Saturday, August 19, 2006

Two Schools of Thought on Pitching

Not long ago, I went to a vintage base ball game in Westfield, Connecticut. The Westfield Wheelmen played the Hartford Senators on Adonis Terry Day.

As many as 200 vintage teams have arisen in the last quarter century. Usually playing according to the rules of the 1860s and 1880s, the teams take you back to baseball's formative years. In the game I saw, players used leather the size of gardeners gloves. They swung big bats -- usually around 40 ounces -- and hit balls that didn't have the hard rubber core that makes today's hits go so far.

It was a refreshing game. Even though most players don't have extraordinary physical abilities, they have more physical toughness. When you catch a sizzling liner down the third base line, your hand stings for days. That's a lot harder to do than extending a basket-sized glove to swallow the ball.

The day's highlight was meeting Jim Bouton, the rebel who had as much effect on the culture of baseball than anyone else in our lifetime. Bouton's Ball Four was a seminal book that ripped the mask of heroism off the face of baseball.

Before the game, I took a couple of Little Leaguers up to Bouton and asked how young kids should approach pitching.

"What you have to do is find out your own style," he said. "Everyone has their own pitching style. You have do some things a certain way, but mostly you have to find your own motion. Coaches don't let pitchers do that any more. They think you have to [conform] to some mechanical way of doing things. But people are different, and kids are still growing. They can't be forced into doing something that doesn't feel right."

How do you figure out the right pitching motion, Jim?

"Easy! Long tossing. You stand as far as you can from a friend and throw the ball to hm. Play catch, that's all. You throw so it's nice and easy, so you can reach him and hit him in the belly-button. And then once you've done long tossing for a while, you start to come closer and closer. When you get 50 feet away, that's your pitching motion."

Jim Bouton, once baseball's great rebel, is not a traditionalist. Don't tell me about biomechanics, he says. Just learn how to throw in as natural a way as possible.

"Throw as much as you can," he says. What about throwing too much? What about arm injuries. "Look, you're going to have a sore arm 500 times, if you're lucky. You're going to hurt your arm. But that's how you learn how to deal with it. That's how you get stronger."

The Bouton way, in effect, is to learn how to throw rather than learn how to pitch. A lot of baseball gurus say it should be the other way around -- that instead of "just" throwing, a kid has to learn how to pitch. That means using a proper motion, painting the corners, developing a repertoire of pitches, and so on.

The scientists of the game are taking pitching in a different direction. Led by the American Sports Medicine Institute, coaches and doctors are learning about the intricate "kinetic chain" of a pitcher's motion. They want the pitcher to go through a specific sequence of movements -- lifting the front leg (to create energy), maintaining balance (to prevent the dissipation of energy and bad mechanics), raring back (to start to use the energy), rotating the hips and torso forward (to power the bodyt forward), whipping the ball forward (using the energy thrust the ball forward with as much force and as little damage to the joints as possible), landing on the front foot the right way (to absorb the shock of the motion).

(I discuss this kinetic chain in my book The Last Nine Innings. Order the book today!)

The ASMI has been working with Little League to study the impact of throwing on the young pitcher's arm -- most particularly, the shoulder and elbow. ASMI has found that the cumulative stress of throwing can cause serious injuries. ASMI does not make hard and fast claims about the effects of throwing curveballs, but its research tsar, Glenn Fleisig, says there's reason to suspect that curveballs can damage young arms.

That is the crux of today's debate about youth pitching. Traditionalists like Jim Bouton say kids should just throw, throw, throw. Play all day till you're tired, then stop. You might call that the Sandlot School of Pitching. Scientists like Glenn Fleisig say, wait a minute, kids play organized ball these days. And in leagues and tournaments, the strain of pitching -- not just throwing, but pitching -- can cause serious injuries with overuse and bad mechanics. So you need some rules and regulations to protect the kids. Call that the Scientific School of Pitching.

The debate is critical to the future of youth baseball. As an excellent article in Friday's USA Today notes, Little League Baseball seems poised to adopt a pitch-count rule for the 2007 or 2008 season and Little League's summer tournaments.

