So now 12-year-old baseball players are thumping their chests and goose-stepping around the base paths with the same sneering, I’m-the-man attitude that already taints so many professional athletes.

Great. We have cloned the monster, and it’s pre-pubescent.

There goes Little League, the latest sacrifice to the blow furnace of American entertainment. Thanks to some inexplicable need — money, perhaps? — to televise nearly 30 games of the Little League playoffs and World Series this year, we now have seventh graders preening to make the ESPN highlights. One young hitter, before swinging the bat, actually pointed to centerfield, a la Babe Ruth, calling his shot.

Can you blame them? They are merely following the example of their slam-dunking, end zone-dancing heroes — make yourself famous by stealing the camera.

So a kid named Andrew Diaz last week hit a home run and waved bye-bye to the ball as he ran to first, then mockingly high-stepped his way to home plate. Never mind that the young pitcher who surrendered Diaz’s dinger had to watch the whole in-your-face performance. What did you expect?

I recently heard an ESPN anchor do the voice-over to the tape of a Little Leaguer’s on-field celebration. The anchor crowed, “The big guy is feelin’ the flavah!” Big guy? Feelin’ the flavah? Funny. We used to call it a kid acting like a hot dog.

Mini-major leaguers

But then, that’s how it works in sports. A bad trend starts. People rightly criticize it, but it goes on unchecked until TV claims it as entertainment. And one day, suddenly, the criticism is “whining” and the once abhorrent is now “all in fun.”

“I chuckled when I saw it,” said ABC’s Brent Musberger, the broadcast voice of these games, who thinks critics are making too much of the tyke-sized trash talk.

Sorry, Brent. It’s not a chuckle. What you and other defenders of showboating miss is an important truth of athletic competition: More than one person is playing the game.

For every winner, there’s a loser. For every home run, there’s a pitcher who surrendered it. How the victors treat the vanquished is not some niggling little detail. When it comes to kids, it should be the most important thing in the game.

It’s called sportsmanship.

Remember that word?

The reason you don’t preen, dance, wiggle, jiggle, pound your chest or throw kisses to the crowd isn’t because the fun police are harassing you. It’s because the game is not about you; it’s about all the players, the stars and the scrubs, the high and the low. How the former treats the latter is the mark of character. That’s another important word. Character. As in “Character. Courage. Fair play.” You know what that is?

It’s the official motto of Little League.

I don’t see “face time” in there.

Prime-time pressure

Since when did Little League need to be televised in the first place? In prime time? With the coaches miked? We have already seen what the insane pressure-cooker youth sports have become, boiling over to anger, violence, even, on occasion, death.

So what do we do? Put more games on TV. Great. That won’t add any pressure.

Once upon a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, Little League was a string of lazy summer afternoons, wearing T-shirts touting a local hardware store, sharing gloves with the other team, losing yourself in the outfield grass and, best of all, going for ice cream after it was over.

Was that so terrible? So naive? Where is the hurry to turn this once-innocent tradition into a vertically challenged major league — complete with TV contracts and self-centered athletes?

Adults do enough preening. Kids should be better protected. If we’ve learned anything from our sickening trend of reality TV, it’s that the camera changes everything. For a certain section of America’s young ballplayers, it’s changing things for the worse.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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