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The Sandlot Versus Science

Not long ago, I went to a vintage base ball game in Westfield, Connecticut. The Westfield Wheelmen played the Hartford Senators on Adonis Terry Day.

As many as 200 vintage teams have arisen in the last quarter century. Usually playing according to the rules of the 1860s and 1880s, the teams take you back to baseball's formative years. In the game I saw, players used leather the size of gardeners' gloves. They swung big bats — usually around 40 ounces — and hit balls that didn't have the hard rubber core that makes today's hits go so far.

It was a refreshing game. Even though most players don't have extraordinary physical abilities, they have more physical toughness. When you catch a sizzling liner down the third base line, your hand stings for days. That's a lot harder to do than extending a basket-sized glove to swallow the ball.

The day's highlight was meeting Jim Bouton, the rebel who had as much effect on the culture of baseball than anyone else in our lifetime. Bouton's Ball Four was a seminal book that ripped the mask of heroism off the face of baseball.

Before the game, I took a couple of Little Leaguers up to Bouton and asked how young kids should approach pitching.

"What you have to do is find out your own style," he said. "Everyone has their own pitching style. You have do some things a certain way, but mostly you have to find your own motion. Coaches don't let pitchers do that any more. They think you have to [conform] to some mechanical way of doing things. But people are different, and kids are still growing. They can't be forced into doing something that doesn't feel right."

How do you figure out the right pitching motion, Jim?

"Easy! Long tossing. You stand as far as you can from a friend and throw the ball to hm. Play catch, that's all. You throw so it's nice and easy, so you can reach him and hit him in the belly-button. And then once you've done long tossing for a while, you start to come closer and closer. When you get 50 feet away, that's your pitching motion."

Jim Bouton, once baseball's great rebel, is not a traditionalist. Don't tell me about biomechanics, he says. Just learn how to throw in as natural a way as possible.

"Throw as much as you can," he says. What about throwing too much? What about arm injuries. "Look, you're going to have a sore arm 500 times, if you're lucky. You're going to hurt your arm. But that's how you learn how to deal with it. That's how you get stronger."

The Bouton way, in effect, is to learn how to throw rather than learn how to pitch. A lot of baseball gurus say it should be the other way around — that instead of "just" throwing, a kid has to learn how to pitch. That means using a proper motion, painting the corners, developing a repertoire of pitches, and so on.

The scientists of the game are taking pitching in a different direction. Led by the American Sports Medicine Institute, coaches and doctors are learning about the intricate "kinetic chain" of a pitcher's motion. They want the pitcher to go through a specific sequence of movements — lifting the front leg (to create energy), maintaining balance (to prevent the dissipation of energy and bad mechanics), raring back (to start to use the energy), rotating the hips and torso forward (to power the bodyt forward), whipping the ball forward (using the energy thrust the ball forward with as much force and as little damage to the joints as possible), landing on the front foot the right way (to absorb the shock of the motion).

(I discuss this kinetic chain in my book The Last Nine Innings. Order yours today!)

The ASMI has been working with Little League to study the impact of throwing on the young pitcher's arm — most particularly, the shoulder and elbow. ASMI has found that the cumulative stress of throwing can cause serious injuries. ASMI does not make hard and fast claims about the effects of throwing curveballs, but its research tsar, Glenn Fleisig, says there's reason to suspect that curveballs can damage young arms.

That is the crux of today's debate about youth pitching. Traditionalists like Jim Bouton say kids should just throw, throw, throw. Play all day till you're tired, then stop. You might call that the Sandlot School of Pitching. Scientists like Glenn Fleisig say, wait a minute, kids play organized ball these days. And in leagues and tournaments, the strain of pitching — not just throwing, but pitching — can cause serious injuries with overuse and bad mechanics. So you need some rules and regulations to protect the kids. Call that the Scientific School of Pitching.

The debate is critical to the future of youth baseball. As an excellent article in Friday's USA Today notes, Little League Baseball seems poised to adopt a pitch-count rule for the 2007 or 2008 season and Little League's summer tournaments.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Ball Four
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Little League, Big Dreams: The Hope,...
    Used Hardcover $10.50


Charles Euchner is the author of Little League, Big Dreams: The Hope, the Hype and the Glory of the Greatest World Series Ever Played

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