Note to coaches: What's your experience? Email me at euchner@gmail.com with your responses.

Who's Not Here and Why? One Story

Before every Little League tournament game, players and parents walk on the field and recite the Little League Pledge. Kind of corny, I know, but not a bad sentiment if backed up by action. The pledge reads:

I trust in God

I love my country

And will respect its laws.

I will play fair

And strive to win

But win or lose,
I will always do my best


Take special note of the "play fair" and "strive to win" parts, the casualties when the adults maneuver for angles to win without really winning.

Amy Wheelus, a coach with the Buckhead Little League wrote to me with a distressing tale about a game with the Warner Robins Little League in the Georgia state tournament. Buckhead carried 13 players—rather than 12, as many teams do—to give an extra kid the experience of tournament play. A technical violation in using that kid cost Buckhead a forfeit.

With an 0-0 score going into the bottom of the sixth inning, Buckhead tried to get something going with a bunt. But after falling behind in the count 0-2, the Warner Robins coaches held a meeting on the mound. What followed was along series of wild pitches. After that batter walked, Buckhead sent its 13th player to the plate for his mandatory at-bat. Then things got really screwy. Warner Robins started throwing wild pitches to get Buckhead’s baserunner home. The runner advanced to second and then third.

What was going on? The Buckhead folks guessed that Warner Robins might be trying to let Buckhead have the run, so the batter couldn't finish his turn at plate. If that batter did not complete his at-bat, Buckhead would be in violation of the must-play rule and forced to forfeit the game.

But the runner finally scored on ball four. With the walk, the last hitter completed his at-bat. Whew. Buckhead could go home a winner.

But Warner Robins protested—not that the 13th kid didn’t finish his at bat, but that another kid didn’t start a plate appearance with a fresh 0-0 count back in the fifth inning.

Here's what happened earlier in the game. After completing a triple play in the top of the fifth inning, the Buckhead guys were so excited that the coaches momentarily forgot to substitute one batter, who needed his mandatory turn at rthe plate, for another.

"As the first pitch came to the plate, I though, 'Uh oh, we forgot to send the other player in,'" Coach Amy told me. "I immediately went to the plate and put the new hitter up there."

The temporartily forgotten kid went to the plate with an 0-1 count. He finished the at-bat with a strikeout. No one protested the move at that point.

“We thought we had caught it in time and corrected the error," Wheelus says. "It was purely that a mistake by us, the coaching staff.”

But the Little League rule states that for an at-bat to count for mandatory play, it must start with a 0-0 count. So Warner Robins protested to the Little League poobahs in Williamsport. The poohbahs ruled that Buckhead violated the rule and so Warner Robins should get the victory by forfeit.

I called Mickey Lay, the president of the Warner Robins Little League, to see if he had any second thoughts about winning that way with a forfeit.

"Absolutely not," he said. "There should be no slack at all because the rule was clear. If the rule was vague, it would be something to look at. But because the rule was black and white, it was the right thing.

"I believe the mandatory play rule is very important and should be implemented. It's up to the manager to make sure that every child plays. If you know you're going to win in a shortened game, you have to get the players in early. To win this way [with a forfeit] is tough, but the rules are clear."

Even if the team makes a mistake and immediately tries to correct it?

"Absolutely," Lay responds.

Little League allows players who accidentally bat out of order to fix the situation on the spot. Seems to me that the organization ought to allow some slack in this situation as well.

Quick reminder: This is a game. A game for kids.

But there's something else smelly going on here. If Warner Robins had not taken a dive in the sixth inning, Buckhead probably would not have taken the lead. And so that kid who started his AB with an 0-1 count would have gotten to the plate again in the seventh inning.

Little League rules state that teams have to try to win. They cannot roll over for the sake of getting a better matchup in the later stages of a tournament -- or for any other reason. But the Little League potentates ruled for Warner Robins anyway. The word was that the technical violation of starting an at-bat with an 0-1 count is more compelling than a team trying to lose. Why? Because determining whether someone took a dive is a "judgment call."

