This year's Little League World Series is off to a great start — but still carries all of the problems that plague youth sports.
The games have tended to be crisp matches between well-matched teams. Before it's over, we'll have more shutouts than ever. The kids playing the games and the fans watching on TV are getting a lesson in what makes baseball great — pitching and defense.
Loud home runs can be plenty exciting. Especially at this level — when kids swing at balls humming at a major-league equivalent of over 100 miles an hour, on occasion — even getting a bat on the ball is a wonder. But the kids do it. They see the ball tumbling out of the pitcher's hand and make a guess about what kind of pitch it is and where it's going.
But the 2-0 or 1-0 game is much more exciting. And Little League owes much of the excitement to its decision to extend the outfield fences 20 feet, from 205 to 225 feet from home plate.
As I write this, eight games have been shutouts, 15 games have held one of the teams to one run, and five games have held one of the teams to two runs.
In the games I saw — in person at Williamsport and on TV — those extended fences have kept a half dozen or more balls in the park every game.
In the game between Curacao and Russia, the very first two outs of the game came on long fly balls that went far beyond the old fence. On the first play, the left fielder ran like a deer across the grass before catching up with the ball. On the next play, the centerfielder ran almost as far and reached over the fence to pull the ball in.
As expected, Curacao went on to pound Russia. But that display of fielding — the pure joy of watching young athletes run hard over long distances in pursuit of the ball — gave the games an excitement that cheap home runs would not allow.
Another factor behind the low-scoring games: Little League's change in the cutoff date for eligibility. Until this year, if a kid turned 13 after April 30, he was ineligible to play in the summer of tournaments leading to the Little League World Series. Starting this year, July 31 is the date. That means not only lots more 13-year-olds, but also a lot fewer 11-year-olds.
Pitchers enjoy the biggest advantage as the game shifts to an older bunch of kids. The pitchers this year look a lot bigger and stronger than in years past. And to think that everyone in Williamsport was buzzing last year about ONE kid with facial hair!
But there's a problem here that Little League needs to address. The kids have simply outgrown the diamond. The dimensions of the Little League field were set in 1939, when a kindly clerk named Carl Stotz founded the organization. Stotz took a bunch of the kids from the neighborhood to a field to lay out a diamond suitable for little guys. In those early days, the league included much younger kids — 8 or 9 years old — as well as 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds.
The PONY League, another community-based organization, gradually increases the size of the diamonds. Kids now playing in the Little League World Series play on 70-foot bases in the PONY tournaments.
Little League officials say that retrofitting Little League diamonds to adjust for the growth in kids would cost too much money. But something awful is waiting to happen. Either a hitter's going to get seriously hurt with a pitch or a pitcher's going to get seriously hurt with a line drive up the middle. Can you spell lawsuit?
Safety concerns should be the primary reason for changing the field size. But the overall game would improve with bigger diamonds. The pitchers would be more willing to let the hitters put the ball in play, which would reduce pitch counts and longterm injuries. Fielders would play a more important role. Baserunning would become more skilled and important.
Little League has to find a way to update its game. Moving the fences was a good first step. But updating the whole field is an essential next step.
Books mentioned in this post
Charles Euchner is the author of Little League, Big Dreams: The Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played