Putting the “Play” Back in “Play Ball”

Little League Baseball has gotten more serious over the years. (via Governor Tom Wolf)

My brother started accumulating baseball hats when he signed up for Little League. Some were of real teams, like the Cubs and our local minor league team, while others were of Tin Caps, Thunder and Raiders. He and my dad, who coached a few of his seasons, quickly built up rival hat towers. Though the towers were populated by an eclectic mix of team symbols – one season they had a hat that featured an apple wearing a hat – they were ruled by my brother’s and dad’s Little League hats. 

Every summer, the league would put together an All-Star team. Dressed in all-white uniforms and white hats with the league’s logo, my brother and his friends competed with Williamsport on their minds. And even though they never made it out of our city, everyone involved treated the brief summer season with great pomp. The moms prepared team dinners, goody baskets, and all sorts of decorations. From putting up a giant baseball sign on our lawn to painting our car, I’m pretty sure we notified everyone who passed by our house that, yes, All-Star season had rolled around once again. 

We watched those games with gusto. My brother’s team never had any notable wins, but they suffered many runaway, classic Little League-style losses; whether it was overthrowing first base, losing all sense of the strike zone, or swinging at anything, they played like a bunch of 10-year-olds who were melting in 100-degree heat.

No one ever minded much. Sure, the coaches would grumble, and a few kids would shed a tear, but a couple days after the end of the season, the boys would be back together without fail, playing just for fun on some field or another. Afternoons spent with a glove on one hand and a ball in the other shaped my brother’s childhood, largely irrespective of the actual quality of baseball being played.

My brother’s Little League days are now behind him, but my family continues to bond over the sport, mostly at the major league level. Though it’s sometimes difficult to picture these hyper-skilled athletes as children with tiny bats, they all had to start somewhere, and for a substantial portion of them, that place was Little League. The national organization keeps track of its active major league alumni, including 11 Yankees, 12 Phillies, and curiously enough, just one Padre (Ian Kinsler).

In between interviews of their recent exploits, some players have taken the time to reflect back on their experiences in youth baseball. “When you’re on the field,” Anthony Rizzo said in response to a question on his major league and Little League careers, “it’s trying to just be that little kid and playing baseball and having fun, no matter what’s going on in your personal life.”

As one of the 14 players who have been to both the Little League and major league World Series, Cody Bellinger shares a similar sentiment as Rizzo’s. When he thinks back to playing in the 2007 LLWS – as an 11-year-old – he remembers “the travel, the first time on TV, the combination of everything like that – it was fun,” and it reminds him that “[baseball] is still a game.”

It doesn’t take a professional athlete to look back at youth sports through rose-colored lenses; my brother can attest to that. But for some kids, sports aren’t as much fun as they used to be.

In the diligent pursuit of college scholarships, parents funnel their attention into their children’s sports. Not all parents are invested in this notion, but for many, youth sports are now about competition instead of recreation. To gain a perceived advantage in a recruiting process far in the future, parents sign their children up for sports early, influenced by other parents who have done so. Baseball hasn’t escaped this trend: In the affluent neighborhoods of the city I live in, children join Little League when they’re three or four and then transfer to travel teams when it’s time to “take baseball seriously.”

As such, kids also are encouraged to specialize in a specific sport – as early as elementary school – so that they might be competitive for college recruiting by the time their junior year rolls around. It takes thousands of hours of practice to reach an elite level, so logging those hours early appears like the surest path. But studies similar to that in the Journal of Sports Health indicate early specialization – intense, year-long training in a single sport before puberty – tends to have the converse outcome parents hope for, with risks including “higher rates of injury, increased rates of psychological stress, and quitting sports at a young age.”

And even though playing one sport should be cheaper than playing two or three, the rise of private coaching and travel teams means good coaching and competitive play can be out of reach for low- to average-income families, for whom the thousands of dollars attached to a season of travel ball pose a financial hardship. Coupled with the pressure to specialize early, the price tag also can serve as a barrier to participating in youth sports.

This focus on college athletics has created a vicious cycle in many parts of the country. And yet, for some parents, the answer isn’t quite as simple as just sticking to the local Little League team. It’s one thing to play in the Little League if that’s part of the community – as it was for my brother – but it’s something altogether different if all of your neighbors send their kids to compete with travel teams. The notion that one has to play on certain teams, own expensive equipment, or learn from specific coaches can become entrenched in a community. Parents are then faced with two main options: Let their children play on the local team (which may place them at a disadvantage) or sign them up for the travel teams their friends play on.