Well, baseball is full of judgment calls that matter. Virtually every call an umpire makes is a judgment call. That's part of the game's beauty.

Wheelus was so passionate, I’d like to let her complete the story:

“I accept that we made a mistake – and by the ‘letter of the law’ we should be penalized. But what I can't accept is that the team from WR was allowed to intentionally shorten the game and potentially keep our player from getting that official at-bat. There was no reason to think that we were going to score in the bottom of the sixth and if we hadn't, the player would have been up in the seventh.”

“How can LL allow something like this to occur and be rewarded? How could that manager take that game out of his kids’ hands? They had played the best game of their lives and what did he tell them? I don't think you can win this on the field, so let’s ‘throw the game’ so that we can win it on protest?”

“Our players handled it with grace, but they felt cheated and betrayed. The kid that was the runner on base at the end of the game was mad several days later because he felt like the other team was mocking him by allowing him to advance and think that he won the game. We are now several weeks after the event and our players are still upset because they will never know what would have happened if the game had continued. Both teams advanced to semi-finals and we lost to Northern in the semis.

“We wrote a letter to LL asking them to evaluate the situation which goes against their published tournament policy but to our knowledge, they did not even investigate the situation. St. Pete and Williamsport would not even talk to our manager and get his side of the story. We provided the names of the umpire and several other managers who were in attendance and witnessed the situation, but none of them were contacted.

“LL has gotten to the point of being so bureaucratic in an attempt to protect the players that they have allowed a group of players to have the best game of their lives turned into a mockery by their coaches.”

That runner on the bases suffered more than his share of the dirty tricks. That player Rivers Patterson, was the batter who went to the plate in the fifth before getting pulled back. And then he scored the presumptive winning run in the sixth as a special pinch runner. Amy Wheelus emphasizes that he didn't make any mistake. The coaches forgot to pull him before he walked to the plate. Don;t blame him -- or any kid, for that matter.

One Buckhead mother put the matter into perspective.

"You know," she told Coach Amy, "this has given us a chance to talk to the kids about something that otherwise might not come up. It's an opportunity to teach about playing the game the right way."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Clip and Save

Tom Verducci is probably the best pure baseball writer in the business these days.

His Sports Illustrated cover story on spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2005—when he worked out with the team for a week—clinched the Best Baseball Writer title.

Verducci has an athlete’s understanding of the game’s physical and mental experiences. But he also has a fan’s enthusiasm and an analyst’s detachment and ability to find the game's hidden patterns.

And now he’s into coaching. Click on to SI.com for Verducci’s lessons from a summer of coaching Cal Ripken Baseball.

In 1,178 words, Verducci manages to convey everything you need to know about youth sports. Get the story, print it out, and refer to it when you’re watching this year’s Little League World Series—or any other sporting event, for that matter.

Images of the 2005 Little League World Series

When I decided to write Little League, Big Dreams, I asked my friend Isabel Chenoweth to come along. Isabel is an award-winning photographer whose images provide documentary coverage of all kinds of issues and events.

A couple of years ago Isabel explored the design and conditions of Boston's neighborhood parks. She's working on a series of portraits of all of the women judges in the state of Connecticut. For years, she's been pulling together stories and images from a Tennessee town called Beersheba Springs, where her family has been going for generations. She also covers weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. And she took some pictures for my book The Last Nine Innings.

So when Isabel agreed to join me in Williamsport for the 2005 Little League World Series, I was thrilled. Little League, Big Dreams includes 96 of her images.

What I like about these images is how different they are from a lot of sports photography. She went to Williamsport to cover the phenomenon of the Little League World Series, not just the games. As a result, she has captured a bigger story about childhood in America in the early 21st century.

Isabel's baseball photography -- not just the LLWS, but also shots from major leagues and from vintage base ball -- will be on display at the Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia for the months of September and October. If you're in the area, stop by and have a look. I will be speaking at the library on September 17.

