Little League Tries Strong-Arm Tactics

Strike one.

Twelve-year-old Brendan Everton is mowing them down, cruising through the second inning of a late-season Willow Glen Little League game between his Yankees and the Giants.

Ball one, high.

His dad is the manager. And his mom is watching closely from the spectator side of the fence at Bramhall Park.

Foul ball, strike two.

"I don't know that I was really aware of pitch counts until they put the rule in place," Deanne Everton said. "But I think it's good to have so you don't overextend a pitcher just to win a game. You can use and misuse a pitcher."

Because of that potential misuse, Little League Baseball recently became the first and only youth program to adopt strict pitch limits and to refine its rules on how many days must pass between starts. Both moves are designed to cut down on what doctors say is an alarming rise in the number of injuries to young elbows.

But the impact of the new system goes beyond looking out for the welfare of kids as young as 7. It challenges the win-at-any-cost mentality that critics see as a problem in the increasingly competitive world of youth sports.

And that's fine with Jim Thompson, executive director of the Palo Alto-based Positive Coaching Alliance, who praised Little League's leadership on an issue that can put coaches in a bind because of their desire to win.

"When we really want something, our judgment is in danger," Thompson said. "Sitting in a restaurant talking about it, a coach might say, 'No, I'd never over-pitch a kid.'

"But when you're in a game, and it's maybe the third inning and the pitch count is high," he continued, "because you want to win so badly, your judgment is marred."

Adjustments, Thompson added, will be made.

"Coaches are going to work to win within whatever rules there are."

Doctor's orders

More than 2.3 million players worldwide compete in youth leagues operated through the Little League organization, based in Williamsport, Pa. In the past, rules limited a pitcher's innings -- but not the number of pitches.

In formulating the rules, Little League worked closely with James Andrews, the orthopedist who has succeeded Frank Jobe as the surgeon pro athletes seek out for the elbow repair named after former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, the first player to undergo the surgery in 1974.

The pitch limits vary by age:

10 and under -- 75.

11 and 12 -- 85.

13 through 16 -- 95.

17 and 18 -- 105.

Once the limit is reached, a pitcher finishes throwing to that batter. Then the bullpen takes over.

In addition, any player under 16 who throws more than 60 pitches must wait three days between starts; a pitcher who throws from 41 to 60 must wait two days; and anyone who throws from 21 to 40 pitches must wait one day.

"We still see it as a work in progress, though we're extremely pleased how well it's gone," Little League spokesman Lance Van Auken said.

Two years ago, Little League chose 50 of its 6,500 leagues to test the new program. That went smoothly enough to open it up on a voluntary basis for all leagues last season, and 500 signed up -- including Willow Glen's. This year the program became mandatory.

Some remain skeptical about local enforcement of the national rule.

"The people in Williamsport cannot travel to every Little League game," said Doug Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri who writes about youth sports. "Will there be some cheating? Of course. But most parents and coaches don't want to go out and hurt the kids."

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