I thought nothing could more boring, more odious to cover than slowpitch softball. Then I spent two of my afternoons this past week covering Little League baseball, and I learned just how wrong I’d been.
Watching your genetic material doing the activity must make it more pleasurable to watch, but to the objective outsider, Little League is long, slow, sloppy and dull. Games can take as long as a high school or short professional game, but with half as many exciting plays.
Now, I don’t blame the players for the snoozefest that is Little League baseball. They’re 9 years old — how much better could they realistically play?
I blame the umpires. With the umps’ very conservative strike zone, teams quickly reached double-digit walk totals, sometimes going from bases empty to run-scoring plays without ever taking the bats off their shoulders.
Plate-discipline might be an important skill for ballplayers, but confidence matters more. And as I watched the umps squeeze pitcher after pitcher with an unfairly tight strike zone, I could see the confidence draining from the pitchers’ face.
They weren’t just struggling to throw strikes — they were becoming afraid to pitch. And developmentally, a pitcher’s killer takes a lot longer to build and a lot less time to destroy than a hitter’s eye.
At this level of baseball, competition is the least-important element of the game. Physical and mental development — including having fun — matter so much more to the kinds of players and people these children will someday become. Umps shouldn’t hurt the players’ development in a misguided effort to call a “fair” game.
By calling so many balls, umps encouraged the players to just stand there, forcing the pitchers to throw strikes. That’s not discipline — that’s passivity. And it’s far more dangerous to a young ballplayer than getting a few generous strike calls could ever be.
Here’s what I wrote this week.