Youth Baseball

Little League's second 75 years may be more challenging than its first

2014-06-06T22:00:00Z Little League's second 75 years may be more challenging than its firstJohn Burbridge john.burbridge@nwi.com, (219) 933-3371 nwitimes.com

This Friday was the 75th anniversary of the first Little League game ever played. To put that in greater perspective, that's only 38 years removed from the last Cubs World Series title.

As for making it to the Little League World Series, the region has made its share of forays to Williamsport, Pa.

In 1997, Dyer Little League advanced to the LLWS. So did Edison (Hammond) in 1972, as well as Anderson (Gary) Little League the year before.

Anderson's appearance was a historic one. The team was the LLWS's first "All-Negro Team" as proclaimed in the newspapers at the time. Anderson advanced as far as the championship game where it lost to Taiwan, 12-3, in a final more closer than the score indicates -- it remains the only LLWS championship game to go nine innings.

During the series, Anderson star Lloyd McClendon earned the moniker "Legendary Lloyd" long before he became a major league player and manager when he hit five-straight home runs in five-straight at-bats -- actually, it was five-straight swings of the bat.

Even when local teams don't make it as far as Williamsport, people around here still watch the television coverage of the LLWS religiously. ESPN often gives the international tournament its props when reserving one or two spots for its Top 10 Plays of the Day.

Yet despite of its diamond-encrusted history and the globe-spanning glory it can provide, more and more town baseball and softball leagues are turning away from Little League.

Several of the more recent examples are the youth baseball leagues in Cedar Lake and Lowell, who have both opted to go with Cal Ripken, which is affiliated with Babe Ruth Baseball, which is overwhelmingly more popular among age groups 13-18 than the Junior and Senior leagues associated with Little League.

Seven years ago, Crown Point Youth Baseball made the switch from Little League to Cal Ripken and have shown little regrets since. Last summer, the Crown Point Bulldogs won the region's first Cal Ripken 12/60 World Series title at the tournament hosted by Hammond Optimist Youth Sports.

HOYS was one of the first youth baseball programs in the region to go with Cal Ripken when it was still under the name of Woodmar Baseball.

Reasons cited for these changes to Cal Ripken usually center around greater league autonomy, the allowance for league travel teams other than for end-of-season all-star teams, and being able to host tournaments with out-of-league teams during the regular season.

The emergence of Cal Ripken is not the only thing challenging Little League to remain viable for the next 75 years and beyond.

The proliferation of travel "elite" teams continues to grow at an exponential rate. How do I know this? Because during the fall I get systems warnings every other day about the storage space in my email in-box being wiped out do to a continual wave of team try-out requests.

These requests now bleed into the winter, the following spring, and even during the summer season with teams still scrambling to improve themselves at positions they apparently deem themselves "not elite" enough at. I often wonder about how many "elite" players can actually reside in a space encompassing northwest Indiana and the southwest suburbs of Chicago.

In part what spurs this travel team proliferation, I've come to believe, is parents wanting their children to be taught by professional coaches. They don't want them to suffer the same fate that befell most of them during their budding baseball careers when some unknowledgeable Little League or town-league coach butchered their talent and the chance at making millions of dollars in the major leagues and dating a bevy of super models.

I've repeatedly heard guys I grew up playing baseball with lament that no one showed them that a four-seam fastball can supposedly add two to three miles to a pitcher's velocity ... that they didn't get to hit baseballs year-round under the tutelage of a former All-American at any of the indoor facilities that have popped up over the years.

Indeed, professional coaches can make a difference even with subtle suggestions. I once covered a baseball camp conducted by Houston Astros hitting coach John Mallee. A former middle infielder, Mallee showed campers that their thumbs of both their glove and throwing hands should be in the down position after separation upon fielding a grounder. Such technique leads to a quicker and more accurate throw. (I wish Mallee could have shown that to Cubs shortstop Starlin Casto).

For the most part, Little League coaches are merely volunteers. Some may have been former professional baseball players themselves. Others may have never played organized ball in their lives.

Clueless about the game or not, I still have a great appreciation for those volunteering their efforts for the benefit of youths. Not every town league can be graced with gurus as coaches, but it takes a lot of self-sacrifice and general administrative competence to keep such a league going.

Several buddies of mine and myself learned that the hard way when we tried to start our own fastpitch baseball league while we were still shy of our 20s. Most of us played Little League, Babe Ruth and American Legion ball and thought it would be easy to pull our resources together to keep on playing.

Problem was none of us considered the rigors of securing fields and reliable umpires, keeping an ample supply of equipment (like enough baseballs for a game), and establishing an overseeing board of directors with disciplining authority to discourage games from degenerating into bench-clearing brawls.

Soon, the league collapsed due to its lack of integrity and maturity.

One of my favorite town-league baseball coaches wasn't a professional guru, and he may have very well ruined some young arms in his time -- he would tell us 13-, 14- and 15-year-old pitchers that our curve should set up our fastpitch. But he was excellent a one thing: chewing our team out after a lackluster performance.

I know this because when my teammates would confer with each other afterward, each one of us believed that he was singled out during the tirade.

Yet when he would give my brother and I -- who were often among our team's most egregious offenders when it came to effort and execution -- a ride home after the game, he would be affable and communicative with us with no lingering effects. In other words, he never threatened to hold tryouts for our replacements.

It's not that we didn't take baseball seriously at the town-league recreational level. We just didn't let it consume and corrupt our summer.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Al Hamnik

Al Hamnik

Al Hamnik has been a reporter and columnist in Northwest Indiana for 42 years and is a member of the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, as well as a winner of the Indiana sportswriter of the year award, an IHSAA media award winner, a Corky Lamm Award winner and a three-time HSPA winner.

Steve Hanlon

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Jim Peters graduated from Andrean (Class of 1981) and Purdue (1985), where he met and worked with current Porter County Assistant Sports Editor Greg Smith. He spent the first 10 or so years of his professional career at a chain of Northwest Indiana weeklies that covered Merrillville, Andrean, Hobart, Portage, Lake Station and River Forest before catching on at the Times in the summer of 1998. Jim covers high school sports in Porter County.

Hillary Smith

Hillary Smith

Hillary Smith has covered prep, pro and college sports -- and even a Dixie Baseball World Series -- for newspapers north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line since 1995.

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