Saturday, August 26, 2006

Good News (WITH ADDENDUM)

Little League Baseball has just announced a momentous decision -- to limit the number of pitches that kids can throw in games and over the course of the week.

Young pitchers have been ruining their arms for years because of overuse. The reason is simple. Teams playing in tournaments -- not just Little League, but also other community leagues and travel ball -- are always trying to advance to the next level. In almost every game, a team faces the possibility of elimination. So managers and coaches use their best one or two pitchers over and over again.

Many pitchers throw in excess of 100 pitches a game and work with two days of rest. Think about that. Roger Clemens, the most physical pitcher of our time, usually leaves the game after 90 or 100 pitches -- and then he gets four days of rest. If Houston Astros Manager Phil Garner ever told the Rocket that he had to pitch on two days of rest, Garner would find himself upside-down in the trash bin. And yet Little Leaguers -- whose bodies are still developing -- have been working on just a couple days of rest. Absurd.

Little League CEO Steve Keener, the American Sports Medicine Institute, and other partners deserve a big cheer for this move.

Still, there are detractors.

One criticism is that there simply are not enough good pitchers to go around. The answer is simple: Get more kids a chance to take the mound. Only when you think that it's essential to win all the time, with a manchild power pitcher, can you resist giving more kids a chance.

Another criticism is that tracking the pitch counts will be too hard and that all kinds of disputes will arise. I agree that Little League -- and all youth sports, for that matter -- has gotten too rule-bound and bureaucratic. But you mean to tell me that the official scorer cannot have a clicker in his hand as he or she watches the game? Or that the scorer can't mark the book for each at bat and then report the counts every inning to both managers? Or that a volunteer cannot track pitch counts on a white board for all to see? Please.

A third criticism is that teams will work the pitch count to drive the best pitchers out of games. That might happen, although I'm not sure how many kids have the bat control of a Bobby Abreu. But the result could be very positive in two ways. First, it could encourage youngsters to pitch to put the ball in play rather than pitch for strikeouts. It's much more efficient to get grounders and pop flies than strikeouts. That could make games move faster and involve the rest of the team in games. How much fun is it for a left fielder or second baseman to stand around in a 14-K game? Second, even if the rule does enable some teams to work the count and get the aces out of the game, so what? The teams should be developing four or five pitchers, not just two or three.

This decision is very good news for every kid who plays Little League. Other organizations should follow suit, not just to protect young athletes' health and wellbeing but to involve all kids in a more well-rounded game.


ADDENDUM: Brent Musberger, in his broadcast of the U.S. championship game between Georgia and Oregon, effusively praised Little League's decision to establish pitch counts. Orel Hershiser and Joe Morgan, former major league stars doing the color commentary, agreed. But then Musberger said something about how these limits probably would have to be loosened for the Little League World Series and its qualifying tournaments. Hold it! Why is that, Brent? If the rule is ever essential, it's in those tournaments where the coaches and parents push their kids hard to get "to the next level." If this pitch-count rule does not apply to the tournaments, it is a fraud. It's the tournaments where the kids get pushed beyond their limit and damaged. Readers: Write to Steve Keener at Little League International, 539 U.S. Route 15 Hwy, PO Box 3485, Williamsport, PA 17701-0485. Tell him congratulations for the pitch-count rule, and then demand that the rule be applied to all tournaments.

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.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Notes and Comment

THAT'S FAST: In its wrapup of the Georgia-New Hampshire game, ESPN reported the Kyle Carter was throwing 77 mile-an-hour heat to lead Georgia to the 9-0 victory. That's the equivalent of 174 miles and hour in the major leagues, ESPN reported. Actually, 174 m.p.h. would be a physical impossibility. Taking into account the different field sizes -- 60 and a half feet from the mound to plate on a standard field, 46 feet on a Little League field -- a 77-m.p.h. pitch leaves the hitters the same reaction time as a 100-m.p.h. pitch in the majors. That's fast enough, thank you very much.

THAT'S BIG: The surprise of the Little League World Series has got to be Saudi Arabia, the team of ex-pats from Dhahrin that went 2-1 in pool play before losing to Japan in its first-ever single-elimination game. Last year, the Saudis were arguably the weakest team in the tournament. But the kids have gotten bigger and stronger. The paucity of baseball in the Kingdom might have helped the Saudi club. Without boys their own age to play, they competed against older boys to get ready for the annual summer march to Williamsport. The biggest story was, of course, Aaron Durley. Last year he set a LLWS record for size with his 6-5 frame. He grew three inches to break his own record. Last year, Durley was awkward; this year he was a force. After going hitless last year, he went three for 11 this year. Another big kid, Andrew Holden, turned in ace pitching performances for the Saudis. He gave up just one hit, in the sixth inning, in his six shutout innings against Venezuela, which won the game 1-0 in eight innings, and pitched a five-hit shutout in the 5-0 win over Canada.

