaughtered 15-5 in the championship game by a team from the Philippines.

Obviously no discourtesy was intended, but Mr Quayle did not stay around for the celebrations. With the foreigners leading 8-0, the Vice-President left for the airport. He must have been wondering, will anything go right for the Republicans in 1992?