These sorts of decisions can stress parents out, especially if they opt for the more expensive option, since they then will want their children to perform in some proportion to their hefty investment. This pressure trickles down to the kids, which makes it much more difficult to play – as Rizzo and Bellinger put it – for fun. And when 70% of kids quit playing sports before their teenage years, I’m concerned for the environment of youth sports.

The benefits of sports go far beyond college recruiting. The most obvious one is in regard to physical health – with 13.7 million obese children in the U.S., sports are an important outlet for staying active. Baseball, in particular, offers a mix of cardiovascular and strength training and focuses on developing rotational power. Youth baseball is beneficial to developing bodies – except for the earliest and most intense specializers, who are at higher risk of overuse injuries like medial epicondyle apophysitis (“Little League elbow”).

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But perhaps more important is the effect sports have on character development. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but youth sports present a platform for children to develop leadership skills, respect for others and for rules, and self-discipline – helpful traits well beyond the playing field.

Various studies, including one published in Sport Management Review and another in the Journal of Research in Education, indicate participation in athletics correlates to higher grades and standardized test scores when compared to students who don’t play sports. The authors of the latter, Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas and Daniel H. Bowen of Rice University, touch upon the oft-debated idea that athletics and academics detract from each other. Their conclusion is that “high school sports contribute to social capital formation [which is “the strength of social networks and connections in helping people to achieve their collective goals”] in public schools.” They also “would expect an emphasis on athletics to increase student achievement.”

Greene and Bowen write, while they “cannot be absolutely certain of the causal relationship between sports and academics,” they believe “winning on the field and winning in the classroom tend to go hand in hand.” There are exceptions towards the extremes – like the student-athlete who largely neglects the first part of his/her title or the valedictorian who avoids sports at all costs – but for the children in the middle, especially younger and disadvantaged students, athletic success is correlated to academic success.

The social capital theory described by Greene and Bowen (and pioneered by University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman) focuses on the community developed by youth sports. Considering how memories of youth sports also tend to center on having fun, maybe the importance of children’s experiences has gotten buried under expectations of high performance.

But even if you disagree with the changing dynamics of youth sports – specifically in baseball – what can one person do?

Admittedly, it’s hard to opt out of the recruiting-oriented culture and even harder to change that culture. From a self-interested standpoint, however, it seems beneficial to maintain early diversification in lieu of specialization. With perhaps the exception of gymnastics, early intense training hasn’t been demonstrated as essential for elite performance. World-class athletes eventually log more hours, but the same research paper finds they’re “more likely to start competing at a later age [and] compete in other sports.” Therefore, in conjunction with reducing the risks of injury, playing multiple sports encourages well-rounded development and longer participation in athletics.

And maybe I’m being too idealistic (or naive), but this suggests playing multiple sports can boost children’s enjoyment without detracting from future performance. Playing on the Little League team – or the local team, if there isn’t a Little League in your area – and then trying different sports in the offseason could be an opportunity for children to discover what sports they like most. 

Granting kids greater freedom in deciding which sports to pursue – be it baseball or something else – serves as a good example in teaching them how to make their own decisions. After the onset of adolescence, if children choose to specialize in a sport, then it will be more reasonable to hold them accountable for practicing and competing to the best of their ability.

But above all, youth baseball should be about having a positive experience. I’ve seen parents berate their children for poor plays and heard others complaining their kids don’t want to go to practice. I don’t remember this level of intensity while playing sports. Some of my fondest memories involve aimlessly running around and spending entire days at meets.

Shouldn’t we strive to foster a fun, encouraging environment for children? Is the slim chance of college athletics – or the even slimmer chance of being selected in a major league draft – worth prioritizing over all the other benefits of youth sports? Maybe it’s time to put the “play” back in “play ball.”

Miriam Zuo is a die-hard Astros fan who also likes learning about social sciences through books and podcasts.
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2 years ago

Thanks Miriam, good article!

2 years ago

I think this is one of the great things about baseball is that, because it is relatively inexpensive, there are many leagues available in many communities for kids of varying levels of skill and interest. Most of the intangible benefits can achieved just as well playing on the Y team as playing on an uber-competitive traveling team.
I do wonder though how the average age starting the sport varies by sport. I’d imagine most pro-baseball players started at a very young age compared to sports like American football where, in most positions, size and athleticism are far more important than skill.

2 years ago

Nice article Miriam. If free college is implemented, a nice unintended consequence might be more play and less competitive parents as college scholarships would no longer be a motivation.

2 years ago

Ms. Zuo,
I loved your article, a relevant topic, and very well written. I think it’d make the basis of a great T.E.D. talk.

PS-Sorry about the Astros. Looks like it’s gonna be a tough winter.