For eleven days a community about the size of Bangor, tucked away off the beaten path in central Pennsylvania, is the epicenter of the baseball world. Crowds, of which many of their major league counterparts would be envious of, will storm upon its two stadiums. Millions more around the world tune in to watch the action from Williamsport.
For the eleven and twelve year old players on this grand stage, the Little League World Series is the culmination of months of competition. The journey begins at the local league level. The upwards of fourteen players per team are selected to participate based on their performance in league play. From there teams have to win a district tournament, in some cases sectional tournaments, their state tournament, a multi-state regional tournament, before achieving the ultimate goal.
While Little League’s signature event is the eleven and twelve year old Major Division, Little League Baseball sponsors programs up through age eighteen. Over the past fifteen years, we’ve hosted a Little League sanctioned World Series right in our backyard with the Senior League World Series in Bangor. In speaking with a number of the participants in Bangor over the years, many arrive having not slept in their own beds for weeks. It is a long journey to get to a World Series indeed.
Whether in Williamsport, Pennsylvania or Bangor, Maine, being a part of a Little League sanctioned World Series event is something to be cherished for a lifetime. While the competition can be intense, the players and all associated with the tournament come away with new friendships. Having been involved with the Senior League World Series for all fifteen years in Bangor, there are a number of players and coaches who I’ve still maintained contact with years later.
Of course, like with other youth sports programs, Little League is not immune to the ills which disrupt their virtual Camelot. Over zealous adults, particularly parents, with over-inflated perceptions of their young proteges grandeur keep officials on guard to maintain the purity that is the Little League experience. While the vast majority of those involved in Little League abide by the spirit of the game, there are those which look to bend, if not outright break rules to gain a competitive edge. Sport, if you haven’t noticed already, generally reflects society as a whole. Therefore, sports leagues, Little League included, must continually devise rules which keep with the spirit of fair competition.
We often joke in the press box during the Senior League World Series that you need to either be a lawyer or an accountant to keep up with the amount of rules. Little League has a myriad of rules pertaining to eligibility and also regulations which serve to benefit the developing player.
To participate in a Little League sanctioned tournament, teams must provide information which undeniably prove their players’ ages and residency. Little League teams at its roots are community based with well-established geographic boundaries. According to littleleague.org, each player must provide three proofs of residency, which cannot be of the same type, as well as proof of birth date. For instance, a player cannot provide three utility bills. It is the responsibility of league officials to be sure each team meets the paperwork requirements before tournament play begins.
So why the need for so much paperwork? Two well-known cases come to mind, both involving teams which played at the pinnacle of the sport, the Little League World Series in Williamsport. You may remember the name Danny Almonte, Almonte dazzled those in attendance, as well as an international television audience with his 70 MPH fastball. As his team from the Bronx, New York competed in the World Series for eleven and twelve year-olds, there was just one problem: Almonte was fourteen, not twelve as believed.
Recently, in 2014, another seemingly storybook tale was unfolding in Central Pennsylvania when the Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West Little League won the United States Championship. In this instance some of the players allegedly lived outside the geographic area from the league boundaries. The end result had Little League stripping the team of its U.S. championship while suspending the coach for the following season.
While Little League sanctioned tournaments are competitive, remember these are young people in the midst of their development as baseball players but also physically. Several years ago Little League Baseball instituted pitch counts at all levels as a means of protecting developing arms. Many other organizations are following Little League’s lead on this issue. Beginning with the 2017 season, all states will be required to have some sort of pitch count rule at the high school level.
In keeping with the theme of player development, Little League for years has had mandatory play rules. A Little League tournament team can consist of up to fourteen players, sixteen at the Senior League level. All players through Junior League, which consists of thirteen and fourteen year-olds, must play a minimum of one at bat. In order to circumvent the mandatory play requirement, some teams have reduced their roster size. In keeping with the spirit of more players competing, Little League, as it is often apt to do, made a counter move. The rule now states that if a team has twelve or fewer players each player must have an at bat in addition to six consecutive defensive outs.
Some may balk at what appears to be a micro-managing by Little League. While Little League is still the largest youth sports organization internationally, they face increasing competition in our ever changing youth sports culture. Elite travel teams, AAU baseball, and the like are cutting into Little League’s piece of the market, particularly at the older age levels. As such, Little League walks a fine line in terms of regulations. On one hand their many rules serve a valuable purpose in keeping with the spirit of community based programs for developing players. It could be argued over-regulation has driven some communities from the Little League experience.
Little League has shown some flexibility in recent years.. Senior League and Big League no longer have mandatory play requirements. Those levels also allow for the use of a designated hitter.
A salute goes out to all the organizers, volunteers, players, and coaches who make Little League such a memorable experience for all involved.