THAT'S DISGRACEFUL: The intensity seemed to be greater at this year's LLWS than in other years. ESPN's miking of the coaches didn't seem to restrain them much from their aggressive barking. They came to the mound and gathered the kids near the dugout and barked at them as if they were the assembly-line workers. One manager reportedly slapped his player when the player, egged on by his hyper yelling, cursed on national TV. Guys! Lighten up! If not for yourself and your kids, than for the image you project on TV!

THROWN FOR A CURVE: Most baseball people -- including the brass of Little League baseball -- say it's impossible to ban curveballs because of the inherent difficulties judging what's a curve and what's a changeup or a slow fastball. Two points: (1) If a curve is no different from a changeup, why not mix up a range of fastballs and changeups, and (2) at a book event last night in Madison, Conn., an umpire at the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament told me he doesn’t allow pitchers to throw curves. "I give them one warning, and if they do it again they get thrown out of the tournament," he said.

AND IN OTHER ACTION . . . : A team from Hilo, Hawaii, defeated a team from Mexico to win the Cal Ripken World Series. In a game televised on OLN (the Outdoor Life Network, soon to be called the Versus Network), Hawaii won, 5-0, despite inadvertently lifting its top pitcher in the third inning. After striking out six batters in two and two-thirds innings, Kawika Pruett left the game when manager Kaha Wong mistakenly made two trips to the mound. Kean Wong, the manager's kid, took over and retired nine of the last ten batters for the victory.

LEAD-PIPE GUARANTEE: Mike Dukakis got in trouble as Massachusetts governor when he broke his campaign promise of a "lead-pipe guarantee" against raising taxes. He jacked up taxes and got voted out of office. But I'm willing to use that same phrase. I offer you a lead-pipe guarantee that Little League will adopt some kind of pitch-count rule after this year's World Series. Why am I so sure? The announcers on ESPN are praising the idea as if it's the answer to all problems facing the world. Hell, if Little League adopts pitch limits, I'd say it's safe to bring the troops back from Iraq. All kidding aside, it's a great idea and Little League deserves all the praise in the world if it goes through. (See articles in USA Today and The Oregonian.)

CRACK GOES THE HELMET: The team from Lemont, Illinois, was alone among the 16 teams in the LLWS to bring their own helmets top the series. Austin Mastela got nailed in the left earflap and went to the hospital with a bloody face and mild concussion. (He was OK and played in the next game.) On impact, the helmet broke. What standards does Little League have for helmets? Even more important, will Little League consider moving the mound back to prevent injuries to both batters (facing major league-equivalent speeds approaching 100 m.p.h.) and pitchers (who can be seriously injured on liners up the middle)?

TOUGH POOL: Curacao did not make it out of pool play for the first time in three years despite having six returning players from last year's team. Like last year, the team from Japan beat the Caribbean all stars. But the kids from the Pabou Little League of Willemstad also lost to Mexico, which plays Japan Saturday for the International championship. The only team Curacao beat was winless Russia. Conspiracy theorists might wonder why Curacao played in such a tough bracket while Mexico played three relative creampuffs (Saudi, Canada, and Saipan).

GEORGIA PEACH: Kyle Carter is the big man on Georgia's team. He has won all three of Georgia's games -- with one inning of relief in the 3-2 win over New York, six innings of one-hit ball in the 4-1 win over Arizona, and six innings of three-hit pitching in the 8-0 win over New Hampshire in the U.S. semifinals. He's also the hitting star -- a player so feared that he's intentionally walked like Barry Bonds. He's three for 10 with two homes runs so far.

ARMPITS TO TOES: Cheers to the umpires for calling a huge strike zone in the LLWS. It keeps the games moving fast. What's scary is the pinpoint control of many pitchers this year -- much more pronounced than in last year's classic series.

FAMOUS LAST WORDS: Mike Hall, the manager from Illinois, rallied his kids with this pitch in its 2-0 losing effort against Georgia: "You're the best Little League team in America." Then he went on, in a hyper-jumbled way, about how Mayor Richie Daley of Chicago, Governor Rod Blagojevich, and President George Bush were all watching. Was this a confidence booster or just more pressure for kids who have already had enough criticism of their travel-team makeup? You make the call.

