Little League Lost its Way
In 1938, a man named Carl Stotz organized a baseball league for the boys in his hometown of Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
His idea was to provide a wholesome program of baseball as a way to teach them the ideals of sportsmanship, fair play and teamwork.
Sadly, those who followed the Mr. Stotz progressively lost their way. The most evident example is our own Little League program here in State College.
My personal history with Little League goes way back to the 1960's and 1970's, as a player and coach. While in high school I coached for my father who served as league president and managed many teams in the league over the years, including the first to have a girl on the roster! In the mid-1970's it took a New Jersey Superior Court ruling to allow girls to play Little League.
My affiliation with State College Little League dates back to 1997 when my oldest daughter started playing baseball. I managed her teams, as I did for her younger sisters and brother some years later. I took three separate journeys through State College Little League as a manager, coach, and impromptu grounds-keeper and umpire at times.
It was a wonderful opportunity to support a valuable community organization, spend quality time with my children and teach the fundamentals of our national pastime. I share those memories because I believed in Little League Baseball and it's mission to develop character, courage, and loyalty. Those words appear on the Little League insignia but have sadly become mere accessories to the design.
State College Little League continues to fail in modeling those convictions nor apply them to decisions that have impacted so many children over the course of many years in our community. Courage is shown by making decisions that are made in the best of all children, not only those who are deemed worthy, and standing by those decisions when challenged by a small handful of over-competitive parents who seek only what's best for their child.
Loyalty should be demonstrated to those who followed the rules, played in the SCLL for up to six years and patiently looked forward to their turn to play on the meticulously maintained main field while wearing the sharp uniforms sported by the major league teams. Having coached various sports for over 30 years, I can assure you that there is nothing more character building than young people supporting and encouraging each other on an athletic field. Developing character has as much to do with adversity and disappointment as it does with winning or individual success.
How and why then did Little League, and it's charter in State College, stray from Mr. Stolz' vision? Why do a number of surrounding communities have baseball programs not affiliated with Little League? My goal is to simply raise the issue for community consideration at this point and support the long overdue reform of State College Little League or the development of a non-affiliated baseball league here in State College.
Unfortunately, once 11-year-olds reach the Little League level here in State College, referred to as the 'majors', they are barred from participation unless they are evaluated to play at a very high level. This year those who serve on the board of State College Little League decided that despite absorbing enough players from Halfmoon Township to form a full team, they would continue to only field eight major league teams.
Returning players and 12-year-olds would have a roster spot on these teams leaving over 50 players to vie for only 21 roster positions. It's not that we don't have the facilities here in State College or we do not have enough qualified coaches who volunteered their time, it was simply a matter of maintaining an artificially very high level of play at the major league level.
Why the need to maintain an elite level? The answer came at a SCLL board meeting with parents who challenged this decision. Simply put, SCLL has not been able to beat other local Little Leagues for the past few years in all-star tournament play and there is traditionally a small constituency of parents in the league that put pressure on the league to win.
I don't think Mr. Stolz ever envisioned that as part of his initial goal of organizing boys to play the game of baseball. The district administrator for Little League, nor it's regional leadership, were inclined to address this issue here in State College. The Little League All-Star Tournament, national television coverage, magazine and advertising revenues seem to be the primary business of Little League Baseball, not the oversight of its charters.
The destiny for a significant percentage of players that begin baseball in the SCLL is disappointing. They are likely to wear the major league uniform for only one year, as 12-year-olds. Unless they are evaluated to have superior baseball skills at age 10, they are destined to play seven years at the lower levels, pay the $80 per year league fee and sell raffles to raise money primarily used for the major league and all-star teams.
In return they will be given used equipment, be coached by well-intentioned managers who are less skilled than those on the major league level, never step foot on the main field, often times play without umpires, and receive an inexpensive team t-shirt and cap. Subsequently, 12-year-olds are disadvantaged when finally reaching the majors as required Little League. In contrast, the 17 10-year-olds that were 'advanced' to the major league level this season in place of the 11-year-olds who played through the system (but not evaluated to be above average), will have three years to benefit from a higher level of instruction, additional practices, a longer playing season, and the use of indoor practice facilities not made available to the rest of the league.
In essence a small number of adults, some with a vested interest in their own child's development, are determining which children have the opportunity to develop their skills at a privileged level of instruction for not one, but two additional years! The level playing field for skill development no longer exists, especially for those who financially cannot supplement the missing instruction with expensive private lessons.
