Until It Hurts (cont.)
Those safety steps are progressive and, for the most part, uncontroversial. They keep players in the game -- end of story. Pitching rules are a far more complicated proposition because they balance interests at the heart of Little League Baseball. On the one hand, young pitching arms must not be overworked. On the other, every coach wants his ace on the mound for the big game.
For 50 years the only protection offered to youth pitchers was a rule limiting them to six innings in a week of games. The rule was easily enforced, but skirted the issue of greatest concern -- the number of pitches children toss during those innings. Chandler decided to count. He acquired videos of old Little League World Series, and with assistance from Braves minor league players, he noted each pitch. In 2006 Chandler and Nick Crocker, a former Braves minor-league player, repeated the exercise, this time screening all 32 World Series games and an eye-bugging 3,798 pitches.
The data was startling. Some Little Leaguers in Williamsport, Chandler and Crocker discovered, worked as hard as grown men pitching in big league ballparks. In the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, Red Sox starting (and winning) pitcher Jon Lester tossed 92 pitches -- one less pitch than those thrown on average by kids who tossed complete games in the 2006 Little League World Series (a complete game in Little League is six innings). One overworked lad threw a Nolan Ryan-esque 116 pitches.
Data on curveballs was just as surprising. Curveballs are hard-to-hit pitches designed to dart over and around the bats of opposing hitters. They're thrown differently than other pitches, often with a wrist snap and twist of the elbow that puts added stress on developing arms. Anyone who has watched a Little League World Series knows that curveballs are as much a part of the scene at Williamsport as cotton candy and souvenir programs. Chandler's research showed just how curve-happy the annual tournament had become. In the 2001 championship game, for instance, the surgeon's analysis showed pitchers for teams from Tokyo and Apopka, Fla., tossing curves an astonishing 64 percent of the time.
Chandler wasn't alone in trying to rouse Little League Baseball. James Andrews also was making a racket. Andrews is the James Brown of orthopedic surgery -- the hardest-working man in the operating room and a prolific researcher, too. With Glenn Fleisig, his colleague at the renowned American Sports Medicine Institute, the research arm of Andrews's surgical center in Birmingham, Ala., Andrews has devoted years to the study of overuse injuries, probing the risks to the human arm when it whips thousands of pitches over hundreds of games. Their studies are arcane to some, endlessly fascinating to others. (One finding: Pitchers who throw more than 80 pitches in a game have four times the risk of injury leading to surgery compared to pitchers who don't.) There's no doubt that they have painted a remarkable and alarming picture of how easy it is to destroy a young player's future.
Little League Baseball listens to Andrews and Fleisig -- to a point. In 2004, when the duo joined USA Baseball, a governing body for the sport, in offering safety recommendations for kid pitchers, the powers that be in Williamsport got the message. For the first time Keener and the Little League front office embraced mandatory pitch counts. But rather than accept limits proposed by Andrews and Fleisig -- 75 pitches per game and a maximum of 100 pitches in a week -- Little League arrived at its own watered-down standards: 85 pitches in a game and allowing 11-year-olds to throw those 85 pitches after three days of rest. That doesn't include warm-up pitches before the game and the 10 or so tosses from the mound between innings. The new rules place no restrictions on those.
The situation is more troubling during the Little League postseason -- the World Series and the qualifying tournaments leading up to that famous event. In those games young pitchers can go to the mound on two days' rest, creating the unhappy possibility of a child throwing an arm-numbing 255 pitches in a week. That has almost happened. In the 2007 tournament, according to the Sports Business Journal, pitchers from teams in Minnesota, Oregon and Texas all threw 230 to 240 pitches in one week. Kyle Cotcamp of Ohio tossed an incredible 267 in nine days. If the New York Yankees asked any of their grownup pitchers to do the same, they'd have a revolt on their hands.
Little League Baseball's decades-old tolerance of curveballs is just as puzzling. In August 2005 I wrote an article for The New York Times under the headline "Warnings for Children Are Clear, but Curveballs Are Rising, Not Sinking." The piece explained that curveballs had become an accepted part of Little League Baseball, a curiosity given that everyone from doctors to professional baseball players believed they should be outlawed for kid pitchers. Joe Chandler was quoted saying he believed strongly that children should not begin to throw curveballs until they were at least 14. Professional pitchers surveyed by Chandler were even more cautious, saying they wouldn't allow their sons to learn the pitch until they'd nearly turned 15. Even Little League's Keener came across as anticurve in the article, saying, "We are hearing from more and more medical professionals that the danger is there." Curves are getting closer scrutiny these days. In 2006 Little League Baseball joined a five-year study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina looking into the effects of the pitches on the arms of youngsters. By my count, that would make the results available after 2010, Little League Baseball's 72nd anniversary. The adults don't seem to be in a great hurry.