Reminder: The LLWS is for parents, not kids

I wrote this about the Little League World Series last year. I got to thinking about it while watching LLWS highlights on SportsCenter, and went back and read it again, and it’s still an exceptional piece of writing (that’s not a humblebrag, that’s just a straight brag).

I don’t have anything against the Little League baseball system, but I despise the Little League World Series. Youth baseball does not need to be on TV.

The Little League World Series is going on right now.

I hate the Little League World Series.

Seriously, it gives me the creeps. Watching the kids can be kinda fun. Watching the parents/coaches can be kind of horrifying. Pretending that any of it means anything is ridiculous.

My boss and co-blogger Stu Whitney is one of a few who get their grundies in a bunch every year at this time because of the fact that Sioux Falls is not affiliated with the Little League governing body, and therefore not eligible to send teams to Little League World Series qualifiers. I don’t see what the fuss is about.

Here’s the blog Stu wrote last week on the subject.

A couple things.

SEBA has only existed since roughly the turn of the century. At that point, I was an adult, so I can not speak to the effectiveness of SEBA as an organization, other than to say that my observations as a sports writer are that SEBA has improved the overall baseball culture in Sioux Falls by bringing everyone under one umbrella (sort of) and finding more experienced and knowledgeable coaches at the youth levels than there had been previously.

Is SEBA better than Little League? I don’t know.

Stu mentions playing on a youth All-Star team that played in some kind of tournament to qualify for the LLWS, and while nothing like that apparently exists in Sioux Falls today, I do know that when I was 12 years old, playing what was then known as “Bantam Baseball”, we had a mid-season All-Star game (similar to the Major League version, pitting players from half the league’s teams against players from the other half), and after the season ended, each team’s coach nominated a handful of players to attend a try-out for a team that would travel to Arkansas for a tournament qualifier. I remember that all of us at the try-out assumed it was for the LLWS, because we all wondered how many games we’d need to win in Arkansas to get on TV. Despite having a good tryout, I was cut (the coach told me I was too small), and if I remember right the guys that made the trip south lost immediately and came back home.

I don’t know for sure that this was a LL affiliated thing, but I know we all thought it was. Apparently once SEBA took over, this kind of thing – whatever it was for — ceased to exist.

I can see that being something of a disappointment, but, I also don’t think any decisions – any decisions at all – should be made about youth baseball for the sake of the LLWS.

Here are a couple of key paragraphs in Stu’s blog:

-       Critics feel that Little League is geared more toward gratification of parents and coaches than serving the needs of all players, and decisions shouldn’t be made based on the prospect of playing on TV.

The ‘critics’ in this case, are right, at least as far as the LLWS.

-       Do the benefits that SEBA brings outweigh the negatives of not being part of the Little League process? That’s a question that needs to be explored more fully as we move forward.

With that second paragraph, Stu is saying he’s just asking the question, not calling for an overhaul of the local system as we know it. It’s certainly a fair question, but I wonder how badly it “needs to be explored fully as we move forward”. What is meant by Little League process? The organization itself, or the World Series?

Stu also writes:

— SEBA forms teams based on the school a child attends. In addition, the league does not divide players by forming major and minor levels.

Little League team formation uses a draft process, while all-star teams that can reach the Little League World Series are voted on by players and coaches.

“The process of drafting youth baseball teams by volunteers/non-professional coaches can create bitterness that lasts throughout the season - and beyond,” Smith told the Argus Leader.

Smith is SEBA chief Lyle Smith, and in this case, he’s 100 percent on the money. Kids between the ages of 9-12 do not need to be divided up into “major” and “minor” leagues, and Smith is also correct in pointing out how traumatic a draft process would be for kids that age. I’ve gone on record many times saying how under-talented kids get babied too much as it is, but the way you get them to overcome that (or learn hard lessons about themselves) is by staying out of the way, letting them play with their friends, and finding out for themselves whether or not they can cut it. Letting some punk’s A-hole dad draft him (or not draft him), or deem him a ‘minor-leaguer’ (thus splitting him up from his friends), is such a horrible idea I can’t believe anyone actually does it.

— In Little League, pitching distances remain 46 feet for ages 9-12. By the time kids are 12 in SEBA, pitching distance moves up to 48 feet. In addition, basepaths in Little League are set at 60 feet, while the length moves to 70 feet by the time kids are 12 in SEBA.

“In looking at that 12-year-old division, from our standpoint, it would be a step back in development,” Smith said.

Meh. I don’t think this is a big deal.

— Little League relies on a volunteer structure rather than paying umpires, concession workers and other officials, which explains the lower entry fees. But Smith has questioned whether a full-scale youth baseball operation can be pulled off in Sioux Falls on a volunteer basis.

It needs to be said, however, that the Little League model appears to work just fine elsewhere.

A lot of things work just fine elsewhere but not here. Like getting support for a local events center. I’m with Lyle on this one, too.