THE LINE: Japan has to be the heavy favorite to breeze to the LLWS title. Japan has the deepest pitching staff in memory and the only lineup stacked with power. They face a tough Mexican team for the International championship but should be strong enough to win. Georgia has to be considered the U.S. favorite because of its strong pitching. After resting Kyle Carter in the U.S. title game against the surprising Oregon team -- with fingers crossed -- the stud will take the mound on Sunday afternoon.

HISTORY LESSON: Japan has won six titles and appeared in one other title game in 16 previous LLWS appearances. The most recent title came in 2003, when the Musashi-Fuchu Little League of Tokyo manhandled Boynton Beach, Florida, 10-1, to cap a perfect 6-0 series run. Mexico has won two championships and finished in the runner-up position three times in its 21 previous tries. The Monterrey team won two straight titles in 1957 and 1958 -- the first times that foreign teams won the tournament. Only one team from Georgia -- from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta -- has appeared in the LLWS before 2006. But that team won it all in 1983 with a 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic. Oregon has appeared in the LLWS once before. The Rose City Little League of Portland lost its only game in the 1958 tournament won by Monterrey.

PIED PIPER MISSING: Harold Reynolds, who worked as a color commentator the last ten Little League World Series and became a favorite of the players, was fired before the LLWS for sexual harassment. The charge came after ESPN staff members went to dinner together. “It was a total misunderstanding,” Reynolds told the New York Post. “My goal is to sit down and get back. To be honest with you, I gave a woman a hug and I felt like it was misinterpreted.” Brent Musberger, the veteran play-by-play man, delighted in calling Reynolds the “pied piper” of the Williamsport event for his involvement with kids on Kelloggs training clips played during the series.

REAL KINGS OF THE HILL Cooperstown Dreams Park will hold its annual Tournament of Champions from August 26 to September 1. The event in upstate New York is considered by many experts to be the best baseball tournament for the 12-and-under set anywhere. The champions from the Dreams Park’s 10 weekly tournaments—each involving 96 travel teams from across the country—will compete for the title. Here are the champions eligible for the elite tournament: the San Diego Stars, West Boyton Gators of Florida, Miami Force, South Oakland A’s (featured in my book Little League, Big Dreams), Houston Heat, the Hit After Hit Baseball Academy of Tennessee, the O Town Sportscenter Baseball Academy of Florida, the Texas Tarheels, the Chicago North Shore Stars, and the Nevada Wildcats.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pitching Determines Everything

It's all about pitching — as it was in the beginning, and now and forever shall be.

Everything flows from pitching. Good pitching shuts down good hitting. Therefore, good pitching keeps games close. Therefore, good pitching increases the importance of the smallest events on the field — a bad call by the umpire, a missed relay, a missed signal, a late jump on the base paths. Therefore, good pitching increases intensity of the games and the pain of the losses. Therefore, good pitching frays the nerves of parents and coaches and players and reveals the true characters of all involved.

After 33 games of pool play, the Little League World Series eliminated eight of its original 16 teams — and moved right into the single-elimination phase of the tournament on Wednesday. Wednesday's games eliminated two more teams. Today's games will eliminate two more.

Japan is the consensus best team in Williamsport. Japan last won a World Series back in 2003 when a team from Tokyo overwhelmed Boynton Beach, Florida, 10-1, in the championship game. This year, Japan's Kawaguchi Little League is the only team with the chance to go undefeated. Kawaguchi went 3-0 in pool play with convincing victories over Russia (11-1), Mexico (6-1), and Curacao (7-2).

Venezuela was the only other undefeated team in pool play, but lost to Mexico, 11-0, in Wednesday's single-elimination opener.

Japan should have an easy time dispatching the ex-pat team from Dhahrin, Saudi Arabia, and then face Mexico for the international championship.

The pitchers from Japan have been almost perfect. Ryoya Sato pitched a no-hitter and recorded 10 strikeouts in Japan's 11-0 five-inning win against Russia in the opener. Then Yada gave up one run and allowed four hits, fanning 12, in the 6-1 win over Mexico. Go Matsumoto allowed two runs and struck out 12 batters in the 7-2 victory over defending International champion Curacao.

Japan has the tournament's only top-to-bottom power lineup. Japan hit eight home runs in its first three games. Seigo Yada hit three, producing a constant stream of Seinfeld-like yada, yada, yada jokes around the complex.

