Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Little League World Series Teaches Kids Wrong Lessons

Pieces like this traditionally lead with the disclaimers.  So:  No, I’m not a disgruntled Little League dad whose kid’s team got knocked out early.  Yes, I like baseball.  No, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV.  Yes, I’m a grumpy old man.

That said, we need to talk about the Little League World Series.  I’d like to point out three facts to you.  One:  Little League has a steroid policy.  Two:  Curveballs are really tough on young elbows.  Three:  Kids mature at wildly variable rates.

No link for the third one, because it’s obvious – and because denial of this obvious fact of life is driving the other two, and turning the Little League World Series into a national menace.

The clearest illustration is probably Mo’Ne Davis, the 13 year old female pitcher from Philadelphia whose arm helped carry her team to the LLWS.  Though not exactly a trailblazer – 17 other girls have played in it – Davis is far and away the best, and she dominated throughout her team’s run….

I guess it’s disclaimer time again.  Please read this next paragraph carefully, and before you start jamming that caps lock key on those angry emails, read it again:  I have no problem with girls playing Little League, or anything else for that matter.  In fact, I encourage it, since it’s the best possible illustration of my point.

Miss Davis has been featured in places like the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, CNN, and ESPN – all “showing legions of young girls everywhere that they can do anything the boys can do.  Only better,” as ESPN-W’s Melissa Isaacson puts it.  Now, this is not exactly news to anyone who played sandlot sports or attended a public junior high school.  And while that may excuse the news media’s initial ignorance – I’m pretty sure they hatch reporters from pods in some secret Upper Manhattan laboratory – five minutes on the innerwebz is sufficient to dispel it.  As it turns out, “Oh my gosh, their star player is a girl!” has been a staple of kids’ fiction since the 19th century (according to everyone’s favorite super-accurate, totally unbiased information source, Wikipedia, the term “tomboy” was in common-enough usage to appear in a popular painting by 1873, and the word itself has been around since the 16th century).  Younger (or less academically inclined) readers might recall The Bad News Bears movie exploring the same theme.  That preteen girls can school preteen boys in all kinds of things is not classified information.

The problem is what happens next.  All those Mo’Ne Davis stories are a one-two punch.  Because Miss Davis dominates now, these stories strongly imply, she’ll continue to dominate through high school and beyond (indeed, ESPN got outgoing Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig on record saying he thinks a woman will pitch in the bigs in his lifetime).  Which brings us back to the first two facts I mentioned, above.  As y’all are no doubt aware, little boys are insanely competitive.  They also have what developmental psychologists call “low future time orientation,” a fancy way of saying that they’re not mature enough to evaluate long-term costs and consequences.  And as y’all are no doubt also aware, those insanely competitive little boys with low future time orientation usually have insanely competitive parents with ditto (paging Hockey Dad).  Hence, Little League’s steroid policy, and the prevalence of young pitchers on Dr. James Andrews’ operating table.

The net effect of all this is kids ruining their arms and health for a competitive edge that will either come naturally in a few years, or not at all.  Since so many kids – and no few big leaguers, for that matter – can’t consistently hit a curveball, you’ve got 11 year olds breaking one off whenever they need an out, twisting their elbow tendons like pretzels in the process.  Similarly, you can either catch up to 70 mph heat or you can’t.  Lots of 11- to 13-year olds can’t, which is a big part of Mo’Ne Davis’s success.  Lots of 14- to 16-year olds can, though.  In effect, you’ve got kids juicing to nudge their body clocks forward a few years, all for success in a game that doesn’t correlate to major league success at all (only 24 kids in the history of the LLWS have gone on to play in the bigs).

It’s natural that kids mature at different rates, enabling their bodies to do dramatically different things at different times.  We’re adults, though – we should know better.  If we must go on showing the LLWS, let’s do a better job of explaining the facts of life to the kids who watch it.


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