Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Little League Is Awesome, Despite The Hype

As I write this, Chula Vista, Calif., is about to play San Antonio in a preliminary round of undefeated teams in the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Penn. The Chula Vista all-star team is the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees. They slugged 46 home runs in their last eight games and shutout their first two World Series opponents 29-0.

Sally Jenkins, the renowned sports columnist for The Washington Post, is not impressed. While she admires the talent of the Park View team from Southern California, she abhors the national spotlight on the youngsters in a system she says "has badly confused teaching kids to be good ballplayers with teaching them to be good people."

Jenkins offers two flaws, one at the players; the other at Little League rules. The kids copy cat their Major League heroes by spitting, scratching and grandstanding. She blames ESPN and ABC which televise the series as the main enablers.

The league's 85-pitch rule is too high, citing orthopedic surgeon James Andrews' description of an "epidemic" of arm and shoulder injuries to young ballplayers. "Andrews has been keeping tabs: in 2001 and 2002 he performed a total of just 13 shoulder operations on teenagers. Over the next six years, he did 241," Jenkins writes.

Let me offer a counterpoint.

I played youth baseball and the great thrill, the great goal was following in the footsteps of my heroes of which I read in the newspaper from stories and box scores and the few limited newsreels in the movie theaters. Much of the glory was verbal, passed on to us kids from radio voices such as Bob Kelly announcing Los Angeles Angels games in the old Pacific Coast League and I am certain from Red Barber announcing Dodger games in Brooklyn. If I spit too often, I had to.

I was smitten by the gods of baseball. The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's magazines carried full-page ads of Whitey Ford proclaiming he would walk a mile for a Camel cigarette. So, I began smoking cigarettes at age 13 even though it didn't improve my curve ball.

There were no 85-pitch rules in my day. Coaches instructed how to throw a curve ball. One former minor league pitcher coaching part-time at my high school tried to teach me how to throw both a knuckle ball and a split-fingered fast ball. My fingers and hands were too small, so we nixed that idea. But, I threw hard and often, never once feeling pain in my right arm or elbow. That injury occurred between my senior year in high school and college when I dislocated my right shoulder spiking a beach volleyball. It ended my baseball career.

Although not as critical as it is in playing football, baseball is a team sport and you learn quickly to back up your teammates on any given play. Baseball teaches you a little about life, anticipating what you will do if the ball comes to you depending on the number of base runners, how many outs and what inning and score it is.

Little League requires every player to be in the game for at least one inning and it instills a sense of sportsmanship win or lose. Crying is okay. That's the essence of the game and what happens to the players after they grow into maturity is not the flaws as Jenkins sees them by blaming Little League as an organization.

Every year at Little League World Series time I am incredibly impressed by the athletic skills of these 11, 12 and 13-year-olds from around the world. How they handle the immense emotional pressure to excel is just short of amazing.

If that was me on the mound or playing right field, I probably would pee in my pants.

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