Because of its overwhelming pitching, Lemont, Illinois, appears to be the class of the American bracket. After dropping a 1-0 heartbreaker to Arizona in the opening game, Illinois beat New York, 1-0, and Georgia, 2-0. Illinois yielded a grand total of one run in its first three games.

Josh Ferry is the undisputed star of the Illinois pitching staff. He lost the opener to Arizona, 1-0, yielding just two hits and one run and fanning 11 batters. Then he won the third game of pool play, 2-0, against Georgia, allowing only one hit and striking out 13. In between, David Hearne pitched a one-hit 1-0 shutrout against new York, striking out eight batters.

A heavily favored Illinois will play Oregon for the right to play in the U.S. championship game. Meanwhile, a heavily favored team from Columbus, Georgia, will fight Portsmouth, N.H., the other U.S. title slot.

Pitching is stronger than ever because the kids are stronger than ever. Little League changed its age cutoff date this year, allowing kids who are now three-plus months past their 13th birthday to play in the international tournament.

The number of 13-year-olds has increased dramatically. This year there are 64 of them — an average of four on every team for a league officially limited to 11- and 12-year-olds. Twelve-year-olds still make up the bulk of the players — 133 in all. But the 11-year-olds have all but disappeared from the tournament (a total of six this year).

The kids are bigger and throw harder than ever before, and they're playing in a ballpark with outfield fences set back 20 feet. The fence move alone eliminates a dozen or more home runs in most games and gives the advantage to teams that can but athletic gazelles in the outfield.

Compare some stats from 2005 and 2006. In 2005, in the 24 games of pool play, eight out of 48 teams were shut out after regulation play of six innings. In 2006, 13 teams scored no runs through the first six innings. The number of sides scoring one run in regulation play jumped from three in 2005 to 11 in 2006.

I was hoping that the bigger field dimensions might prompt the pitchers to let the hitters put the ball in play. When batters hit and fielders field, pitchers throw fewer balls — and save their arms from undue strain. But no. Twenty-two pitchers struck out 10 or more batters in pool play in 2005. That's almost one per game.

Pitchers are not only throwing much harder, consistently, but they are breaking off some of the nastiest curveballs imaginable. Despite all the concern about the damage that throwing breaking balls does to young arms, the curves are coming in much harder and much more frequently this year.

Pitchers' dominance has translated into a slew of close games. The number of one-run games doubled from five to 10 from 2005 to 2006.

The closeness of the games has, in turn, ratcheted up the levels of tension and anxiety. In my three days in Williamsport, I saw much grimmer faces on the kids than in 2005. Many of the coaches — especially from New York, Illinois, and Georgia — seem positively combustible.

ESPN has captured the intensity on its broadcasts. ESPN mikes all of the managers to capture their good-natured, wise words to the teams in mound conferences and dugout huddles.

In one game, the New York manager told his players that they needed just one run to tie the game against Illinois. "One f---ing run!" shouted back one of his players — at which point, according to reports, the manager hit the kid. The New Yorkers just turned a double play and were getting ready to get their last licks in the sixth inning when the incident occurred. "Little League International was extremely disappointed in the behavior of the player and coach involved in the incident," Oz said in a statement.

Losing hurts. It always hurts, but I saw more kids crying — bawling, really — than I did last year. And those ESPN cameras are always there to record the moment.

The worst meltdown came when Staten Island ran itself out of a sixth-inning rally in its 1-0 loss to Illinois. No-hit for five and a third innings by David Hearne, Illinois started the rally when Peter Sciarillo walked to open the inning. When Frank Smith laced a sharp single to center field, Sciarillo was thrown out going to third base. Smith, thinking the game was over, started walking off the field — and got thrown out for a game-ending DP.

With the cameras humming, he cried and cried in the dugout. He was, after the game, inconsolable.

Part of the intensity of a game dominated by manchild pitchers and close games.

Guest Commentator

Sometimes, a few words capture the essence of a big and complicated issue.

A few days ago I was a guest on The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio (now available online). We had a great discussion of Little League and the future of youth sports and childhood in America.

For me, the highlight came when Rehm read an email from a listener.

Earl Newman of Redford, Michigan, wrote the following:

"I am 70 years old. I learned to play ball from the other kids. Little League baseball did not really reach critical mass until the 1950s, too late for me. In my opinion, they ruined the game. They have taken it away from kids. They have robbed it of spontaneity. They have greatly inhibited young people's self-reliance, and I think (although I do not have the data) that fewer kids spend fewer hours actually playing the game than when I was a boy. This is not good for baseball. Uniforms, schedules, sponsorships, and adult domination are all outcomes of this movement. Perhaps it would be more fair for me to say it is [just] different from the game I knew as a kid. But in the process, although they might have added something new, they have obliterated something that was good."