Meanwhile, take a moment now to look at some of Isabel Chenoweth's coverage of youth baseball. And if you want to see more great work go to her web site, www.icportraits.com

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Catch Me If You Can

Every summer, Little League officialdom and countless Williamsport-hungry teams play the roles of Carl Hanratty and Frank Abagnale Jr. in the movie "Catch Me If You Can."

Hanratty was the FBI investigator, played by Tom Hanks, who chased down con artists who passed bad checks and made counterfeit money and documents. Abagnale was the precocious con man, played by Leonardo DeCaprio, who pretended to be a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer -- and, for his effort, raked in millions of dollars through counterfeit checks.

For years, Hanratty chased across the globe, often just missing his prey by minutes and clever slights of hand. However clever Hanratty was, Abagnale was much more clever.

Countless Little League all-star teams play the Abagnale role, slipping around the rules of eligibility in order to pursue the televised glory of playing in the Little League World Series. You know the most famous case of cheating. Danny Almonte, a kid who pitched a perfect game in the Little League World Series for a Bronx Little League team, only to be found a fraud by Sports Illustrated and other publications.

Almonte's fraud was manyfold. Not only was he two years older than Little League's official age limit of 12. (At the time, players had to be 12 on July 31 to be eligible for the Williamsport jamboree. Starting this year, kids have to be 12 on April 30 to be eligible.) He was also not a regular Participant in the paulino Little League that fielded the all-star team -- and he did not even live in the neighborhood where the league was based.

Last summer, the Altagracia Little League won the Venezuela national tournament and the latin America tournament -- and a trip to Williamsport -- before proof of a star player's age fraud. Seems that overage player was using his younger brother's birth records as proof of eligibility. For punishment, Little League Baseball disqualified Altagracia just before the teams gathered in Pennsylvania for the World Series. (For more details, read my Little League, Big Dreams.

But skirting the Little League rules -- or at least, the sprit of the rulkes -- requires a little more clever gambit these days.

The modern technique for bringing ringers to the Little League tournaments is to create an elite team outside Little League, play against the best teams anywhere, and then all sign up for Little League when all the kids are 12. Then you have a powerhouse that is capable of blowing out the leagues that play by the spirit of Little League -- in which any kid can play and leagues assemble all-star teams from their big cast of players.

One of many, many examples: The Maitland Little League's 2005 all-star team -- which made it to the Little League World Series -- was comprised exclusively of players from the Maitland Pride. The Pride was a travel team that Dante Bichette, a retired big-league star, formed a year before. The Pride played top-flight travel teams, going 24-7 to prepare for Little League competition.

Little Leagues and their coaches sometimes have a hard time figuring out what to do. Little League baseball forbids forming teams before June 15. That's so some teams don;t have an advantage playing and practicing together. The Paramus Patriots -- a travel team whose players also competed in the Paramus, N.J., Little League -- wanted to play in a prestigious Sports at the Beach tournament in Rehobeth, Delaware. But Little League officials balked when John Tenhove, the coach for both the Little League and travel teams, asked for the OK to go to Delaware before June 15.

Paramus Little League's all-star teams dropped out of the Little League tournaments so they could go to Delaware. Later they found out that one of their rivals from Newtown, Pennsylvania, competed in both. Since they kept their books separately, the two teams were not legally one and the same.

"The rule is full of loopholes," Little League CEO Steve keener told me. "It's how you beat the system."

The People Have Spoken

In the New England regional tournament in Bristol, Connecticut, as punishment for not getting all of its players their minimum playing time, the team from Colchester, Vermont, forfeited a big game to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Portsmouth then won the New England regional tournament -- and a berth in the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

Colchester waited too long to get one of its kids up to the plate. Leading by 9-7 going into the top of the sixth inning, Colchester tried to get Portsmouth to score a couple runs to tie the score -- so that Colchester would bat in the bottom of the inning and the lost child could bat. Problem was, Portsmouth was on to the trick and refused to score more than one run. Colchester led 9-8 after five and a half innings, and so did not get a chance to bat again. Little League headquarters gave Portsmouth a 6-0 forfeit because Colchester couldn't get get its last kid to the plate.

