Note: New York City attorney Steve Kallas is a former Little League coach and is a director of the Center for Sports Parenting. Rick Wolff is a long-time sports parenting advocate and is the host of WFAN’s “The Sports Edge” which is heard on Sunday mornings from 8-9. He’s the co-founder of the Center for Sports Parenting. This article was written in early August, 2007. Portions of it have appeared in the Hartford Courant.
Later this month ESPN will broadcast the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Some of Little League’s hardest throwing and best-hitting11-and-12-year-olds will be on display. But sadly, few spectators will see the increasing health and safety risks faced by these kids. Ironically, Little League has been praised in its recent weeks for its new pitch count policies, days of rest between starts, its concerns about kids tossing curveballs, and the safety issues regarding non-wood bats.
But once one digs a little deeper, Little League Baseball faces harsh criticism on all of these issues, and especially from physicians who believe current league policies subject young pitchers to possible long-term arm damage. Most of the problem comes from Little League Baseball’s decision to ignore its own medical experts when it comes to instituting standards for pitch counts and curve balls. Rather than trumpeting their new initiatives, Little League officials owe it to the millions of kids who play youth baseball to make sure they’re getting sound medical advice.
MAJOR LEAGUE PITCH COUNTS FOR LITTLE LEAGUERS?
Overusing the arms of Little League pitchers has been a long standing problem. A few years ago the league tried instituting a voluntary pitch count for 11 and 12-year-olds. But the league kept changing the days of rest between starts. To its credit, Little League Baseball asked two of the country’s top orthopedic surgeons – Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig – to advise the league in designing uniform standards for pitch counts and, presumably, days of rest.
Andrews and Fleisig recommended that 11-and 12-year-olds should throw no more than 75 pitches per start and no more than 100 a week. And in 2005 and 2006, in Little League’s pilot pitch program, it mandated that kids in this age bracket — who had thrown 61-85 pitches in a game — then needed four days of rest before pitching again. Even Dr. Andrews, at a recent Little League International meeting in Houston, put up a chart which recommended that 11-and-12 year old kids needed four days of rest, and also that they should be stopped after throwing only 60 pitches (not 75 or 85) in a game.
But when Little League Baseball unveiled its new pitch count policy at the start of the 2007 season, it didn’t follow its own medical advisors’ advice. Instead, the league announced that 11 and 12-year-old boys could throw up to 85 pitches per game and needed only three days of rest between starts. “Our leagues were telling us that they felt that three days’ rest was adequate,” said Little League Baseball CEO Stephen Keener, when asked why the league had ignored its own medical advisors. “So when we were hearing that from a lot of our people doing it at the local level, we took that proposed modification back to Glenn Fleisig.”
The idea that the Little League Baseball put more credence in what volunteer coaches had to say about arm safety than orthopedic surgeons is a real problem. Meanwhile, despite what Keener says, Dr. Fleisig insists that neither he nor Dr. Andrews were consulted about these changes.
It gets worse. The watered down pitch counts rules don’t even apply during the Little League tournament. Under the 2007 tournament rules, a kid can pitch on just two days rest. That means a Little Leaguer is allowed to throw as many as 255 pitches in a week during the tournament. When asked about this loophole, Little League Baseball’s medical advisors said they were unfamiliar with the playoff tournament rules, but Dr. Andrews said he found this total number of pitches in a week “worrisome.”
Dr. Tim Kremchek serves as the orthopedic surgeon for the Cincinnati Reds and also maintains a private practice, where he treats an alarming number of young pitchers with arm problems. Dr. Kremchek says the Little League’s decision to allow boys to throw up to 85 pitches on three days’ rest — and then to two days’ rest during tournament time — is “one or two giant steps backward.” He thinks the current tournament rules that permit Little League pitchers to throw up to 255 pitches in a week are even more dangerous to the long-term development of a kids’ arm. “That’s utterly ridiculous and I’m going to call it abuse,” he said. “What about the kids?”
If major league pitchers such as Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling – who possess some of the strongest arms in America – are subjected to strict pitch counts and, as a matter of course, need four day rest periods between starts, certainly Little League Baseball should impose even more careful guidelines on young boys whose arms are still in the development stage.
IT’S TIME TO BAN CURVEBALLS
When you watch the Little League World Series, check out how many curve balls are thrown. And notice how the ESPN announcers marvel at how well these kids can make the ball break across the plate. Curve balls have become an accepted, even an expected part of Little League Baseball.
