Hoffman's Houston
big little lies?

Ken Hoffman handicaps Little League's weird and wild World Series

Ken Hoffman handicaps Little League's weird and wild World Series

Lamade Stadium
There's more to Little League than meets the eye. Ken Hoffman goes deeper.  LittleLeague.org

This has been the best Little League World Series ever — with championship weekend still to go.

The coach of the New Hampshire All-Star team accused the Rhode Island team of stealing signs, a definite no-no, totally against the honor code of Little League. Thou shall not steal signs or bases. There’s no leading off bases in Little League.

Online gambling sites are taking wagers on the Little League World Series this year. Bovada, one of the most popular sports books on the web, has the international children a -150 favorite over the U.S. tykes. The Japanese and South Korean teams are the bettors’ picks to win the title.

Bet on these kids
Why not bet on Little League? I’ve bet on dogs, horses, jai alai players, celebrity boxers, the Academy Awards, and whether a tiny little ball will land in a red or black slot.

A player on the New Jersey team threw a hissy fit on TV after his coach pulled him for a pinch runner. You don’t see that too often in Little League. I was rooting for the Jersey boys because the team was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and practiced on the same fields in Warinanco Park where I played Little League.

Here’s the thing about Little League that you don’t hear mentioned on ESPN, maybe because ESPN paid $60 million to air the Little League World Series.

A big drop for Little League
Little League’s popularity is in steep decline. Participation is way down across the U.S. In the Southeast Region (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas), once a hotbed of Little League, the number of players has dropped 43 percent from 2007, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The culprit is select baseball, which takes youth baseball to crazy levels of competitiveness, expense, and sometimes heartbreak. This is the sales pitch select managers give to parents of a talented 12 year old, “Do you want your kid playing Little League … or real baseball?”

Little League...or Select?
Little League doesn’t allow leads off bases, the bases are only 60 feet apart, there are strict pitch limits, everybody makes the team regardless of ability, and everybody must get in the game.

Select ball pretty much plays by the same rules as college and professional baseball. The highest levels of select ball are super serious and cutthroat. A player could pour his guts into making a team, only to be replaced if the manager finds a better player. That’s life, kid.  

True story. I once wrote a column about a local, absurdly successful select baseball program with teams in several age groups. These teams travel to tournaments across the U.S. Parents pay about $3,000 for their kids to be in the program. I met a woman who said her family was moving from North Carolina to Houston, so her 13 year-old son could play for one of the teams.

Select’s domination
How dominating are these select teams? I asked the manager, if your team of 12 year olds played the Little League champions, who would win? He laughed at me. “We’d win every time. Give me a number, that’s how many runs we’d win by.”

As for the Rhode Island team being accused of stealing signs, the coaches and kids allegedly used an elaborate system of hand gestures to relay to the batter what pitch was coming. I never saw sign stealing when I coached in Little League, but here’s how I watched coaches work it during summer travel ball.

If the third base coach caught a glimpse of the opposing catcher’s signs, he’d let the batter know by innocently saying his name. If a fastball was coming, the coach would shout “Come on, Jimmy!” If a curve was on its way, the coach would yell, “You can do it, Johnson.” A changeup was “Let’s go, son.” First name, fastball. Last name, curve. Son, changeup.

There’s no cheating in Little League...or is there?
Out-and-out cheating does occasionally happen in Little League. Teams have been caught using players who didn’t live in their local league’s geographical boundaries. In 2001, Danny Almonte was unhittable with his blazing fastball. After the tournament, it was discovered that Almonte was two years older than the age limit. His New York team had to forfeit its third-place finish.

As for a player throwing a fit or arguing with a coach. True story from a summer select tournament: our team took the field, except no one was in right field. One of the dads went to the dugout and told the kid who was supposed to be in right, “You better get out there, the game is starting.” The kid told the dad, “You tell the coach that I don’t play right field. And while you’re at it, I don’t bat eighth, either.”

It’s odd how ESPN portrays Little Leaguers practically as toddlers. These kids, especially the better players, are pampered veterans on a baseball field. Check out their equipment.

Those Wilson A2000 gloves cost $250. Their bats are $300 and up. These kids travel around the country like rock bands. Some teams fly to tournaments on private jets. Some of these kids play on two or three teams. If one team is playing a tournament in Florida, and another team needs them in Maine, the team in Maine will pay for those kids to fly there, play one game, and fly back to Florida that night.

Little League boasts that its rules are designed to protect the health of players. Little League has strict pitch-count limits. In the 12-year-old division, the most pitches a pitcher can throw in one day is 85. That’s a nice safe number, except …

Is it dangerous?
Johnny is today’s pitcher. Before the game, he will throw 25 to 30 pitches in pre-game warmup. Then he will take the mound and throw eight pitches before the first hitter steps into the batter’s box. Johnny will throw five warmup pitches at the start of each ensuing inning.

Let’s say Johnny reaches his 85-pitch count in the sixth inning. You counting with me? Johnny will throw more than 140 pitches that day. And what happens when Johnny reaches 85 pitches? His manager tells him to go play shortstop, where he may have to make a few more hard throws to first base.

Fun fact that’s not so funny: Children as young as 13 are getting Tommy John surgery, and nearly 60 percent of all Tommy John surgeries in America today are performed on kids between 15 and 19.