This is not just a sentimental man looking back on his own carefree days. It's a strong and fair critique of what happens when we manage and control more and more aspects of children's lives.

Childhood, ideally, is about two things. It's about learning skills and it's about exploring the world.

Skills give kids the tools they need to negotiate the world. As they grow into adulthood, kids need the skills taught in schools -- reading and writing, math and science. But it's not just academic skills that matter. Sports and other extracurricular activities matter because they help kids round out their repertoire. Kids also need to learn how to get along with other people -- superiors, peers, and everyone else. They need to learn how to settle conflicts.

But skills alone cannot create a well-rounded person. Everyone also needs to embrace the spirit of exploration. And there's no time to do that like childhood, when everything is new. It's great for people to embrace goals and passions. But they can't really do it unless they've explored a whole range of possibilities.

Youth sports can be a great experience. But it's always got to be kept in perspective. Here are a few questions to ask to decide whether it's in fact kept in perspective:

-- Does the young athlete participate in a wide range of activitiies besides baseball?
-- Does s/he have lots of free time -- with only loose supervision by adults -- to explore a wide range of activities?
-- Does the child play games -- with made-up rules -- with other kids in school and in the neighborhood?
-- Does involvement in a sports team shut off other opportunities that s/he might otherwise consider?
-- Do the adults supervising the sports team show, by both word and deed, that playing is what matters -- not winning?
-- Are the lesser kids on the team embraced as enthusiastically as the stars?
-- Who are the kid's real, everfyday role models -- a sports star or someone in the circle of family and friends?

This is not intended to put down Little League or other organized sports. Sports can play a great role in the lives of children. But when it becomes something more than a game -- especially at the tender age of 11 or 12, or even the teenage years -- something basic is missing.

Honoring Lloyd McClendon

On Friday, Little League will induct Lloyd McClendon into the Hall of Excellence at its museum. The organization has chosen wisely.

Before the 2005, the greatest Little League World Series took place in 1971. That's when McClendon, a strapping kid from Gary, Indiana, took on the the perrennial powerhouse team from Taiwan in the championship game.

The Gary all-stars were the only black team to advance to the championship game in Little League history. And they faced as tough a team as anyone ever has. Asian teams so dominated the LLWS that foreign teams were actally banned from the tournamenbt one year. Taiwan and Japan won eleven titles over a fifteen-year period from 1967 to 1981.

Gary and Taiwan fought to a draw for eight innings, two past regulation.

McClendon was 12 when he took the mound to face Taiwan on August 28, 1971. A pitcher/catcher for the Anderson Little League all-stars, McClendon stood 5-11 and dominated the tournament like no player before or since—until the last inning of the final game.

McClendon hit two home runs in Gary’s first two games. After that, the opposing pitcher walked him intentionally. Taiwan’s pitcher, Hsu Chin-Mu pitched to McClendon in the first inning, and McClendon hit a three-run home run. After that, Taiwan refused to let him hit. By the end of the series, McClendon had five homers in five at-bats and five intentional walks.

McClendon also pitched for Gary. At the end of the regulation six innings, Gary and Taiwan’s Chiaya Little League were tied, 3-3. McClendon stayed in the game and held Tawan’s scoreless for two more innings.

McClendon’s pitching form was almost perfect. He kicked his leg high, contained his body’s energy on his strong left leg, reared back and whipped the ball forward. Landing on the mound, he looked like the dominant pitchers of the day, Bob Gibson or Steve Carlton.

But in the top of the ninth inning, everything went wrong for McClendon and his Gary teammates. Taiwan scored nine runs to take a 12-3 lead. McClendon gave up seven of those runs before he asked to be removed.

Overall, fourteen Taiwan batters came to the plate in the inning and got six hits and four walks. But four fielding miscues and nine passed balls produced a merry-go-round that brought most of the baserunners home.

As the runs poured across the plate, McClendon stood on the mound in tears.

I called McClendon last summer when I was doing research for Little League, Big Dreams. At the time, McClendon was the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“That was a very profound thing,” he told me. “I felt so bad about what happened. But it was an important moment for me. It was important to understand that you’re just a boy and there’s only so much you can do. There were so many people there who thought I could do anything, that I was somehow a god. But I wasn’t.