Yet orthopedic surgeons universally warn coaches and parents against kids throwing curve balls before age fourteen. “It’s not just the stress that is placed on the elbow in a youngster,” said Dr. Kremchek. “First of all, the grip is very difficult on a breaking ball. The amount of force and rotation of the forearm — supination we call it – is significant in a breaking ball. And it’s very, very difficult to throw this correctly as a youngster because of the youngster’s small hands and small fingers.”
Kremchek treats many youngsters who have suffered damage to their arms from throwing too many curveballs too early in life. “I still feel very firmly that youngsters with their growth plates open – before they shave, ages 11, 12, and 13 in particular – and probably in most cases up to 14 – should not be throwing breaking balls,” he said.
In a recent appearance on HBO Real Sports, Kremcheck called the practice of teaching young kids to throw curve balls “an absolute crime.” Based on the damage he’s seen, Kremchek believes Little League Baseball should ban curve balls altogether.
Curiously, Little League Baseball CEO Stephen Keener agrees. “If I could, I would ban curve balls from Little Baseball,” Keener said in a broadcast interview on WFAN radio in March of this year. “But it’s really a question of enforcement. We don’t know how to enforce that rule.”
Instead, the league has commissioned a five-year study to examine whether curve balls are dangerous for young arms. This is unnecessary. The league’s own medical experts have already done two studies on this topic. In 1996 Drs. Andrews and Fleisig were commissioned by USA Baseball’s Medical and Safety Advisory Committee to examine how many pitches a youngster should be allowed to throw. “In general,” they concluded, “a child can start throwing a fastball at age 8, a change-up at age 10, and a curveball at age 14.” A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2002 by the same doctors also concluded that “pitchers between the ages of 9 and 12 should limit themselves to throw only fastballs and change-ups, and not throw sliders and curveballs.”
When Dr. Fleisig was asked about these previous studies, he attempted to deflect any questions by pointing to a new study which hasn’t been released yet, and that it’s the pitch count that matters more these days than throwing curves and sliders.
Since his proclamation on WFAN that he’d like to ban curveballs, Steve Keener has backed off his position a bit. He too points to this new study, but Keener says that he’s not at liberty to discuss it yet. But Dr. Kremchek, who has seen this new study, strongly rejects the notion that curveballs aren’t as dangerous as previously thought. Kremchek says: “It goes against all of the other studies, as well as the thought processes of physicians and medical people involved with baseball and articles that have been written about breaking balls and youngsters.”
Even Dr. Andrews still believes that kids under 14 should not throw curveballs and agrees that “if they [Little League] could enforce it [a curveball ban], it would be [a good thing].”
Little League knows it has a problem. Delaying five more years to address the issue, or pointing to a controversial new study, is not safe for today’s young pitchers. There’s a simpler solution – put the ban in the hands of the Little League umpires. Tell them to stop the game and issue a warning whenever a youngster throws a curve ball. If it happens a second time, remove the youngster from the mound. Meanwhile Little League Baseball should encourage the ESPN broadcasters to do a little less praising and a little more warning when kids throw curve balls.
ALUMINUM BATS: DO YOU REALLY THINK THEY’RE AS SAFE?
Let’s start with common sense. Anybody who has spent any time at a baseball game in recent years where aluminum bats are used will tell you that there’s no question that a ball off a metal bat travels faster and farther than a ball off a wooden one. This is not to say that a line drive off a wood bat isn’t potentially dangerous; of course, it is. But the difference is that a line drive off an aluminum bat is just more dangerous.
CEO Keener claims that wood bats and metal bats these days perform exactly the same, even though he admits that he’s never actually been to a wood bat tournament.
No better example can be given than the 2007 Ridgefield (CT) Little League. Joe Heinzmann, Ridgefield Little League vice president, picks up the story:
“In 2007, the Ridgefield Little League majors division switched to wood bats for the regular season. We played 106 games, including playoffs, using wood bats. During these 106 games, five balls were hit over the fence for home runs. We allowed our players to switch to metal bats for the Connecticut District 1 Little League All-Star tournament. After our first five games, and against the best pitching in the district, our players hit six home runs over the fence, including one that went approximately 300 feet.”
Imagine hitting more home runs with metal bats in five games against the best pitching in the district than were hit in 106 games with wood bats in a local little league.
Keener does admit that “aluminum bats are easier to handle. The wood bats are more cumbersome. There’s no question that the non-wood bats are easier for the kids to swing.” He remains adamant, though, that too many critics of aluminum bats base their judgments on personal observations, not scientific evidence. “You can make all the presumptions you want based on perception, but until there’s a real credible demonstration, I certainly don’t support any kind of a ban on the non-wood bat.”