This is, to say the least, perverse. Both sides were trying to fail, so that they would win.

I asked readers what the right approach to the problem would be. Here's a sampling of answers:

LET 'EM TIE THE GAME, THEN WIN: Personally, if I was coaching the NH team, I would let them give away the lead, then I would call my team together and say "Now, we're going to win this on the field." The punishment for not playing the kid was losing their lead. Now, my team would have a shot to win the game. I think the New Hampshire coach was just as bad for not allowing his kids to play ball. He should have been ejected as well for making a travesty of the game.

LET THE KIDS WORK IT OUT: I would have let the kids sovled this issued along with some direction or confirmation from the umpires and coaches. Your book really opened my eyes to these issues and I have noticed in all of the regionals that the adults and media are very much a part of the game and have a significant impact.

GET RID OF MINIMUM PLAY RULES: The problem is the LL rules. "Must play" rules are great for the regular season but should be dropped for the tournaments. Each team should be limited to a 12 man roster and leave it up to coaches who to play. Parents and players would know going in what the situation is. Presumably, all twelve players would have something to contribute and would see some playing time during any tournament. This is already the case in LL Seniors Tournaments. Why not make it universal and avoid these situations?

NO, KEEP THE MUST-PLAY RULE: That's a really unfortunate scenario, but the "everybody gets to play rule" should still be a cardinal rule for tournaments. As it is, the rule is relaxed somewhat for tournaments to one defensive inning rather than the regular season two innings. The principle is extremely important: everybody has a role to play in the team's success. This summer my 9-10 all-star team faced an opponent team that had a substitute/non-starting player hit a three-run homer over the fence. Tough experience for our team, but what a memory for that player and that team. Many great teams have superb depth throughout the line-up and don't just rely on a core set of dominant players.

On balance the fault here inevitably and overwhelmingly falls on the Vermont coaches. Especially with so much on the line in these regional games the coaches need to make substitutions early, even as early as the second or third inning if possible (no later than the fourth inning) to ensure that a scenario like this does not develop. With nine runs on the board, it seems unlikely to me that there weren't ample opportunities available to Vermont to make the appropriate substitutions earlier.

DON'T CUT THE VERMONT COACH SLACK: I don't accept the premise of your theory or question. Being a Little League president and coach for 13 years my guess is the reason he didn't get the kid in is not that he forgot. It probably was because it was a tight game and he didn't want to sub at that point. There's no reason a coach that made it to the region final should ever fall into this situation. I'd accept this happening in a district game were you have coaches who don't know or understand the rules. Why do you think it's happening so much in the regions? The coaches are holding back, gambling. When you gamble you lose sometimes. As someone who's coached 6 district teams, 4 advancing to state, I don't believe any of these coaches forgot.

CHARLIE EUCHNER'S RESPONSE: I like the idea of leaving it to the kids to sort things out. It's a travesty for both teams to try to fail, and it's an even further travesty for issues like this to be settled through bureaucratic fiat. Maybe the kids should come up with a solution to submit to the umpire for a final decision.

One approach familiar to kids in pickup games is to have a do-over. If Colchester took a two-run lead in the fifth, why not wipe it off the books and play the inning over? Of course, this option should not be available to a team losing in the game. You say it's too soft a response to a rule infraction? I say, remember this is a game for kids.

Then there's the hockey approach: A power play. When a player commits an infraction from an NHL game, the response is to give a very real advantage to the other side by removing the player from the ice. Why can't baseball handicap the team responsible for a SNAFU, innocent or not? This is radical, I know, but when a team like Vermont goofs and you need a do-over, maybe they should get only two outs in the inning or two strikes at the plate. (I've always thought that major-league teams arguing with umps should be undermanned after the player gets ejected. I don;t care about all the "tradition" claptrap. Screaming and kicking dirt is a stupid waste of time and an insult to everyone in the stadium.)

I don't agree with scotching the minimum-play rule for the summer tournaments. Little League has already been compromised enough by the do-anything-to-win mentality. Let all the kids play. Quite simply, does the game exist for all the kids or for the adults to mastermind victories?