SCLL decided to field eight major league teams again this season compared to 12 teams at the minor league level, primarily 9- and 10-year-olds. Are there 11-year-old boys in the minor league that are capable of playing at the major league level? As someone who has been around organized sports my entire life and having worked with many of the boys not selected, the answer is 'absolutely'. Some are actually 'called-up' when a spot becomes available. Why then were these players basically 'held-back' at the 9- and 10-year-old age level? The decision making process is strikingly similar to kids in the playground choosing-up teams and leaving the overweight or less skilled kid out.
The answer is simple, and clearly communicated by the SCLL board of directors. Players are not being advanced through the system because they would "water down" the regular season experience for the potential all-stars. Remarkably, between one-third and one-half of those who play at the major league level will play on a SCLL sponsored all-star or tournament team. SCLL has basically created an elite extended preseason for their all-star and tournament teams rather than sponsor a major league level for all 11- and 12-year-olds.
If postseason play is a legitimate concern, select your all-star and tournament teams earlier in the season and have them start practices prior to the end of the regular season. Another alternative, and one that seems to make the most sense, is to invest more resources in skill development at the lower levels. The current business model has failed on a relatively consistent basis over the years.
Unfortunately, those making these decisions are not kids on a playground. They are adults who are entrusted to make decisions on behalf of what's best for all players, not the select few. They have subscribed to the 'groupthink' mentality that has persisted in the State College Little League far too long. In some cases they are the actual parents who seek to give their own child the advantages while denying other children equal access.
We hear of success stories, athletes like Michael Jordan and Hershel Walker, who overcame early physical disadvantages to persevere and become great athletes. How many children over the years, who we have not heard about, just walked away from sports because of decisions made by adults in their lives who had an opportunity, and obligation, to do more?
I don't believe our community supports holding children back to advance the opportunities of those deemed superior. Could you imagine learning that a child in any of our local school districts, despite being on grade level, was required to repeat 5th grade so an exceptional fourth grader could take his spot in grade six? I'm not aware of any organized sport in our area that practices an 'exclusive' rather than 'inclusive' approach to their program. At a time when there are more dangerous obstacles for children to avoid, how do we support a league that continues to extinguish even one child's love of baseball?
Enrichment opportunities should exist for talented players. Ten-year-old baseball players who have excelled early in their careers certainly deserve the opportunity to 'play-up' with others at the same skill level. As a community, we provide all types of enrichment in our schools and I certainly support the same enrichment opportunity in athletics.
However, that opportunity should not come at the expense of other children who are simply average. The most skilled players will make the summer all-star teams, tournament teams and play on elite travel teams with highly qualified coaches. They will have the opportunity to play baseball year-round. The average kid just wants the opportunity to play baseball with his (or her) own friends during a short ten-week regular season from the middle of April until early June. The same kids they play baseball with at recess during the school day.
State College Little League will use safety as an issue. It was never suggested that safety shouldn't be a primary consideration. The fact is that although some of the 30+ players that weren't allowed to play baseball at their grade level may present a safety issue, most do not. Do we not have a safety issue with 12-year-olds that are required to play at the major league level despite a lack of skill or experience? Doesn't a safety issue exist when a capable 11-year old who was 'retained' at the minor league level for a third season is playing against a 9-year-old who may not have the skills or focus to defend himself on the field.
That issue is a diversion, not the reason we do not give all 11-year-olds the opportunity to play major league baseball in State College. That issue can easily be addressed by independent evaluation of baseball skills and communicating safety concerns with parents and guardians on a case-by-case basis.
We have the facilities and coaches to have added at least one additional major league team this season. In fact, we had more capable managers apply for the position which required scheduled interviews. Why then, in a year that we provided an opportunity for a full team of children from of Halfmoon Township to join State College Little League, did we not add even one additional major league team? Why not create a roster of 13 rather than 12 players if so many difficult decisions had to be made? That option exists at the all-star level. The answer is that State College Little League practices a non-inclusive and elitist approach when it comes to Little League baseball.
This is worthy of a long overdue community conversation and I anticipate that this editorial will initiate discussion supporting both sides of the issue. As a parent, I would certainly be troubled by an opportunity made available to my child at the unnecessary expense of another.
I was cautioned by a board member, in a friendly manner, that if I continued to pursue this issue my name would find its place with specific others in the community who are 'persona non grata' in the State College Little League. Silence, despite potential consequences, demonstrates a lack of leadership, character, courage and loyalty. Do those words sound familiar?