Now it begins. Little League baseball officially opened last Saturday and, for the next two months, youngsters from six to 16 will hit, field, pitch, catch and throw in pursuit of fame, glory, appreciation and — most importantly — fun.

For many, Little League baseball is their first tentative step into the world of competitive athletics. Make no mistake, Little League baseball is competitive. Hopefully, the kids will learn that it is only a game, that the main purpose is to have fun, but from the beginning, Little League is competitive. Even when no score is kept, youngsters quickly learn that they are out to do better than the other team. They might not even know about the importance of scoring runs, but they know they want their team to be better than the other team.

There is nothing wrong with competition, as long as it doesn't get out of hand and as long as players, coaches, parents and fans can keep it in perspective.

I thoroughly enjoy Little League baseball and count last summer's trip to the Little League World Series among the highlights of my life. The competition in Williamsport was intense, but it was well handled and well managed by all concerned, from the organizers to the players, to the coaches, to the fans. I've often wondered how these youngsters were able to handle the pressure, but last summer I began to understand that the players keep things in perspective. They know they have accomplished something very special just by being there. They know it hurts to lose, but the hurt is temporary. Yes, there were tears, but the smiles far, far outnumbered the tears. Of course, it is more fun to win, but win or lose, the memories will last a lifetime.

That's how it should be through the Little League season that has just begun. While it was a privilege for the Petaluma National Little Leaguers to be at Williamsport, it is also a privilege for all Little Leaguers to simply pull on their uniform, grab a bat, a ball and a glove, and play ball. They should do their very best and strive to win, but win or lose, they should enjoy the game, the season and they summer. They may not realize it now, but, win or lose, star or come off the bench, they are making memories to last a lifetime.

I wish every Little Leaguer could have the experience enjoyed by the Petaluma Nationals last summer, but it is not going to happen. It could happen to a Petaluma team again this summer. You never know, but it is not likely. It has happened only once in Petaluma's Little League history and only one other team has even come within reaching distance. But every kid can, and should, have the chance to enjoy a summer of Little League, lacrosse, softball, tennis — whatever. It is what being a kid is all about — learning, growing and having fun.

Even after all the fun and excitement of last year's Petaluma National World Series run, I remain divided over All-Star play. It seemed that the drama of the National League All-Star season lasted into the fall, and, indeed, I missed doing previews of area football teams in a timely fashion because I was still wrapped up in covering the Little Leaguers, but, remember that while the National Little Leaguers were making history and basking in the glow of that history, the vast majority of Petaluma Little Leaguers were vacationing and moving on to get ready for school.

For most, the Little League season ends shortly after school finishes. The fortunate few move on to All-Star play, but that is mostly short lived. Because of the way Little League tournaments are set up, two of Petaluma's three all-star teams in each age group are eliminated in the first tournament.

But that's the way it is and we're not going to change it. The all-star tournaments are what they are. When you approach the plateau achieved by the National team last year things become almost surreal. But whether it is a regular league game on a chilly Wednesday evening or an all-start tournament championship game on a warm Saturday afternoon, it is all fun. That, in a word, is what it is all about — fun.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)