I agree with the comment that managers have to work harder to get all their kids in the game. In two regional final games -- the Alaska-Oregon finale in Northwest region and the Louisiana-Mississippi finale in the Southwest -- the managers tempted fate by waiting until the last inning for minimum-play substitutions. Come on, guys. If all the kids were good enough to make the team, get them in the game. You send an ugly message to the kid when you are so reluctant to use him that you risk a forfeit.

Last year, a kid named Michael Mowatt was a reserve player for the whole summer of qualifying tournaments for Maine. So what did he do in the Little League World Series? He hit two homers and led all players in slugging percentage.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Cheers and Jeers

As the regional tournaments draw to a close, some cheers and jeers for the winners and sinners of the Little League World Series qualifying competitions:

CHEER to Lloyd McClendon, the star of the 1971 Gary, Indiana, team. Thirty-five years ago, this young stud hit five home runs in five at bats and was the pitching star of the team as well. McClendon and his Gary teammates pushed the Taiwan dynasty to the first extra inning game in LLWS history before melting down in the ninth inning. McClendon went on to a good major league career as a player, coach, and manager. He's a good guy who will be honored this year when Little League inducts him into its Hall of Excellence.

JEER to the managers who wait until the last minute to use all their players. Two managers threatened their teams' chances by waiting until their last turns at the plate to use their reserve players. Teams that do not use all their players for one at-bat and one inning in the field automatically forfeit the game.

But the managers of the South Charles Lake (Louisiana) and Dimond-West (Alaska) tempted fate. South lake Charles was leading the team from D'lberville, Mississippi, 1-0, when it batted in the bottom of the fifth. Even though three players still had not batted, South Charles Lake still did not use the reserves right away -- and only got them all in the game when a batter reached base. If The Louisianans went down 1-2-3 in the inning and retired Mississippi in the top of the sixth, they would have ended the game with a 1-0 lead -- and then lost by a 6-0 forfeit. Alaska was also leading in the sixth inning without having played all of its reserves. Only Murrayhill, Oregon's comeback prevented a forfeit. We all know what happens when teams don't use all their players. Bureaucrats rule and controversy ensues.

CHEER to Little League Baseball, for its study of pitch counts. For years, Little League has limited the number of innings pitchers can throw. But this year, the Williamsport organization conducted a study of pitch counts. Some 500 leagues participated in the program. Many insiders believe that Little League will adopt the pitch-count rules for its tournaments as soon as next year.

To me, it's a no-brainer to limit pitches. The American Sports Medicine Institute has documented that throwing more than 75 pitches in a game imperils a pitcher's short- and long-term health. Last year, nine pitchers threw more than 100 pitches in the LLWS -- and one, Martin Cornieles of Venezuela, threw 137. That is abuse. The one potential SNAFU is if opposing teams run pitch counts deep to get top pitchers out of the game. But smart coaches and pitchers will respond to that by getting hitters to put the ball into play rather than going for strikeouts all game long.

JEER to broadcasters who shamelessly extol the virtues of corporate sponsors. Yeah, I know, they pay for their sponsorships. But there are limits. The ESPN broadcasters for the Oregon-Alaska Northwest regional championship game were drooling at Nike's sponsorship of the hometown Little Leaguers, zooming in on the swoosh on the players' uniforms.

CHEER to parents who draw a line to protect their kids' physical wellbeing. Coaches come under incredible pressure to abuse their pitchers by throwing too many many pitches or using the curveball. The only real recourse is for parents to draw a bold line. Joe Daugherty, the father of a player from Owensboro, Kentucky in 2004 and 2005, set firm rules for his kid Luke. Joe came under pressure from coaches and other parents, but he always said no to requests for pushing Luke beyond his limits. We need more Joe Daughertys in youth sports -- parents willing to take a stand whatever the pressures.

