By Ryan Robbins
Maine Campus staff
Each year, more than 3 million youngsters in more than 80 countries flock to dusty Little League baseball fields in hopes of capturing baseball glory. For some, the goal is to one day emerge from the dugout onto a major league field. Others aim for a chance to play in the Little League World Series, held every year in Williamsport, Pa.
Last Saturday, the Little League season ended when Toms River East, N.J., defeated Kashima, Japan, 12-9 in the championship game before a national television audience.
Series champions are treated like heroes - especially if they are from the United States. The players from Toms River have appeared on "Late Show with David Letterman" and are scheduled to appear on Rosie O'Donell's show.
But has the glory of playing before thousands of people in Williamsport in front of a national television audience made Little League nothing more than a vice for adults to show off at the expense of the players?
The manager for Jenison, Mich., allowed starting pitcher Tony Clausen to throw a whopping 175 pitches in his team's 11-inning loss to Toms River in the second game of the Series - an act that borders on child abuse. Clausen pitched eight innings, giving up 9 runs, 10 hits and nine walks, while striking out 10. Reliever Derek Stempin pitched only 2 1/3 innings, but he threw 51 pitches.
This is Little League, folks, where players don't train and rarely warm up in the bullpen, which every pitcher needs to do for at least 15 minutes. There are few professional managers who would even consider allowing a well-conditioned veteran to throw 130 pitches, much less 175.
Even more alarming, most Little League coaches don't understand how to pitch properly. The only thing they know is to say, "Rear back and fire." As a result, most players fling their arms toward the plate when they pitch, instead of using their hips and legs for power.
But Little League sanctions this abuse - which at times borders on the obscene, as in the Jenison, Mich, game. During the regular season, players can pitch no more than six innings in a week. If they pitch in four or more innings in a game, they cannot pitch again for three days. Players who pitch fewer than four innings cannot pitch again for one day.
But come tournament time, Little League throws these rules out in favor of less stringent ones: Players are allowed to pitch nine innings per game, they can pitch on consecutive days if they threw no more than one inning in the previous game, and they do not have to rest three days. The only other restriction is that a player cannot pitch in consecutive games.
While I umpired the plate for a district losers bracket game between Millinocket and Old Town this summer, the Old Town pitcher began grimacing after each pitch about halfway through the game. At times, he grunted in pain and clutched his shoulder. None of Old Town's coaches said anything.
After emitting a particularly loud "ahh" at the completion of his warmups, I walked up to the pitcher and said, "Is your arm hurting you?" His lips curled to the side as he rotated his shoulder a few times. He nodded. "Do you want to come out?" I said, glancing at his coaches, who weren't paying attention. The pitcher shook his head. "If it hurts and you can't pitch, call 'time' and tell your coach," I said.
Unfortunately, the youngster didn't say anything.
There is no quick-fix solution to this problem. Few Little Leaguers beg to be taken off the mound. They may think their coaches, teammates and parents would think less of them, or they are determined to finish what they started. Whatever the reason, Little League Baseball needs to establish and enforce strict standards governing the use of pitchers to prevent what could be career-threatening injuries - injuries that could destroy a youngster's dream of one day emerging from the dugout at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field.