Little League Tries Strong-Arm Tactics

Surgeries on the rise

Much of the impetus for change came from Andrews and colleagues at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala.

Andrews told Little League officials at a 2007 gathering in Houston that the number of Tommy John -- or ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction -- surgeries he has performed on adolescents has risen dramatically from five annually between 1995 and 2000 to 55 in 2003 and 61 in 2004.

Pitch count, however, is only part of the reason for what he called a "dramatic escalation of these injuries."

Year-round baseball was the No.1 factor, Andrews said, and he encouraged parents to keep their kids away from the game three months each year. He expressed concern about top pitchers competing on "traveling" teams where no limits are in place. He mentioned the emphasis on velocity and the danger of throwing too many consecutive curveballs.

Mininder Kocher, associate director of the division of sports medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston, said he also has seen a major jump in the number of teenagers with elbow and shoulder injuries, some of whom are already at risk for arthritis.

And he has encountered more than a few young pitchers pushing for Tommy John surgery when it isn't needed. "There's this sense that this is sort of a rite of passage," Kocher said. "And they've heard they can throw harder after the operation."

Kocher gave Little League's limits a qualified thumbs up:

"The problem is that each kid is a little different, each kid has a different threshold. One-size-fits-all may not be perfect, but it's a good start."

Ex-pro's perspective

Some soreness comes with the territory.

Mark Eichhorn knows all about that, having pitched in the major leagues with four teams in 1982-96. Born in San Jose, Eichhorn helped coach the Aptos team that advanced to the 2002 Little League World Series. His two sons -- Kevin, 17, and Steve, 12 -- are pitchers. He also offers private lessons.

"I do get kids that come here with maybe a little tendinitis at 10 years old," said Eichhorn, who endorses the Little League pitch limit. "I'll just say, 'Hop back in the car and go home.' You don't want to mess with that."

The 2002 Aptos team kept a "fairly close" eye on pitch counts, Eichhorn said.

"The reason I say fairly and not extremely close is that both our horses were control pitchers," he said of his son and Kyle Anderson. "They threw a lot of strikes and the games were fairly short."

Back in his Little League days in Watsonville, Eichhorn never heard of pitch counts. In fact, it wasn't a widespread issue in the majors until the 1970s.

"It started when they realized the value of a closer, then they realized the value of a setup man to a closer," Eichhorn said. "Then they realized the value of the starter going six or seven as opposed to nine to keep him fresh for the second half of the season."

New strategy

Different Little Leagues keep track of pitches in different ways.

In the Willow Glen game, the task falls to the official scorer, and on this particular night Robert Guidero is sitting in the shack directly behind home plate. He's a busy man, keeping track of lineup changes, ruling on hits and errors.

And counting pitches.

The Giants are in trouble. Their pitcher has thrown 55 pitches in the first two innings and trails 4-0. Brendan Everton, on the other hand, has thrown a more efficient 28 for the Yankees; he'll make it into the sixth inning before hitting his limit, exiting with a 9-1 lead in a game his team would win 9-7.

Has Guidero found himself in a pitch-count dispute?

"We check with each team every half-inning," he said. "In our league, we haven't had any problem all year."

Pitch limits have managers doing more than just counting throws, Deanne Everton said.

"Managers have to be more strategic," she said. "I've seen the e-mails, figuring out who can throw on two days' rest."

And the new rule can add to the tension during a game.

"Especially when it's neck and neck and you're getting up to the limit," she said. "Sometimes my husband's checking with the scorer's booth after every batter."

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