JEER to teams that don't bring all 14 eligible players to Little League World Series tournaments. Teams have the option of bringing 12, 13, or 14 players to the LLWS tournaments. Most American teams use 12, while most foreign teams use 14. Come on, America! use all the kids you can! You're always making excuses for overusing pitchers. If you had all 14 players on the team, you could spread out the pitching burden. More important, you could give the ultimate Little League experience to two more kids. People associated with the LLWS seem to think that it's OK to limit the number of players on the team. One ESPN announcer talked about how lucky one team was when one of its players broke an arm. Now they won't have to get 'em all in the game, he explained. Kind of sick, no?

000 000

With only one berth in the Little League World Series left to be settled -- Staten Island, N.Y., plays Livingston, N.J., tonight for the Mid-Atlantic regional championship -- one fact stares out from the qualifying tournaments so far.

Pitchers have been dominant in the title games for the Little League regional championships.

In the seven title games in the U.S. so far, five teams have won with shutouts. Not just any old shutout, either. Dominant shutouts, with devastating pitching. Pitchers have regularly clocked near 80 miles and hour and displayed hard curveballs.

Remember, withy the smaller fields used for Little League -- the bases are 60 feet apart, compared with 90 feet for regulation fields; pitching mounds are 46 feet from the plate, compared with 60 feet, six inches on standard fields -- hitters have much less time to react. An 80-.m.p.h. pitch gives a Little League batter as much/little time to react as a 104-m.p.h. pitch gives a major league batter.

In his prime, Nolan Ryan occasionally hit over 100 m.p.h. Billy Wagner of the Mets sometimes hits 100, when he's really smoking.

Every year, a handful of power pitchers dominate the Little League World Series. Last year, the star of the Early Show was Kalen Pimentel, the California ace who struck out all 18 batters he faced in the team's opener against Kentucky. Other dominant pitchers included Alaka'i Aglipay and Vonn Fe'ao of Hawaii, Dante Bichette Jr., of Florida, Trae Santos of Guam, Takuya Sakamoto and Yusuke Taira of Japan, Jace Conrad (Louisiana), Sorick Liberia and Jurickson Profar of Curacao, and Keith Terry of Pennsylvania.

But this year, the pitchers might be even more dominant. Starting this year, Little League changed the cutoff date for eligibility in this tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds. From 1947 through 2005, players who were 12 on July 31 were eligible for LLWS competition. This year, players who were 12 on April 30 are eligible to play.

That means that there are going to be a lot more 13-year-olds in the tournament. Older pitchers probably have the advantage over older hitters.

Just by looking at the final regional championship games with shutouts, we can start to look for the dominant players in this year's Little League World Series.

Pitchers and hitters face a new challenge in the LLWS this year. Little League pushed the fences back 20 feet -- from 205 to 225. Balls hit for home runs last year could be fly balls this year. That creates an incentive for pitchers to let the hitters put the bat on the ball. If they can get hitters to put more balls in play, the best pitchers can keep their pitch counts low -- and be available to help their teams with a few extra innings.

The question is: Will the pitchers and their managers have the gumption to get away from the power game? Or will they want to keep smoking the ball past hitters?

A region-by-region rundown of the title game shootouts shows some of the pitchers to watch in the 60th Little League World Series:

SOUTHWEST -- South Lake Charles (Louisiana) 1, D'lberville (Mississippi) 0. Nick Zaunbrecher struck out eight batters to bring a Cajun team to Williamsport for the second straight year.

NEW ENGLAND -- Portsmouth (New Hampshire) 3, Glastonbury (Connecticut), 0. Jordan Bean struck out 13 batters and allowed only three hits en route to the win.

MIDWEST -- Columbia (Missouri) 2, Davis County (Iowa) 0. Ryan Phillips struck out 14 hitters, at one point fanning eight straight batters, in his second dominant game against Iowa. In their first meeting, Phillips pitched a five-inning no hitter.

SOUTHEAST -- Columbus (Georgia) 5, Dunedin (Florida) 0. Kyle Carter struck out 14 batters in his five-hit shutout.

GREAT LAKES -- Lemont (Illinois) 3, New Castle (Indiana) 0. David Hearne fanned 11 batters and allowed just two hits.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Who's a Great Coach? Two Profiles

What makes a great coach?

