In 1938, Carl Stotz organized a baseball league for the boys in Williamsport. 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 Stotz progressively lost their way. The most evident example is our own Little League program in State College.
My history with Little League goes back to the 1960s as a player, coach and parent. I believed in Little League’s mission to develop character, courage and loyalty. Those words, which appear on the Little League insignia, sadly have become mere accessories to the design.
Developing character has as much to do with adversity and disappointment as it does with winning or individual success.
Unfortunately, once 11-year-olds reach the Little League majors level in State College, they’re barred from participation unless they are evaluated to play at a high level. This year those who serve on the board of State College Little League decided that despite absorbing enough players from a disbanded league to form a full team, they would continue to only field eight major league teams. Returning players and 12-year-olds would have a spot on these teams, leaving more than 50 players to vie for only 21 roster positions. It’s not that we don’t have the facilities or qualified coaches; it was a matter of maintaining an artificially created high level of play at the major level.
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Parents challenged the decision. But SCLL has not been able to beat local teams consistently in all-star tournament play, and there is traditionally a small constituency of parents in the league who pressure the league to win. I don’t think Stolz ever envisioned that as part of his initial goal of organizing boys to play baseball. Neither the district administrator nor its regional leadership would address this issue. The All-Star Tournament, including national television coverage, and magazine and advertising revenues, is the primary business of Little League.
The destiny for a significant percentage of boys who begin baseball in the SCLL is disappointing. Unless they have superior skills by 10, they’re 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. In contrast, the 17 10-year-olds who 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. The level playing field for skill development no longer exists, especially for those who financially cannot supplement the missing instruction with expensive private lessons.
Remarkably, between one-third and one-half of those who play at the major league level will play on a sponsored all-star or tournament team. SCLL has 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 before 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 choosing teams. 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 league far too long. In some cases they are the parents who seek to give their own child the advantages while denying other children equal access. 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 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 fifth grade so an exceptional fourth-grader could take their place in sixth grade?
Enrichment opportunities should exist for talented players. Ten-year-old baseball players who have excelled early in their careers 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 support the same enrichment opportunity in athletics. However, that opportunity should not come at the expense of other children who are simply average.
We have the facilities and coaches to have added at least one additional major league team this season. 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 a disbanded league to join 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?