Little League Baseball and Softball International President and CEO Stephen D. Keener on Travel Ball

Each August, the Little League World Series celebrates children playing baseball, and
families and fans of Little League Baseball come to Williamsport to trumpet the success
of these champions, but the final score and world championship banner are certainly not
the most important things.
Little League is about playing, having fun, and learning some of lifeʼs lessons along the
way. Too many times in recent years stories have been told about children playing and
sacrificing for baseball where the only thing that seems to matter is the outcome.
That is most definitely not what Little League is about.
Terms like “overuse,” “burnout,” and “epidemic,” have been unjustly linked to the Little
League program when these stories surface involving children as young as 10 who are
playing dozens and dozens of baseball games during the summer and continuing
throughout the year.
Too often, the tradition and worldwide respect Little League Baseball and Softball has
established has created the misconception that all youth baseball is Little League
Baseball.
To the contrary, Little League remains true to its values of character, courage, and
loyalty by regulating its program to create an environment where children from any walk
of life can participate.
Throughout its 66-year history, Little League has been fortunate to have volunteers who
join the program to do their part in nurturing future generations. Building strong citizens
and improving the quality of life for families in their communities is paramount.
Regrettably, there is another cross section of society that seems aimed at profit and
self-satisfaction that is fed by a twisted sense of commitment to children. These people
look like Little League volunteers. They may even talk like Little League volunteers. But,
their willingness to disregard the dramatic difference between “play” versus “work” for
nothing more than a chance to exploit the children they are entrusted to mentor, has the
potential to cripple the future of youth athletics.
The evolution of ultra-competitive, excessively-expensive, and loosely-regulated “travel
ball” has brought Little League unwanted and unwarranted criticism, especially at
tournament time.
Because of the misleading comparison between tournament-hopping travel teams, and
the “Road to Williamsport” traveled by Little League International tournament teams,
critics claim the tournament is detrimental and contradictory to Little Leagueʼs mission.
In reality though, those who support travel ball are in many cases fulfilling a self-serving
goal by seeking out a “higher level of competition” for the expressed purpose of
supposedly increasing their childʼs chances of landing a major college scholarship, or
professional contract.
The intent of the various World Series tournaments is, and has always been, to reward
local players and leagues for their participation in the Little League program. No local
league is obligated to play in these tournaments, yet most do. Why? Because itʼs fun.
In the Little League division more than 7,000 teams play in the World Series
Tournament that concludes here at Howard J. Lamade Stadium with 16 teams vying for
the title of Little League Baseball world champion. Yet, 90 percent of the teams entered
in the World Series tournament are done playing in the first three weeks.
In years past, Little Leagueʼs critics have called the tournament too long, too stressful,
or too competitive, but now come horrific reports of children and teenagers enduring
arm and shoulders surgeries to repair ruptured tendons and broken growth plates as the
result of playing too much baseball.
Little Leagueʼs mission has always been to create an environment that promotes a
healthy, fun experience, and never has it been about grooming Major League prospects.
As noted author, and Little League volunteer, Stephen King once wrote, “A Little League
field is a place where excellence should always be applauded, but never expected.”
Do we expect too much of children today? For the parents who each year spend
hundreds of hours traveling to “elite” tournaments, and thousands of dollars for private
coaches and the like, these questions have to be asked: Whatʼs important? At what
point does the child, who is playing several games a week, in different baseball
programs, have to take a stand and say enough is enough? Should the child have to
say anything, or is it time for the moms and dads to cast off the unfulfilled dreams of
their youth, and focus on what is in the best interests of their children?
Little League is unyielding when protecting its players and adult volunteers. Whether
governing the number of innings a player can pitch in a week, conducting background
checks on volunteers, enforcing mandatory play rules, or requiring a player to solely
commit to a Little League International Tournament team, all Little League rules and
regulations are rooted in what is collectively believed to be most beneficial for local
leagues and their participants.
Little League can not manage, and is not responsible for, the operation of other youth
baseball programs. Instead, the parents of the players who play on these travel teams
are responsible. Moms and dads must in turn hold these people accountable and
evaluate why they feel it is necessary for their son or daughter to be there.
It was not long ago when such specialization was frowned upon and diversity was in.
Playing multiple sports made for well-rounded athletes with balanced skills, and an
energy level that was peaked by new teammates, different challenges and variety of
competition.
New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who is on our Little League International
Board of Directors, grew up minutes from Williamsport in Montoursville, Pa., and he was
a three-sport athlete. Mike has reminded me during several conversations on the
subject that the cream of crop is destined to rise to the top regardless of how hard he or
she is pushed at 9 or 10 years old.
In todayʼs society so much is based on numbers, so the numbers I use when describing
the long-range prospects of any youth baseball player go like this … For the five million
children playing baseball in the United States, 400,000 will play ball in high school. Of
those 400,000, around 1,500 will be drafted by a professional baseball team. From
those 1,500 or so, 500 will play two seasons or less in the minor leagues. Of the 500 in
the minors, 100 will reach the Major League level, with one making it to Cooperstown,
N.Y. and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Travel ball is the latest degree of separation between the haves and the have-nots, but
is it best for the children? Little League does not think so, and for that reason will not
subscribe to the interpretation that the Little League program is too competitive, or not
competitive enough, because being a Little Leaguer is not simply about competition.
This is the time to relish youth. The best way for grown-ups to respect the next
generation of Little League coaches and volunteers is through their involvement, and
understanding of what in means to be a role model to the children of today.
In life, perception too often is reality, and if a parent perceives his child to be a prodigy,
then that child must prove that to be true, or not. If the answer is the latter, isnʼt a lifealtering
injury too high a price to find out, especially for a pre-teen?
I thank you all for coming to the 59th Little League Baseball World Series, and wish you
an enjoyable time while you are with us in Williamsport.
Stephen D. Keener
President and Chief Executive Officer
Little League Baseball and Softball