Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Answer Man (Part 2)

QUESTION: This might seem like a strange question, but here goes: What was the fuzziest moment -- the lump-in-throat moment that makes you get all gooey and sentimental about kids baseball? You know, like "Field of Dreams"?

ANSWER: A few years ago, Kevin Costner was at the LLWS to be inducted into the Hall of Excellence at the Little League museum. He got some kids together to play softball under the lights at Lamade Stadium. I'm not a huge fan of Costner's oeuvre, but that sounds like fun to me.

QUESTION: You said in a recent post that since the kids are getting bigger, pitchers are having greater success shutting down hitters. And we certainly saw it with five shutouts in the eight regional champinship finals. But it also seems like there are a lot of home runs. What gives?

ANSWER: Kids start swinging when they see the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand. When they connect, they can give it a ride. In fact, just putting the ol' aluminum on the ball is sometimes enough to send it flying with the blistering speed of some pitchers. The difference, this year, is that Little League has moved the outfield fences back 20 feet. Balls that flew out of the parks last August have been harmless fly balls this year.

QUESTION: At one point, you say that Little League should consider creating two tracks for this age group. You point out that youth football and wrestling have weight brackets as well as age brackets for the athletes and teams. How might that work?

ANSWER: There is such a huge range in the physical maturity of kids these days. The big kids have their way with the little kids. When I talked with Little League CEO Steve Keener, I asked him what he thought of the Hawaii team wthat won the title in 2005. I told them about the team's intense training regimen. He waved me off. They're just bigger, he said. It had nothing to do with training or skills.

Well, if that's the case, why not create a two-track system for Little League? Why not let the bigger kids compete on bigger fields, like the PONY League's 70-foot bases? (Little League officials say they cannot retrofit the fields to go beyond the 60-foot bases, but I'm not so sure. Anyway, at the very least, Little League can move the mounds back a foot or two.) Why not let the smaller kids stay on Little League fields? There's lots you could do with two tracks, including experiment with pitch counts, and kids running teams. Little League is an old and venerable institution, but needs to think about modernizing its 60-year-old World Series structure.

I believe that there's a battle for the soul of youth sports -- but that the most important side in the battle has not mobilized. Most kids play Little League because they want to have fun learning and playing a great game. But the last majority of kids' experience gets abruptly stopped in realy June, when leagues form the all-star teams that will compete for the chance to play in the Little League World Series. What happens to the kids who want to just have fun playing ball? They're let loose. meanwhile, most of the community's ball diamonds go unused.

I'l like Little League to create a two-track system. Let the all stars compete for Williamsport in the leagues that decide that's a worthy goal. But keep the other games going. And let the kids take charge of their own childhood. Let the adults reserve the fields, teach skills, and come and cheer. But give the kids the opportunity to make lineups, make substitutions, and make decisions about bunting and other on-field strategies. They can do it, you know. Provide some basic ground rules, make sure every kid who wants to be coach of the day has a chance, and let go.

In promoting my book Little League, Big Dreams, I have been approached by countless coaches and parents who have told me how depressing it is when kids are taught that every activity needs to be organized for them. We need to find a way of reviving the spirit of pickup games, where the kids are responsible for making things happen. Organized leagues are great -- but not if micromanaging adults don't allow kids the opportunity to do things for themselves.

My critics say that I just don't understand that competitive youth baseball is here to stay. But I do, and I don't have a problem with hard-core kids playing in tournaments. But I don't see why it's not possible to have an alternative approach, where playing ball is for fun -- and doesn't end when the all-star teams begin their quests to play in Williamsport, Aberdeen, Cooperstown, Orlando, and the other meccas of kidball.

QUESTION: I realize Williamsport isn't exactly Manhattan, but I understand that there are celebrities that go there. Who were some of the top celebs to go to Williamsport for the LLWS?

ANSWER: Little League is very eager to get big names to the LLWS. Since the beginning, Little League has cultivated politicians, corporate bigs, and ex jocks to raise the profile of the organization. President George W. Bush attended the 2001 LLWS and the 2005 Southwest regional championship game in Waco, Texas. Secretary of State Condi Rice joined W and Laura for that one. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge -- later, secretary of Homeland Security in the Bush Administration --also attended in 2001.

In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney watched a game from The Hill. Concessionaires joked about making sure Cheney, who has a history of heart attacks, be kept away from the fried dough.

QUESTION: How come we never hear anything about girls in Little League?

ANSWER: Twelve girls have played in the Little League World Series. No girls will be on any of this year's teams. In 2004, two girls pitched against each other in a Friendship game between Venezuela and Kentucky.

QUESTION: I'm kind of bummed out by the quality of broadcasts on ESPN. Is there anything they could do to jazz up the games, to put the Little League competition into better perspective?

ANSWER: I agree. I'd love to see videos of practices, highlights from the best youth baseball elsewhere (like Cooperstown Dreams Park), and more detailed breakdowns of the pitcher-hitter confrontations. It's amazing what you can see when you slow the two motions down into microseconds. I'd also like to see computer overlays of the PONY League's 70-foot bases, Cal Ripken Baseball's more expansive outfields, and the standard 90-foot playing field to give a sense of where hits would fall playing under different rules. Broadcasting baseball has not advanced much from the 1950s when games first appeared regularly on TV. Seems to me that ESPN could try out all kinds of new expnanatory tricks with the kids game.

I like the job Orel Hershiser has done with the broadcasts. He does a great job explaining the game's fundamentals and has been honest about calling on coaches to do the right thing -- like getting tired pitchers out of games.


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