Again, I’m not bashing the Little League system (other than the draft thing), and I’m not a SEBA apologist. I know there are an awful lot of folks locally who don’t like SEBA and who don’t like Lyle.

My point is this: 12-year-old football playoffs aren’t on TV. Neither are 12-year-old basketball or hockey tournaments. It’s because these kids are still at the age where developing skills, learning the game and learning how to love the game, are far more important than wins and losses, tournaments, all-star games, stats, etc.

The LLWS is televised because it always has been, and now it’s not going away. But it should not be a goal or destination. It should never, ever be allowed to be a factor in the decision-making process when you’re dealing with children still in the developmental stage of their athletic “careers”.

Stu mentions the major league players who played in the LLWS, but he doesn’t mention the hundreds of kids who play in the LLWS and then give up the game before high school. A ton of the Little League standouts are there solely because of the fact they had an earlier growth spurt than many of their peers.

At least half, maybe more, of the kids who were the best Little League baseball players in Sioux Falls when I was that age, didn’t play past the age of 14. Some quit because when everyone else caught up to them physically the game became harder, and that took the fun out of it for them. Some got more into other sports. Some picked up a skateboard or a guitar. Some (more than you’d care to know) became stoner burnouts.

Some decided they didn’t want to spend their entire summers playing baseball, something that is all the more likely to happen with kids who spend their entire summers chasing LLWS glory when they’re 12.

(Obviously, Little League parents have never seen this, and neither has Stu)

Almost none, literally maybe 1 or 2, of those kids who made that team I tried out for that went down to Arkansas, were playing Legion baseball when they reached high school. Nearly all of them gave up the sport along the way.

And that’s why getting all worked up about 12-year-old kids not being able to play in some tournament that they’re far from guaranteed to be good enough to reach anyway, is silly. For every major leaguer who played in the LLWS, there are 50 who didn’t.

Putting kids in ultra-competitive situations at such a young age is an extremely slippery slope, one that can lead to burnout, isolation and frustration as easily as it can create lifelong memories. They’ve got a long ways to go before we should start taking them or their games seriously.

Little League is the age when you hope your kids are lucky enough to have a coach that teaches them not just how to play the game the right way, but how to love the game.

The first coach I had to really do that was Evan Brink, who was just my buddy Russ’s dad. My own dad had already taught me a lot about how to play the game but at that time had never actually coached one of my teams. My first Little League coach was a nice enough guy, but very serious and too hung up on winning and losing. I remember he printed out detailed stats and distributed them before each game. I was 9.

Going to games and practice felt the same as going to school.

The next year I played for Evan, and he was the first guy to really make baseball fun for me. He wasn’t the smartest guy in the whole world, and he definitely favored his kid (which luckily wasn’t really a problem because Russ was good), but he loved teaching kids baseball. He loved being our coach, and he gave me the confidence I needed to start playing the game for fun, and stop worrying about what my batting average was or whether or not I was better than this kid or that kid from some other team. He knew who the good players were, but he never made the crappy ones feel inferior.

Before Evan Brink, I was nervous on the field, always trying to blend in and hope nobody saw me. After playing for him, I wanted the ball to be hit to me, I wanted to face the pitchers who threw the fastest, and most importantly, I never felt like I let anyone down if I went 0-for-4. If he hadn’t been my Little League coach, I might be blogging about snowboarding or something.

Obviously, there are hundreds of Evan Brinks operating under the Little League umbrella, but I don’t see them in the LLWS. The priority – for any governing body – should be finding more coaches like Evan, not some post-season national tournament that delusional parents and coaches are wetting themselves over.

When I watch the LLWS, I see coaches putting pressure on kids, and parents putting pressure on coaches. I probably don’t even need to mention the Danny Almonte scandal and others like it, which, when you think about it, are more disgusting than anything going on at the U of Miami.

I wish the LLWS would go away, to be honest. I don’t see how it’s good for the sport. People watch it out of curiosity, not because they really care who wins or have any connection to any of the players (Oh, cute, look how small the field is! Wow, that boy can throw 70 mph!)

I’ll give ESPN credit, they do a good job of trying to maintain perspective and remind viewers with interviews and between-game pieces that these are just kids.

But I wonder even what the kids themselves get out of it. Most of the hoopla surrounding them is over their heads. They’re too busy playing. It’s just another tournament (one that happens to be on TV). Their parents and coaches are the ones basking in the glow of their brief celebrity.

This is not an event that demands that we re-evaluate the system our kids are operating under.

If SEBA isn’t providing kids with good coaches or facilities, if SEBA is operating under corrupt leadership, if SEBA doesn’t provide opportunities for enough kids, or doesn’t provide kids enough games and practices, then by all means, let’s re-evaluate them.

If the Little League system can do all those things better than SEBA, then I’m all for Sioux Falls becoming Little League.

But if SEBA is providing the best possible overall positive experience for kids, the LLWS is something we can live without. Leave that to the egomaniacal coaches and the helicopter dads.