“I was a kid, and crying was how I expressed my feelings. Losing the game like that was a defining moment for me. I was very blessed to have a great coach and my father on the sidelines. They told me they were proud of me and I had done the best I could and that was all that mattered. They told me to hold my head high, there was nothing to be ashamed of. I was very disappointed to see things fall apart. It was the first time I ever failed at baseball.

“It was the defining moment in my life at that point. I see so many parents put undue pressure on their kids to win at all costs these days. I find it shameful. That moment is something I could never forget. When I talk to young people at clinics, I make a point to tell them about the time I lost that game. I especially want the parents to hear it.”

Despite the breakdown on the mound, scouts and family members thought McClendon’s best skill in baseball was pitching. But he thought otherwise.

“I had a passion for playing every day so I wanted to be a position player, I wanted to bat,” he says. “It was always a much-debated topic in my family whether I should be a pitcher, but I never wanted to. My decision was absolutely clear and final. I have never regretted it over the years. I wanted to be an everyday ballplayer.”

When McClendon grew up, he played nine seasons in the major leagues with the Giants, Cubs, and Pirates. He also managed the Pirates for five years. Years later, McClendon remembers being devastated by the loss but retains a kaleidoscope of positive memories of the experience.

McClendon remember most the words on Mickey Mantle, ABC’s color commentator for the game.

“Today, I saw a young man become a boy again,” Mantle said.

LL Needs Bigger Fields

This year's Little League World Series is off to a great start — but still carries all of the problems that plague youth sports.

The games have tended to be crisp matches between well-matched teams. Before it's over, we'll have more shutouts than ever. The kids playing the games and the fans watching on TV are getting a lesson in what makes baseball great — pitching and defense.

Loud home runs can be plenty exciting. Especially at this level — when kids swing at balls humming at a major-league equivalent of over 100 miles an hour, on occasion — even getting a bat on the ball is a wonder. But the kids do it. They see the ball tumbling out of the pitcher's hand and make a guess about what kind of pitch it is and where it's going.

But the 2-0 or 1-0 game is much more exciting. And Little League owes much of the excitement to its decision to extend the outfield fences 20 feet, from 205 to 225 feet from home plate.

As I write this, eight games have been shutouts, 15 games have held one of the teams to one run, and five games have held one of the teams to two runs.

In the games I saw — in person at Williamsport and on TV — those extended fences have kept a half dozen or more balls in the park every game.

In the game between Curacao and Russia, the very first two outs of the game came on long fly balls that went far beyond the old fence. On the first play, the left fielder ran like a deer across the grass before catching up with the ball. On the next play, the centerfielder ran almost as far and reached over the fence to pull the ball in.

As expected, Curacao went on to pound Russia. But that display of fielding — the pure joy of watching young athletes run hard over long distances in pursuit of the ball — gave the games an excitement that cheap home runs would not allow.

Another factor behind the low-scoring games: Little League's change in the cutoff date for eligibility. Until this year, if a kid turned 13 after April 30, he was ineligible to play in the summer of tournaments leading to the Little League World Series. Starting this year, July 31 is the date. That means not only lots more 13-year-olds, but also a lot fewer 11-year-olds.

Pitchers enjoy the biggest advantage as the game shifts to an older bunch of kids. The pitchers this year look a lot bigger and stronger than in years past. And to think that everyone in Williamsport was buzzing last year about ONE kid with facial hair!

But there's a problem here that Little League needs to address. The kids have simply outgrown the diamond. The dimensions of the Little League field were set in 1939, when a kindly clerk named Carl Stotz founded the organization. Stotz took a bunch of the kids from the neighborhood to a field to lay out a diamond suitable for little guys. In those early days, the league included much younger kids — 8 or 9 years old — as well as 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds.

The PONY League, another community-based organization, gradually increases the size of the diamonds. Kids now playing in the Little League World Series play on 70-foot bases in the PONY tournaments.

Little League officials say that retrofitting Little League diamonds to adjust for the growth in kids would cost too much money. But something awful is waiting to happen. Either a hitter's going to get seriously hurt with a pitch or a pitcher's going to get seriously hurt with a line drive up the middle. Can you spell lawsuit?

Safety concerns should be the primary reason for changing the field size. But the overall game would improve with bigger diamonds. The pitchers would be more willing to let the hitters put the ball in play, which would reduce pitch counts and longterm injuries. Fielders would play a more important role. Baserunning would become more skilled and important.

Little League has to find a way to update its game. Moving the fences was a good first step. But updating the whole field is an essential next step.