Sally Jenkins on the Little League World Series: They Grow Up So Fast

The look of disappointment: David Batchelor, second from right, the coach of the Peabody, Mass., Little Leaguers, tries to console his players as Chula Vista, Calif., scores 12 runs in the sixth inning of Sunday night's game.
The look of disappointment: David Batchelor, second from right, the coach of the Peabody, Mass., Little Leaguers, tries to console his players as Chula Vista, Calif., scores 12 runs in the sixth inning of Sunday night's game. (By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)
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By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One of the more disconcerting things Little Leaguers have learned from major leaguers is how to shower the infield with so much spit it registers like precipitation on a Doppler. What does a 12-year-old boy need to spit for, anyway? To get rid of the Laffy Taffy in the roof of his mouth? The answer is, so he can look like a mini-man on ESPN's telecast of the Little League World Series.

It's frightening how easily they pick up the mannerisms of their counterparts in the bigs. After every swing they slide the bat down and grip it manfully by the fat end, and stalk out of the batter's box. They adjust their batting helmet with one gloved hand, and adjust their lower region with the other. Watching them, you get the same creepy feeling you do watching little girls in beauty pageants, wearing hair spray and wiggling their hips as they belt out Broadway tunes.

The argument for abolishing the Little League World Series is on display this week on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN360, every time a 12-year-old does an interview, every time announcer Orestes Destrade calls a 4-foot-8 pitcher "a little John Franco," every time a skinny pre-adolescent gets a sore arm from throwing too much, and every time a kid imitates Matt Garza by hawking up a glob and spewing it into the dirt.

The stated mission of Little League is "in developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being. By espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty, the Little League Baseball and Softball program is designed to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes." But let's be plain: If the kids playing in Williamsport exhibit any of the noble qualities listed -- and some do, especially character -- they do so in the face of pressures that would buckle adults, and despite a cacophony of mixed messages.

Watch ESPN's broadcasts, and you'll hear a lot of banal moral maxims about "citizenship," but search in vain for any evidence that it is more important than athleticism. What you'll see are boys, some quite small, in a stadium the size of a Class AAA ballpark holding crowds of 45,000 foaming with vicarious ambition. You'll see pre-adolescents throw upward of 200 pitches on short rest, contrary to all medical advice. You'll see stern-faced men in managerial uniforms urging them, in voices that crack hoarsely, to "Get out there and get it done!"

Mainly you'll see a lot of grownups acting out a central hypocrisy, the pretense that winning doesn't matter, while in the stands and on television they screamingly demonstrate how much it does matter, how much it really, really matters.

Hardly a second goes by on ESPN without a reference to the majors. During a Sunday night broadcast of a game between Chula Vista, Calif., and Peabody, Mass., we learned who every boy's favorite big leaguer is, usually Albert Pujols, and which big leaguer called which team to wish it luck. We learned that John Tudor was from Peabody, and that Adrian Gonzalez grew up in Chula Vista.

We watched as Peabody pitcher Matt Hosman, an angular boy in spectacles, threw a valiant game against Chula Vista, holding them to two runs in five innings with a 70 mph fastball that seemed too powerful for his frail arm, before he left the mound when he passed the limit of 85 pitches allowed in one game. Medical advisers have told Little League a safer limit is 75, a standard it declines to implement. We didn't hear that from ESPN, but we did hear that Hosman is so popular in Peabody a local dairy named an ice cream after him, and put him on the carton.

We watched another Peabody kid, Austin Batchelor, make a spearing catch in the outfield, and heard Destrade and Sean McDonough bray, "Austin Batchelor, you are going to be on 'SportsCenter' tonight!"

We learned from the network chatter that Chula Vista had hit 46 homers in just eight games, and that "The comparisons to major league teams are astounding!" because it took the Braves 17 games to hit the same number.

When Hosman was replaced on the mound by Matt Correale, a lefty with two prominent front teeth, we heard that his nickname is Matt the Rat, and that "He will have memories that will last a lifetime." But then Chula Vista's superior size and strength took over in a 12-run inning. At 12-0 in the sixth, Correale was finally relieved, and stooped in the grass with his mitt over his face, as if he had something to be ashamed of. He didn't -- Chula Vista has scored 127 runs in eight games and is favored to win the whole thing. A fine hitter named Andy Rios, who lives in Gonzalez's old house, slugged two homers in one inning to make it 14-0. "Boom, boom, pow! This one was See-Ya!" the broadcasters shouted.

The founding idea of Little League is a good one: It gives kids of all abilities and sizes a chance to participate equally and to learn the correct fundamentals, which delivers a lot of joy. But the World Series has become a distorting influence, infecting kids and parents alike with major league fantasies that lead to emotional and physical stresses. In a recent New York Times Magazine story orthopedic surgeon James Andrews described an "epidemic" of arm and shoulder injuries to young ballplayers. Andrews has been keeping tabs: in 2001 and 2002 he performed a total of just 13 shoulder operations on teenagers. Over the next six years, he did 241.

The number of elbow ligament replacement operations he has performed on kids has risen from nine in 1995-98 to 224 between 2003 and 2008. The problem is overwork. Children are playing year-round for multiple teams, and throwing way too much. In last year's Series one young pitcher threw 288 pitches in four games over 10 days of the tournament. Compare that to CC Sabathia, who made just two starts and threw 214 pitches in a similar 10-day period.

Sports, at their best, are supposed to be contained environments where children experience joy and rehearse success and failure through play, supposedly without the pain and pressures that await them in real life. But in the Little League World Series, kids experience pain and pressure along with their joy -- and pick up vulgar habits -- all in the quest to act like "big leaguers." As we all know, being a big leaguer is not synonymous with behavior worth emulating. The Little League has badly confused teaching kids to be good ballplayers with teaching them to be good people. They are two entirely different things.

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