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In his latest book, Little League, Big Dreams, Euchner describes the 2005 Little League World Series. In doing so, he depicts a world where coaches often push their players to the limits for a chance to bask in short-term notoriety.
Consider Bill Hartley, coach for the Pennsylvania team, and father of Ryan Hartley, on of their star hitters. When Ryan fractured his hand on a hit by pitch, Bill still lobbied his trainer for his son to continue to play in the series: "Jeez, isn't there anything we can do to get him going again?"
Consider the testimony from Dr. James Andrews, inventor of Tommy John Surgery: "[W]e don't have enough quality pitchers to go around because the good, quality pitchers are being hurt in the youth leagues."
Consider that in nine pitchers threw more than 100 pitches in a single game during this 31-game tournament. Martin Cornieles of Venezuela and Ryan Schumaker of Iowa each threw over 130 in a single appearance. And you get mad when your team's 23-year old prospect stays in to throw more than 100 pitches!
Consider that only one team in the tournament (the Russian squad) would not let its pitchers throw breaking balls at all. Throwing curveballs increases the chance of shoulder pain in pitchers by 52%, while sliders increase the odds by 77%, according to Andrews' research.
The problem is even worse among boys under 15 year of age. Not only can these repetitive stresses cause ligaments to tear, but they can grind down the ends of underdeveloped bones, causing growth deformities.
As Euchner writes, "The odds of long-term problems don't usually motivate people to change their behavior right away." These coaches know that Little League World Series games are nationally televised now, and they face enormous self-inflicted pressure to win under that spotlight.
Euchner concedes that there is something to this practice. The odds are stacked against these players ever tasting the major leagues, so why not fire all of your bullets now to taste that incredible feeling of victory and prestige when you can get it? As ever, Euchner provides an alternative angle from which to view the situation.
There is also help on the horizon. Little League now has a limit on the number of pitches per appearance, and prescribes mandatory rest between appearances that differs depending upon pitch count. They have also moved the outfield fences back by 20 feet for World Series play, which should hopefully coerce pitchers into believing that they don't always need to get hitters out via the strikeout. This could mean fewer breaking balls thrown by these fragile kids. And since every team must play by this set of rules, it does not affect the integrity of the tournament.
As it stands right now, a lot of good comes out of Little League. Yet we cannot ignore the abuse dealt out from the adults involved who take winning Little League games too seriously.
Little League, Big Dreams provides anecdotes and commentary relevant for the evolution of baseball in other areas as well. The champion Hawaii team used their star pitcher in just the first inning of almost every game, a sort of "opener" instead of a closer. This might work well in the majors, as managers base their lineup on the game's starter. Whatever pitcher comes in to pitch innings 2-6 will either enjoy favorable matchups or a depleted bench as the opposition makes many substitutions early.
These kids are the future, and they can change the way that the game is played if they want to.
Little League, Big Dreams can be purchased for $22.95 at Sourcebooks.com.
Read Keith's review
of The Last Nine Innings, Euchner's romp through the 2001 World Series.