I know kids who played in the Little League World Series. About four years after they made the trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the 1986 festivities matching 12-year-old baseball players from around the world, I got to know some of the Norridge, Illinois players as high schoolers. I met their families.
These kids spent that summer trying to prove that they were the best team of 12-year-olds anywhere ... well, at least among those organizations that play under the Little League umbrella, which doesn't count Babe Ruth and other such youth baseball organizations. They fell a little short of that, losing to eventual runner-up Tucson, Ariz., in the first round. They did come back to beat teams from Spain and Quebec, however, which is a pretty good showing.
Now, those kids are fathers and husbands who are in their mid 30s. And I know that the trip to Williamsport for the famed tournament is one of the highlights of each boy's life.
However, this tournament's run, which started in 1947, needs to end. Why?
*Too much pressure on kids who are barely past puberty, if they have reached it at all. When this thing started in 1947, there were only 17 known Little League programs, and all but one team at the tournament came from Pennsylvania. It was more like a regional tournament, with whole communities not having to drive or fly hours to get there. It didn't take too many years for this thing to start attracting teams from Florida, Texas and California. The first team from outside the United States was a team from Quebec in 1952. It's been international ever since, with teams from Japan, China frequent winners in the past 25-30 years. If you think there's not pressure on kids to win in front of their own parents and friends at the local diamond each night, imagine playing in front of thousands at the Williamsport facility, not to mention TV cameras and all the hoopla. These kids are 12 years old for crying out loud. And all they're doing is playing a game.
*Too much pressure on coaches and other adults to bend the rules, if not break them. You've heard it before. This kid is too old. He's too good. His birth certificate was faked. This kind of attention and notoriety can drive people to do some things they may not normally do. Why provide them with another excuse for it? After all, we're just talking about 12-year-olds playing baseball.
*Widely varied physical development at this age. Most boys show the first physical changes of puberty between 10 and 16 and tend to grow most quickly between 12 and 15. That means some have already started that process by the age of 12. You can have a hug difference in physical ability and maturity at this age. That's why teams at the World Series are usually led by one or two "monsters" who have matured quicker than their teammates. Why, some of them even have facial hair. The bigger kids don't have to have any more skill than the other players; sometimes they are just bigger and have quicker reflexes. When the pitching mound is only 45 feet from home plate, that's huge. Are we really seeing the best teams or just the most physically advanced kids for their age?
*It takes attention away from the more mature kids who play at the higher levels. Does anybody know that Little League also conducts World Series baseball and softball tournaments for older kids? In what other sport are the youngest, least skilled players afforded the most attention? We're so concerned that there are national or state rankings of eight-grade basketball players (which I also oppose), but it's just fine for 12-year-olds to be in the limelight but when they get one year older, better and more mature, nobody cares anymore.
There is a difference between individual athletes at early ages and athletes in team sports. Individuals with unique abilities at an early age compete against kids of similar maturity and abilities. In team sports, you don't have that luxury, especially in sports like football or baseball. You need so many kids, you're not going to have a whole team of Hulks. However, I'm still not a big fan of extremely young kids competing for such things as national titles in a country as big as the United States. Too much travel, too much expense ... for what?
I would encourage Little League to halt its tournament for 12-year-olds (and younger) to perhaps a state or regional level. Or national, depending on how big that nation is. Kids will be excited to go as far as they can go, parents will enjoy not having to fork over the extra money to go to a tournament in Pennsylvania, which is fairly far away from most of the qualifiers these days.