As thousands of teams vie for the chance to play in the Little League World Series next month in Williamsport, that's the question that parents and kids are asking themselves.

When I covered youth baseball last summer when researching Little League, Big Dreams, I got to know a broad and diverse bunch. In their day jobs, they did everything imaginable. The 2006 Little League World Series included a banker, truck driver, teacher, electrician, phone company retiree, and pizzeria owner. The assistant coaches for the team from Maitland, Florida, had a couple former major leaguers, Dante Bichette and Mike Stanley.

Before anything else, a great coach is a great teacher. He's someone who finds a way to get a group of 12 to 14 pre-teens to focus on the job of becoming better baseball players.

A great coach teaches kids how to get around on fastballs with major-league equivalents of 90, 95, even 100 miles an hour. he teaches them how to pick up a pitch as it comes out of the pitcher's hand.

A great coach also teaches how to play in the field. He finds the right position for all the kids. He teaches kids how to play together. He develops a pitching staff at least five players deep. He teaches those pitchers to get the other side to put the ball in play, rather than gunning for strikeouts.

Before a coach can do any of this, he needs to get the attention of the palyers. Anyone who has worked with kids -- in the classroom, on the field, at camp -- knows that the first few days and weeks are critical. If the coach wants to be a pal, he risks losing the kids for the rest of the summer. But if he comes across like a colonel, barking orders and making sacrifices of kids, he creates an environemnt that drains all the fun out of the game.

Two coaches impressed me more than anyone else in the 2005 Little League World Series -- Layton Aliviado of the West Oahu Little League in Hawaii and Rich Knight of the Westbrook Little League in Maine.

Aliviado is a fortysomething truck driver, a lifelong Hawaiian who spent years buiilding his team. He worked his players hard, with practices six days a week, lasting four hours or more, all summer long. Aliviado developed a training regimen that started with building strength in the legs, moved toward field skill drills, and ended with situational training.

Aliviado's answer any time one of his players started goofing off was to have the whole team run . . and run and run and run. By the time the team started its summer of tournaments, the team was strong. The Hawaiians were the only team that did not wilt or break down during the World Series.

But don't think Aliviado's approach was all about hard work. The kids and their families socialized after virtually every practice and game. When one of the coaches had to undergo chemo for testicular cancer, everyone pitched in to help out. I spent a week in Hawaii with the team's players and families and was impressed at how tightknit they were.

But what I like the most about Aliviado was his simple decency. He's a quiet guy, not a speaker. But wherever he went, kids clustered around him for guidance. He worked them hard and then let them play. When things went wropng on the field, he told his kids to just have fun and play hard. They were loose all the way.

Jerome Williams, now a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, is Aliviado's most famous player. Williams played for Aliviado's PONY League team more than a decade ago. Williams, a black, struggled to deal with racist garbage from other teams. Aliviado told him, in his quiet way, to ignore the slurs and concentrate on his game. Sometimes only a coach can tell a kid something like that.

My other favorite coach, Rich Knight, was much different. Knight started coaching when his company, Verizon, offered time out to employees to do community work. He had no kids, but threw himself into coaching. He takes kids to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox. For years he took kids to Williamsport to watch the Little League World Series.

Knight's Westbrook all stars made it to Williamsport in 2005, defeating better-regarded teams from Toms River, N.J., and Farmington, Conn. Maine lost its first three teams at the New England regional tournament but survived pool play and got hot at the right time.

The Mainers were not as big and strong as other teams in Williamsport. But theyb played a sound game on defense and got good pitching most of the time. They could have won all of their games in Williamsport. They ended up going 1-2, but they impressed everyone.

One of Maine's bench players was a shy, homesick kid named Michael Mowatt. For the better partv of the summer, he sat on the bench. When the team arrived in Williamsport, Mowatt got sick. He kept throwing up. A nurse suggested he was homesick. Knight offered to drive him back to Maine. The idea that he could go home if he wanted relaxed him.

And he became the star of the team. In fact, his slugging percentage was the best of all players in Williamsport.