Monday, August 14, 2006

Williamsport Thoughts

As a baseball fan, I enjoy watching the Little League World Series. It still amazes me to watch dozens of 11- and 12-year-olds that look like they've stepped right out of a Tom Emanski video. These players all have better fundamentals than me, and probably better than a few of Major Leaguers.
But that's not what I think of when I remember my youth baseball days. Little League was about everyone playing and getting a free pop after the game. If you won, maybe you shook up your pop and sprayed it on a teammate, or took a "victory slide" into third base (neither of which was well liked by everyone's mothers). Heck, I don't think my tee ball team won a single game, but we didn't care.
That's not exactly the Little League you see on TV. Cities put together All Star teams, recruiting players based on loose residency guidelines. The kids you see on TV wear Nike uniforms and Under Armour wristbands. Well, it's nice to see Nike supporting youth baseball, as it is to see anyone supporting youth baseball. And I will admit that as a young baseball player, I did want to wear all the cool clothes, shoes, and accessories. But youth baseball is as much about the RBI program as it is about Nike-sponsored All Star teams. It's as much about a run-down field hoping to win the Diamonds in the Rough competition (or just find a few generous local volunteers) as it is about the Chrystler Fieldhouse. (OK, that's a high school basketball gym, but you get my point.)
When I sat down to write this article, I was going to mention how proud I was that my local youth baseball organization wasn't a part of the national Little League Baseball baseball. But then I found their website. The front page promotes fall ball as a means to experiment with switch hitting, to pick up a splitter or circle change pitch, to be noticed by scouts, and to work on a specialized baseball strength training program - "not a program designed by some football coach designed to build hulking, knuckle dragging linebackers." So much for letting kids enjoy a well-rounded childhood.
The official Little League Baseball has a rule requiring every player bat at least once and play three consecutive outs in every game. I'm a huge fan of letting everyone play. If Jimmy AllStar is as great as his parents think, he'll get his fair share of playing time in high school and college. But this may be Johnny Uncoordinated's only chance in organized baseball, so why not let him play. Of course, making this mandatory can make things difficult for coaches, all of which (hopefully) are volunteers. It's easy to get caught up in the game and forget the quiet kid at the end of the bench. Of course, if you designate a special "assistant coach" to keep track of substitutions, even if that's all he or she does, life becomes much easier.
The substitution rule actually came to play in this year's New England semifinal. Home team Vermont was leading New Hampshire with two outs in the top of the final inning - the sixth. Realizing that one player hadn't hit yet, the Vermont manager told his players to start throwing the game. The pitcher started throwing wild pitches, the catcher threw into center field on steals, and the infielders completely missed first base on ground balls. Seeing this, and realize what was going on, the umpire called both managers over and warned them not to make a mockery of the game. The Vermont manager instructed his players to continue, and he and his pitcher were thrown out of the game. The New Hampshire manager somehow decided that the best way to win the game was to have his team attempt to throw it themselves, so the game would end in the top of the 6th without the final Vermont player batting, and an official protest could be filed. So, his hitters swung at every wild pitch, striking out. The game ended, New Hampshire filed its protest, and it was upheld.
The Boston Herald took the New Hampshire side, stating it was all the guy could do to win. The smaller Lynn, MA Daily Item chimed in in favor of Vermont. Was either manager right? As I said, I'm in favor of letting everyone play. But there were other ways for Vermont to let New Hampshire tie the score. Intentional walks arguably would have been a little more legitimate. The New Hampshire manager was just as wrong for making his team throw the game. In doing so, he chose to win on a technicality instead of letting things be decided on the field. When I was in little league, we were once down 11 runs going into the last inning. We scored 12 in the top of the 6th, but were nearing our time limit. The bottom of the 6th would have to start before a certain time for our 12-run half inning to even count. A few heads-up kids on our team yelled at our batter to stike out on purpose to get out on the inning. But fortunately our coach refused. We lost, but we lost with class. New Hampshire, meanwhile, beat Connecticut 3-0 in the regional championship to advance to Williamsport.
What's my point? (Is there a point?) Enjoy the Little League World Series, but remember that that there's much more to youth baseball than what you see on TV. And remember it is, or at least it should be, about a bunch of young kids having some good old fashioned fun.