A study by Brown University bioengineers in 2002 compared ball speeds off wood and aluminum bats found that the average speed of a baseball coming off a metal bat is seven miles per hour faster than off wood bats. When it comes to a Little League pitcher trying to get his head out of the way of a line drive, a metal bat could be the difference between life and death.
Keener and the aluminum bat supporters dispute the Brown study, saying that aluminum bats are now manufactured to have the same ball exit speed as wood. But is that really possible? Dr. Robert Adair is professor emeritus of physics at Yale University and is the author of the best-selling book, The Physics of Baseball. Says Dr. Adair: “If the swing characteristics, including length, are the same, the ball will come off the aluminum bat, I would say, 7 or 8 percent faster than off a wooden bat. And there’s nothing you can do about that in the manufacturing. With an aluminum bat, the ball will come off faster than the wood bat.”
But what about Little League’s claims that the aluminum bats are now the same as wood?
“Wood is not very elastic,” observes Dr. Adair. “Now, with an aluminum bat, it will compress a lot more. It will compress maybe 10 times as much more. And that energy releases like a spring or trampoline. And it’s very efficient.”
In addition to this metallic trampoline effect, aluminum bats also feature a “sweet spot” on its barrel that is significantly larger than wood bats. That, of course, enhances the batter’s ability to hit the ball harder and farther.
The way aluminum bats are constructed these days, kids can swing the bat much faster than a wood bat. That’s a major key. But Keener disagrees: “Just because you can swing a non-wood bat through the hitting zone faster doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to hit the ball harder and further. That’s the point.”
Well, yes, that is the point, but Keener has it backwards. Any hitting coach or scout will tell you that increasing one’s bat speed definitely increases the power that a hitter can generate. And the greater the power, the harder the ball is hit, and the farther it will travel.
In a not well publicized case in 2002, a federal jury in Oklahoma held Hillerich & Bradsby (Louisville Slugger) liable for damages after pitcher Jeremy Brett was hit in the head by a ball off a metal bat and suffered serious head injuries. The jury verdict, which awarded Brett close to $150,000 in damages, was not appealed by the bat company.
There is another major lawsuit pending against a bat company in Helena, MT. Brandon Patch, an 18-year-old pitcher was killed on July 25, 2003, after being struck in the head by a line drive off a metal bat. That case is expected to go to trial in March 2008. There are also pending or settled cases relating to metal bat caused injuries in New York State, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and others.
Little League also claims that the number of serious injuries has gone down in the last 14 years, but this “dropoff” is not based on actual injuries. Rather, it’s based on Little League’s recording of secondary insurance claims; that is, it’s based on whether an injured kid’s parents file a claim with Little League’s insurance (most parents use their own insurance coverage for their injured child).
The problem with this injury statistic – based on insurance claims – is glaringly evident in the pending case of Baggs v. Little League International, Inc. in New York State Supreme Court. On July 8, 2006, during a Little League All-Star game in Staten Island, NY, John Baggs, Jr. was pitching and was hit above the eye with a ball hit off a metal bat, suffering head injuries.
The boy’s parents used their own insurance to cover the medical bills, but the bills became so onerous that they filed a claim with Little League insurance. Had the child’s injuries not been so severe or had the medical bills not been so high, Little League would have never known what had happened to this young pitcher, according to the attorney for the Baggs’ family, John O’Leary of Staten Island, NY.
One final suggestion. If Little League Baseball wants to put an end to any debate about the safety issues of wood versus aluminum bats, why not take some of their hundreds of thousands of licensing money and have an independent research team do a complete and exhaustive scientific study? And do the testing now, so that by the start of the 2008 season, all Little League parents, coaches, players, and administrators will know the truth about using wood or aluminum bats.
But for now — despite serious head injuries, lawsuits, and scientific evidence — Little League Baseball continues to support the use of metal bats. “You can make all the presumptions you want based on perception,” said Keener. “But until there’s a real credible demonstration, I certainly don’t support any kind of a ban on the non-wood bat.”
Wood versus aluminum? Ask any Little League batter whether they would prefer to use a wood or aluminum bat in a game. Reports Joe Heinzmann of Ridgefield Little League: “Of the 28 players playing this summer on our two All-Star teams, all 28 chose to use metal bats over wood.”
That speaks volumes.