As we reach the final weekend in August, the sporting spotlight will be shining on South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Little League Baseball on Sunday afternoon will crown its world champion, following a two-month plus long tournament. These eleven and twelve year-old boys of summer will be swinging the bats and flashing the leather in front of tens of thousands in attendance as well as millions worldwide via television.
Admittedly, I have not tuned into a second and don’t plan on viewing any of the proceedings over the weekend. In fact I stopped watching the Little League World Series several years ago. For me, I find the event uncomfortable to watch. Maybe it’s the zoomed in shots of the over-zealous parents in the stands, who live vicariously through their offspring with every pitch. There are the coaches, often parents themselves, who act as if they are managing the Red Sox in the seventh game of the World Series. This is despite the fact the charges they are leading are still four years away from obtaining a drivers license.
There is something unsettling about watching a youngster, who is just developing in the game, commit a key error in front of millions of viewers. At this age group, it isn’t necessarily about which kids are more skilled than others but rather which players develop physically at a younger age. I think we can all recall the big twelve year old who was shaving and bopping balls out of the ballpark. By the time he reached high school this sultan of swat was never heard from again as his peers caught up and surpassed him physically. It happens all the time, which is why I seldom take notice of these eleven and twelve year old “phenoms”.
Little League to this day remains the world’s largest youth sports organization. There are concerns in Camelot as this large vessel has been taking on water in recent years. Little League’s participation peaked in the 1990’s with over three million players in its programs over various age groups. Recently that figure has plummeted to approximately 2.4 million.
So what has caused the precipitous drop in Little League participation? While part of the decline may be attributed to fewer kids playing baseball, Little League has faced increased competition from other baseball avenues. Competing leagues, such as Cal Ripken baseball, have sprung up in recent years. Elite travel and AAU teams are becoming more prevalent with parents shelling out big bucks. They are often being sold a bill of goods that by entrusting their little darlings in their hands they are headed for future stardom.
Little League’s beginning was quite simple, really. Carl Stotz founded the organization in 1939 with the notion of local children being able to play baseball with uniforms, organized rules, and the like. Stotz touted his idea to businesses throughout the Williamsport area to receive sponsorship. What started as and what was intended to be a local organization sprouted into the international league it is today. Stotz was reported to be so disgusted as to what Little League became he referred to the organization as “Frankenstein”.
Throughout the years, Little League has attempted, and in a way has been successful, in being all things to all youngsters. Everyone who wants to play baseball, regardless of ability, plays at the local league level. These local leagues feature teams generally named after the team’s sponsor. They play a regular season followed by the league play-offs. Following league play, each league chooses all-stars which compete against all-stars from other communities to begin the road to the Little League World Series. Little League, rather than calling these all-star teams, refers to them as tournament teams.
Getting to South Williamsport is a long journey indeed. Teams first need to win their district tournament then their state tournament. In some states with many districts, a sectional tournament may be held prior to the state tournament. From there the state winners go to a regional tourney with the final destination being the Little League World Series.
Most of these tournaments leading up to the World Series have a double-elimination format. From the start of district play to the conclusion of the World Series takes approximately two months. For the World Series participants it is an incredibly long journey. Herein lies the problem: it takes too long. For an organization that should be most concerned about developing the players of tomorrow, the reality is most of these “boys of summer” are done playing before the calendar reaches the Fourth of July. Either a player doesn’t make a tournament team or their team is eliminated very early.
Twenty years ago this may not have been a concern. Without other options, friends would get together at the local field and play among themselves, working to get better. Summer opportunities abound today in what we would consider off-season sports such as basketball and soccer. A youngster knows if they show up at the gym or pitch, they are going to get court or field action. They often will gravitate to these sports, leaving baseball behind, never to return again.
If we are most concerned about developing more baseball players, is the current Little League model working? Would baseball be better off as a whole without the Little League World Series? Of course it would never happen with the millions of dollars in corporate and television revenue the event generates each year. Without the lengthy all-star tournament, more players at a key time of development would be playing longer into the summer. The game might be better served to extend league play through July and then have all-stars compete through the state level.
Major League Baseball for years has also not helped the younger generation become hooked on the game. They have insisted to play their marquee events in “prime time”. World Series games start about 8:30, not ending until midnight. Contrast this to the most popular professional sports league, the National Football League. The majority of their contests conclude by 8:00 on Sundays. Their playoffs are contested during the afternoons and early evenings, with their championship game, The Super Bowl, finished by 10:00.
Those wringing their hands about the decline of baseball like to point the finger at sports such as basketball and soccer for cutting into their market during the summer. They claim these sports are hurting the sport of baseball. In reality baseball is hurting baseball.