Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Could Territorial Reform Recover the Soul of Little League? And Other Topics

Notes and comment on territorial reform for Little League, not using players, protecting young arms, and the Little Leaguer's 15 minutes of fame . . .

GEOGRAPHIC TERRITORIES

Little League might consider changing its ancient rules governing territory. From the beginning, Little League organizations have operated within population areas of 20,000. But maybe that's obsolete.

Maybe -- in order to offer programs for both the studs who want to play in tournaments and the ordinary kids who just like baseball and want to play for fun -- Little League ought to consider areas of 30,000 or 40,000. The tournament teams would have access to a broader range of talent and would have better competition. A 40,000-population area would have twice as many pitchers, creating less pressure to overuse young arms. Travel team coaches have a point when they say they abuse kids arms less because they draw from broader territories. Those bigger kids could play on bigger fields and develop their whole game -- real pitching (not just big kids blowing away little kids), fielding (because not so many K's and more balls staying in the infield and in the ballpark), baserunning and hit-and-run and even bunting (because you can lead off the bases).

Best of all, the kids with modest abilities -- the Charlie Euchners of the world -- would be able to play after school lets out. When I was a kid playing deep right field for my Little League team in Muscatine, Iowa, I was mystified why the season ended in early June. Hey! Where's everyone going? Didn't summer just start? The reason, of course, was that the good players were pursuing their dreams of state championships and an eventual trip to Williamsport. If you want baseball to be popular, don't cut the game off just when the vast majority is getting going.

UNUSED BENCH STRENGTH

A sad reality of the Little League World Series is that teams bring fewer and fewer players to Williamsport. The mandatory play rule scares teams that don't believe in their 13th and 14th best players. What's sad is not only that deserving kids get left home, but that teams overwork other kids and don't discover potential stars in their midst.

A reader sent this summary of the number of players on teams in the regional tournaments and in the Little League World Series:

Number of players ........... Regionals ......... LLWS
Ten players ......................... 1 (2%) ............ 0 (0%)
Eleven players ...................... 9 (18%) .......... 3 (38%)
Twelve players .................... 22 (43%) .......... 3 (38%)
Thirteen players ...................18 (35%)........... 1 (13%)
Fourteen players ................... 2 (4%) ............ 1 (13%)

PITCH COUNTS

Little League's decision to adopt pitch limits in 2007 is welcome news, as I have said before. But implementing the rules remains a challenge.

Little League officials might take a page from welfare reformers to figure out the best approaches to enforcing the new rules. In the years before the 1996 welfare reform act, President Clinton granted state governments dozens of waivers from federal regulations to experiment with the best approaches to getting welfare recipients off the rolls and into work and training programs. That period of experimentation helped identify what worked and what didn't.

Without some experimentation, we might never discover the best ways to limit the workloads of pitchers. Either Little League's new standards will work perfectly ... or they'll fail and critics will claim vindication for their skepticism about any and all efforts to protect young arms.

Critics make some good points. How will the paperwork be handled? What can you do about teams that work deep pitch counts to get aces off the mound? Why should some teams with favorable schedules (e.g., two days off between games) be given advantages over other teams (e.g., one or two days between games)?

Leagues should get waivers if they adopt creative plans to limit pitching loads. The 500-plus leagues that experimented with the rules might be given preference for the waivers, since they've already shown some commitment to protecting young arms.

Maybe Little League can provide incentives to encourage leagues to do even more to protect young arms. If a league adopts even more stringent measures to protect arms, maybe they should get a home-field advantage in tournaments.

BREAD AND CIRCUSES

As teams in the Little League World Series return home, they're being celebrated with parades and presents.

In the old days, only the winners got the ticker-tape treatment. But in this garrison Keillor world we live in today, where everyone is above average, even the also-rans get to ride down the local Canyon of Heroes. Not that there's anything wrong with it . . .

On September 2, the Ahwatukee Little League all stars, from Phoenix, will ride on Corvettes loaned by a local dealer.
“You don’t get to the Little League World Series every year,” Freeway Chevrolet general manager Eddie Espinosa said. “We want this to be a memorable experience for these families.”

Other towns are making plans for parades. Last year, the champions from Hawaii were part of four parades.

If you win, the parades are just the beginning of the rewards. The players and coaches also get free vacations at resorts, free tickets to pro and college sports events, opportunities to pose with cheerleaders and Hollywood stars, TV appearances, athletic clothing and shoes, spots on TV commercials, passes for video arcades and movie houses, a year supply greasy food from of KFC and McDonald's ("Ba-da-da-da-da, it's killin' me!"), soft drinks, you name it.

The 2004 champions from Curacao also got computers and $600 in savings accounts. They also got a visit from Miss USA, a self-described tomboy who urged them to win again in 2005 and help attract more tourism to the Caribbean idyll.

The 2005 champions from Ewa Beach were smart with their newfound celebrity. They used it to gain admittance and scholarships to elite private schools. Coach Layton Aliviado used his celebrity to become a JV coach at one of the top prep schools on the islands. I can't imagine anyone doing a better job teaching the game.

In one of the broadcasts last year, Brent Musberger chuckled that the "youngsters" from Curacao might be in violation of NCAA rules for amateur status by taking all the loot thrown their way.

7 Comments:

Blogger Lisa said...

Charles, I really enjoyed your book "little league dreams..." and was pleased to find your blog only yesterday. I myself feel like LL has sold it's soul to the devil. There is so much cheating that goes on during the all star games beginning at the district level that the idealist dream of the "little town" competing on an even playing field with large metro cities and suburbs is gone. There will be no more "Hoosiers" or mice that roared Disney stories because it has become too big business. I live and work in a small town of 10,000 folk who has coached, managed and parented through the ups and downs of the Little League season with 2 sons and a third only one year away. We play in a district where our strongest competition each year comes from a city of 80,000 plus,and because of waivers and exemptions they are able to field just two all star teams. One of those teams, the perennial district champ was able to play it's way to Williamsport this past season. I guess because of some review of teams that reach that level and such, their league was informed after last season that they would have to abide by the 20,000 population rule or their charter would not be approved. Through waivers and whatnot, the league brought the same two teams to district play this year and the perinnal winner won again. I guess what I'm trying to drive at,and getting a few things off my chest along the way, is the cheating begins with territorial requirements and Little League itself allowing waivers to circumvent the system they have in place. The tournament itself is nothing more than a venue for travel teams to compete for fame and fortune under the guise of the homey little, ah shucks, Mayberry league. Anyone who doubts that need only go to the USSSA website and search for the players' names you see in the tournament. Little League is big business and so is USSSA. Although one has trophy hunters lerking about in divisions beneath their playing level, they are up front about what their teams are. In real life, Mount Pilot Little League kicks the crap out of Mayberry Little League every year.

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