The Little League World Series (LLWS) was held this summer, as usual, in Williamsport Pennsylvania. The LLWS gets full coverage on ESPN and ended happily for the network with a team from Georgia winning the title. Charles Euchner’s new book “Little League, Big Dreams, the Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the greatest World Series ever played” examines the LLWS from the perspective of the teams in the 2005 series, and provides an in depth look behind the scenes of the biggest show in kids baseball.
I have very little interest in the LLWS for two reasons. First, in Canada, Little League is a niche organization. Most kids in Ontario who play baseball do so under the jurisdiction of Baseball Ontario which has no affiliation with Little League. Each year Canada sends a team to the LLWS and from media coverage you would expect that one of the best teams in the country was heading down to Williamsport. But as far as I know there appears to be only two little league organizations in Ontario, one in High Park, Toronto and one in Ottawa. I believe the Canadian team in the LLWS to be the best of a small lot. I have never seen a little league game in Ontario but I have seen those teams play as 13 and 14 year olds, i.e. after little league, in the Baseball Ontario system and there was nothing special about those teams. I always looked on Canada’s entry in the LLWS as an average travel or rep team but nothing special and so I never thought of it as Canada’s best 12 year olds taking on the rest of the world.
Secondly, I could never get excited about 12 year olds playing baseball, unless it was my kid playing. The LLWS strikes me as a made for TV event, if those kids were playing in the park next door how long would you stop to watch them play? Next year, when these kids are 13, will anyone care about them?
Charles Euchner considers these points and more in his very entertaining look at little league. As I mentioned earlier I was not interested in seeing an average team from Canada sent down to face America’s best. Euchner points out that these kids are not America’s best, in fact many of the best players are playing on travel teams in the US. Indeed several experts in the book suggest the US little league teams are themselves average when judged against non-little league teams. All the media, the coverage, suggests otherwise.
Euchner uses the 2005 LLWS as a backdrop to review the history of the LLWS, how some of the teams were formed or picked, and how they prepared for the LLWS.
I found two central themes in the book, first, the politics of kids sports and second, who is the LLWS played for? If you have, or have had, kids in youth sports you will be very familiar with these issues faced by the teams in the LLWS and in every youth sports organization I have been a part of. Issues such as team selection, playing time, umpiring, and little league rules are discussed. When it gets to the LLWS, and TV time is on the line, the sniping gets stronger. Some parents quarrel and end up not talking to each other. This is nothing new to parents of kids in youth sports but it is interesting to see that what happens in our local leagues happens in Williamsport too.
The issue of who the LLWS is played for is a recurring theme in the book. The book talks to outside experts about the issue. Those experts have a name for pushy parents who try and get their kids to the front of the line, ABPD, achievement by proxy disorder. As Euchner says “when parents and coaches depend on their children to succeed for the sake of the adults, competition becomes corrupted.” The coach of the Hawaii team had focused for years on how to create a team that could win the LLWS. “He and other dads studied tapes of past World Series championship games, and then they talked about what they saw. What did they do to win? Can we do it too?” Later we learn of the Hawaii teams training methods. “The (Hawaii team) won because they trained hard, for two solid years. The coaches took a bunch of skinny kids and ran them hard, every day except Sunday, until it hurt, until they doubled over with cramps, until they vomited and begged to stop.” “Practice lasted from 4:30 until the sun went down on weekdays. On Saturdays, they worked from nine in the morning until three or four in the afternoon, with a break for lunch.” That’s a lot of practice and a lot of dedicated time. Several coaches say the key to improvement is constant repetition, and with that much practice time the teams would have to get better or the players would quit.
The CEO of Little League is quoted in the book. “Adults want to win and they lose focus, they lose perspective.” One team held a pitcher out of the semi-final because he had thrown 155 pitches in two starts in round-robin play. Months later the parents still criticized the coaches for not using that pitcher in that pivotal game that they lost.
Euchner also tackles one of the biggest issues with little league, pitcher workloads. In the 31 games of the LLWS, nine pitchers threw over 100 pitches in a game, including two who throw over 130 pitches. Remember these are nine twelve year old pitchers. Several pitchers profiled in the book were so overworked in the qualifying rounds they were unable to pitch in the LLWS. The overuse of curveballs, which can damage young arms, in also addressed. One pitcher was not used in the LLWS because his father refused to allow him throw a curveball because he feared for what it would do to his sons arm.
Dr. James Andrews, the noted surgeon who has operated on many major leaguers also is interviewed by Euchner. “The best pitchers in the country never make it to the majors because they are the ones in youth leagues and high school who are overused. We are seeing more injuries now because these kids are having more pressure to throw at higher velocities.” Andrews is quoted as saying. Andrews reports he performed six times as many elbow surgeries for high school pitchers in 2000-2004 than he did in 1995-1999. When we think of major league pitchers there are many who were position players in high school and only started pitching in college. Shawn Marcum, Dave Bush, Casey Janssen and Jeremy Accardo are all examples of position players who made a late conversion to the mound. It’s not just little league coaches who overuse their pitchers, high school coaches and college coaches do too. Many major league teams under-use pitchers in their first professional season because of overuse in college.
Euchner ends with his suggestions for solving the problems with little league some of which will never see the light of day, such as letting the kids run the games themselves. However the little league organization has recently made a couple of changes, moving the fences back and introducing pitch count limits, to try and change the game for the better. Euchner’s dream of giving the game back to the kids might never be realized but hopefully more parents will find the right balance for their kids.
Little League, Big Dreams is a light read and an interesting one for parents of little leaguers or players of youth sports generally.