Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Comparing the MLB & LL World Series

In the last year, I have published books on the Little League World Series and the Major League World Series.

I wrote about the big leaguers because I wanted to capture the game between the lines. So much of sports writing these days concerns scandal, salaries, and outrages. It's important to know some of the tabloid news -- for example, Barry Bonds's steroid habit -- but most of it has nothing to do with the game.

Do we really care that Johnny Damon got a haircut when he joined the New York Yankees? Does it really matter that Kenny Rogers is a jerk? Do I really care that Lastings Milledge had sex with another teenager when he was a teenager?

In The Last Nine Innings, I tried to bring baseball back to the game. I used an inning-by-inning narrative of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series -- when the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees on Luis Gonzalez's bloop hit against Mariano Rivera -- to explore the way the players approach the game on the field.

Doing research for that book gave me renewed appreciation for the game. These players might not separate the warring tribes of the Middle East or find a cure for cancer, but most of them are very smart in their own world of baseball. They understand their bodies and psyches, they understand complex strategy, they understand the connection between baseball and American life.

In The Last Nine Innings, I explored a different facet of baseball for each inning of the game. In Inning 1, I looked at the calculated gambles of hardnosed players like Paul O'Neill. Inning 2 explores fielding through the glove work of Steve Finley and others. Inning 3 looks at the competing schools of hitting. Inning 4 breaks down the science and philosophy of pitching through Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling. Inning 5 looks at trench warfare, Inning 6 the growing sophistication of statistics, Inning 7 examines the virtues of veterans, Inning 8 globalization, and Inning 9 the way funny breaks affect games.

I tried to make The Last Nine Innings as pure a baseball book as possible.

Then I asked myself: What could be more pure than Little League?

So I set out to understand the strange phenomenon that is the Little League World Series.

After following teams across the world as they played in qualifying tournaments for the late-August Series, I got an apartment in Williamsport and lived inside the bubble of the event for two-plus weeks.

I have mixed feelings about the whole experience.

On the one hand, for the lucky few teams that advance that far, the LLWS can be a great experience. What kid would not want to play baseball in professional-caliber stadiums in front of adoring crowds? What kid wouldn’t want to be on TV? What kid wouldn't want to extend the summer and miss the first two or three weeks of school?

Most important, what kid would not want to be part of such an intense bonding experience? Nothing else compares with the LLWS for bringing kids and their families together over several months. Summer stock? Camp? Concerts? That's all great, but there's something amazing about the unscripted drama of sports -- and surviving the long run that foils 99.9 percent of all teams.

On the other hand, the pressure of the event sometimes took it away from the kids. Parents screamed at umpires, maneuvered for more playing time, squabbled in hotel rooms, complained to the coach via cellphone. Cliché but true, too often the Little League World Series is more about the parents than the kids.

In that respect, the major leagues' World Series sometimes seems more pure than the Little League World Series. As messed up as some major leaguers can be, they are at least in charge of their destiny. They play for money, yes. But they also connect with their game more completely.

Here’s the kicker:

At the end of Little League, Big Dreams, I make a radical proposal -- that we give the game of baseball back to the kids.

Adults have important roles to play organizing and teaching. So let 'em book the fields, organize the rosters, ferry the kids hither and thither. And let 'em teach the basic skills -- how to throw the ball, how to get the butt down and stay in front of a grounder, how to step into a pitch at the plate. The older the kids get, the more you can teach them.

But once the game starts, have the coaches and parents get off the field -- completely. Let the kids write the lineup card, make substitutions, make pitching changes, the works.

You say that's impossible? It isn't. Some of the best children's programs create a great context for learning and play, and then back off. The best way for kids to learn, the literature on "effective schools" tells us, is for kids to teach and get along with other kids. One Little League coach told me that he already gives extra responsibilities to his older players -- and that those responsibilities could be expanded under the right circumstances.

Ultimately, the responsibility of the adult is to prepare kids to do things on their own. Nothing is quite as tragic as a kid who cannot do the basic things because his parents and teachers wouldn't let go.

I know this idea is a long shot. Little League officials pretty much like things the way they are.

But for some organization out there -- Little League? PONY? Cal Ripken Baseball? Dixie? other community leagues? club teams? -- the road to success might be found by just letting go and letting the kids have their game back.

3 Comments:

Blogger Joe said...

Charles:

This is a great proposal, and I'm looking forward to reading your book. I've been coaching my kids' little league ball teams for over 5 years, and recently coached a 9-10 all-star team that won the D.C. title and then made it to the final four of the Maryland state championship this summer. I'm filled with many of the same mixed emotions that you've expressed about the LLWS experience, especially about the role of parents and coaches. I'm hoping to get the ball rolling in our local league this fall to at least do a trial run over a game or two of having the parents off the field and let the kids coach. We'll see if it takes. I think it could really go a long way to alter this dynamic we see of parents inserting themselves into the games and applying too much pressure. I have a feeling that it might stand to be among the real lasting memories of the players' LL experience.

As it is I try to pull back from inserting myself too much during game-time...but it's a difficult task as the kids get older, the desire to achieve success becomes greater, and the opponent coaches are pushing the buttons to win. We'll see how your proposal goes, and whether it will be embraced by other league leaders in my area. Thanks.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Charlie Euchner said...

Joe:

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I want to know how you plan to pursue this and what happens. What do other parents have to say? If you give this a try -- even for a two-game trial -- you'll be doing everyone a great service. If you want to talk more, please call me at (203) 495-1125 or email me at euchner@gmail.com. Thanks again ... and good luck.
Charlie

11:59 AM  
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