Thursday, February 19, 2015

Swing and miss

Most years coaching, I gave players a personalized memento in place
of a trophy. This year it was oversize baseball cards with players' caricatures.
I have changed the name of the player in the bottom card. My son
probably wishes I had changed the name of the player in the top card too.
Chances are you've already forgotten the sad plight of the Jackie Robinson West Little League®™ team, if you heard at all.

That's probably by design: Drop a little bombshell like this when it'll do the least damage.

Slip it into a whirling news cycle, long after the glory has cooled from the team having won the U.S. Little League®™ title over the summer, but well before the new season begins.

Make a fresh start. If only.

Little League©™ Baseball last week took away the Chicago all-star team's national title, and all its post-season wins on the way to the title, after finding out Jackie Robinson West fielded some players who lived outside the Chicago league's geographical boundaries.

The inference is that Jackie Robinson West recruited players from outside its neighborhood, amassing what some critics are calling a "superteam."

Such neighborhood boundaries are a rule peculiar to Little League®™ worldwide, and they're particularly stupid.

More on that in a bit.

Jackie Robinson West was a summer feel-good story. It's an all African-American team, and Little League®™ and Major League Baseball®™, among others, have taken steps to revive the sport in urban centers, where participation by black and Latino kids has dropped.

It was bright news for Chicago, particularly the city's South Side, blighted by violence. The Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox honored the team, the Major League World Series hosted it in San Francisco, and the kids got their photo taken with President Obama in the Oval Office.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last week gave the team championship rings anyway, giving substance to the general sentiment that adults caused this problem, not kids. In fact, Little League®™ suspended Jackie Robinson West's manager, and removed the district administrator who should have prevented the violation.

Little League™® as recently as December ruled Jackie Robinson West did not violate residency rules, rejecting complaints from a neighboring league. Last week Little League™® changed its mind.

"We had to do this, we had no choice," Little League™® International CEO Stephen D. Keener told ESPN™®. "We have to maintain the integrity of the Little League®™ program. We have over 7,000 Little League©™ programs around the world that are looking to us to provide leadership uphold the standards of our program. So, as painful as this is, it's a necessary outcome from what we've finally been able to confirm."

(Warning: Words like integrity and parity get thrown around here, for nefarious purposes.)

Though the integrity of Little League™© is preserved in this outcome, integrity itself still takes a hit.

Here's the thing: The international tournament, or Little League™® World Series, is just the tip of the iceberg, the showcase for world consumption.

The late-summer darling of multiple channels on ESPN and ABC — which broadcast the Chicago team's 8-4 loss to a Seoul, South Korea, in the championship — the tournament is what most people think of when they think of Little League®™.

Most of Little League®™ lay beneath notice: The regular-season slog that goes on around the world, thousands of kids just playing baseball in their respective neighborhood leagues.

Knowing what I do about Little League™®, as a player and a father/manager, I could guarantee the kids playing in the international tournament benefited from the most playing time on their teams, pitched the maximum allowed times, played the positions of their choice the maximum amount of time.

They did so by the sacrifice of at least a third of their regular-season teammates, who played only the legal minimum each game — one at-bat and six defensive outs — and sat the bench the rest of the time. Or, if lucky, got to stand in the first-base coach's box and cheer, just to have something else to do.

Their families paid the same amount as the starters' families to belong to the team, so the bench-warmers are effectively subsidizing the better players.

I can almost guarantee the bench warmers didn't get markedly better at baseball, standing endless minutes in the outfield at practice, shagging balls while others hit, until their brief turns swinging the bat.

If Mr. Keener wants to talk integrity, he would lead a change in Little League that gave equal time for all players. Though shockingly imperfect as a coach, I tried to provide that equal time, and it turned out the better players still got plenty of time to work on their skills. I also tried to conduct practices around stations, so players moved from one station to the next, working on skills, touching the ball more, swinging the bat more.

The teams I coached lost many more games than it won. It's too bad in Little League™® that winning is the underpinning, unwritten standard.

To talk of integrity is to do more to develop training for adults, not only in how to teach baseball, but in how to behave. The league has at least one marvelous program, but its message hasn't spread well and it isn't difficult to come across at least one adult at a game acting petty and ugly in front of players.

Maybe one unintended consequence of Little League™® is to provide kids a theater in to see grownups act like jerks, and try not to be jerks when they grow up.

By integrity, I wish Mr. Keener would also mean prohibiting pitchers from throwing breaking balls, since their arms are still developing and they risk permanent injury. But watch the international tournament and you'll see those growing kids contorting their arms to get the ball to loop and duck.

By integrity, I wish Little League®™ would throw out these geographical boundary rules. They're not only cumbersome, they invite invasion of privacy.

"The boundary map serves several purposes within the Little League©™ program, including maintaining a community environment within the league and maintaining parity during the Little League©™ International Tournament," Little League™® says in explaining the boundary rules.

Parity. The Jackie Robinson West team had to travel outside its boundaries to use practice facilities. When I was coaching, our Little League™was on the west side of Watt Avenue in suburban Sacramento, a working-class neighborhood. On the east side was an executive-class neighborhood.

Our Little League™ had three usable fields in two separate parks; a group of adults reclaimed one of the original showcase fields — from the 1960s — for a practice venue. It was so far back in the corner of an elementary school, the school district didn't even send its giant mowers that far. We chopped down the grass and weeds with tools from our garages, carefully picking up syringes among the trash. Once while we were cleaning up, a police officer came through the weeds in search of a handgun connected to a crime.

On the other side of Watt, for that community's Little League™®, was a baseball complex, several well-kept fields built in one place, fanning out from a permanent snack bar and press box.


In order to play a team from another Little League®™that had less than ours, we had to negotiate use of a little-used high school field in their neighborhood, and couldn't have played without a bucket of my team's baseballs and rubber bases I had stowed in my car.

Parity. Maybe at one time neighborhood-by-neighborhood leagues work and baseball was THE game. Now, however, leagues are damned or blessed by demographics, and parity is the last word I'd use.

Invasion is the word I'd use. The geographical boundary rule is only important for post-season play, but every player is checked for residency. This has unintended consequences, two of which I witnessed. One involved a parent who didn't want others to know about a relationship that could be ascertained by the address; another parent had a restraining order against another parent. In the latter, though children had been selected to play on an all-star team, the parent didn't let them because doing so would have exposed information that could have been used against them.

It's time for Little League®™ to drop residency requirements and concentrate instead on allying with community interests in creating the parity of decent playing facilities, and spend its energy in developing programs that truly develop children's baseball skills and love of the game.

That would be integrity.

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