Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Little League Draft... There must be a better way.

If you've ever played fantasy football, you can relate to the Little League Draft. With fantasy football, the most fanatical "general managers" spend hours upon hours digging through stats, projections and depth charts. The draft begins, and they prepare to dominate. Then, somewhere around the third round, they realize that the plan has gone horribly awry, and all that research goes out the window.

Of course with the Little League draft, you're not choosing amongst the world's most talented players. It's the little, blond-headed kid down the street that gives you a wave while you're mowing the lawn vs. the kid who's started shaving but has a crazy dad. Adrian Peterson will be drafted who knows how many thousands of times every season by anonymous fans. The neighborhood kid gets drafted once, and waits by the phone for your call. The only similarity is the plan going out the window in the third round.

Little League league limits the options local leagues can use for player selectoin. If you play fantasy football, you are familiar with the yearly draft and the "keeper" leagues. It's similar for the Majors Division of Little League. Here are the three methods in a nutshell:
  1. Keeper draft (Plan A in LL Operating Manual): In this format, once chosen by a Majors team, a player stays on that team until after his or her 12-year old season. Kind of similar to the "keeper" league in fantasy football. 
  2. Annual re-draft (Plan B): Every season, all players go back in to the draft. 
  3. Surprise! (Plan C): Players are drawn out of a hat, and let them fall where they may. 
If you take away those "gentlemen's agreements" where these rules are altered while the league president pretends to have no idea, here is what those options look like. 

Pros: The biggest selling point of this option is the camraderie aspect -- especially for the players who are drafted when they are 10 or 11. You may have a core group of players and coaches that stay together for 2-3 seasons. The players and parents often develop a connection that lasts for many years to come. And, for parents, they appreciate being able to re-use the same sweatshirts, jackets and other gear that often must change when the new team is a different color.

Cons: The two biggest issues with Plan A are the potential for competitive imbalance and attempts to "stack" teams. A residual effect is often that 11s stay in Minors while a 10 who is less ready may come up, because "I'll have that kid for 3 years." While there are plenty of coaches out there with their hearts in the right places, this can be difficult to avoid. When a team has a bad season, it could be 2-3 years before it digs its way out of the cellar. Here's why:
  • Stacking: Researching the league my children participate in, it was clear that there is a trend toward managers drafting players the same league-age as their own child. This can be for a variety of reasons. For example, if you are a Majors manager and your child is 10, it only makes sense to draft some 10s. You have that group for three years. You might take your lumps that first year, but it's difficult to not see it as a three-year plan. Next year, you look for more 10s and 11s. So, the third year, the team is strong. The manager may only need to draft 3-4 players that year. 
  • The draft: So what happens when that 3-year manager leaves? This often means 8 open slots. And, what if a player or two decide not to come back? If you have to draft 9-10 players, you're pretty much dead. This means you're competing against the next guy in the final phase of a 3-year plan. He drafts in the first three rounds, and he watches while the rest of the managers keep drafting. You do get your bonus pick after the third round, but by then the most talented players have been selected. When round 8-9 come along, you might be the only one drafting. This could be the kids who -- bless their hearts -- couldn't catch or make contact with a ball in tryouts. Or, it could be the kid with the psycho parent. Those last couple of rounds tend to be 12-year-olds who are new to Majors. (Little League requires all 12s to play in Majors.) So, your team ends up with 8 players age 12 (the maximum you can have is 8), which means the most you'll have coming back next year is four. If any of them quit, you're Bill Murray and Groundhog's Day. Cue up Sonny and Cher. 
Pros: The talent is re-balanced each season. While there is some potential for imbalance based on the draft order, all the teams are drafting the same number of players in the same number of rounds. 11s who are equal to 10s in talent are more likely to be drafted since there's no need to think ahead to year 3. Kids benefit from the diverse expertise of multiple coaches. And, your top players are facing each other, which makes them better.

Cons: As I mentioned earlier, there's going to be blowback from parents. "I just bought two pairs grey pants with blue piping and three "Royals" sweatshirts! Now I have to buy stuff with pin stripes??" And, those players who are in Majors for 2-3 years don't develop that team identity when they might play for a different team each year. Fewer 10s drafted could mean your 9/10 All-Star team isn't ready to face good pitching.

According to the Op Manual, all the names are to be placed in a "non-transparent container" and drawn. First the 12s, then the 11s. 10s if there is room. I'm sure somewhere there's a league that does this. It's difficult to imagine why this is a good idea, other than it removes any need for player evaluation or hard feelings over who's drafted by whom. The parents of that little, blonde-headed kid down the street won't give you the stink-eye when he ends up on another team.

Final Hacks
Our local league is transitioning to a full re-draft. I was very much against it initially. But, I've gone to "the dark side" and believe it's a good idea. Much of this comes from contacting leagues who use this process. Most LLWS teams re-draft, and cite that balance competition as part of their success.

When my son was 10, he was the only 10 drafted by a manager whose son was an 11. And, this poor guy had to draft 10 players. I was an assistant coach on the team, and I loved those kids. But, boy did we ever struggle. We went 4-24 and many of those losses ended because of the 10-run rule. While there's more to it than winning, you can only build so much character from repeated, lopsided losses. The next year, a manager with and 11 took over and we drafted a lot of 11s. That team went 6-15, but was in just about every game. When my son was 12, two teams that had struggled two years earlier went 1-2 in the league. We looked forward to playing each other because the competition was great. The Majors All-Star team was loaded with players from those two teams. But, the All-Star team struggled -- in part, I believe -- because our batters did not face good pitching every game during the regular season. The top two teams had most of the good pitching. The other five -- not so much.

So, while I favor a re-draft, my son and I feel that being on that team for three years was a great experience. We feel a real connection to the team. Fortunately, we got to experience winning in the final year. (Unfortunately, the 8 kids age 12 during my son's first season did not.)

If someone ever made me Lord of Little League, I would modify Plan A (keeper system):
  • Once in Majors, the player stays with that team. 
  • Each team gets a first-round pick. 
  • Then, the draft flips starting in the second round. So, that team that has to draft 9 players might be the only one picking in the second round. In the third round, the teams that need 8 join.  And, so on...
  • This continues on until you have all of the teams drafting in the last few rounds.
I expect this to happen about the time the National League starts using the DH. :) While the Op Manual states that leagues can submit an alternative method, the folks in Williamsport aren't always the most flexible or pragmatic crew. One indication that they might not be rubber-stamping another method is the phrase that the LL methods "have proved to be outstandingly successful."

If this changes by the time my grandchildren are playing ball, I will be stunned. Until then, pick your poison and coach 'em up!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Awkward Moment When a Score Gets Out of Hand

Losing stinks. I don't care if it's a favorite professional sports team or a 3-year-old's amoeba-style soccer game. The latter may be cute, but losing still stinks.As we learned this week with the 91-0 football game in Texas, it can even lead to a bullying claim.

There's nothing more awkward than when the score that gets out of hand early. Both sides start thinking, "Uhg. It's the only the first inning/quarter/minute." As a coach, I've been on both ends of the mercy rule. As much as I hate losing, I really don't enjoy that realization that your team is pounding a group of kids. When it happens early in the game, that next hour seems like a trip to the dentist. The winning team's parents stop cheering -- except that one dad who stays into it a bit longer than everyone else. "Yeah, baby!" he screams when the 11th run scores, drawing glares from both sides.

As crazy as it may sound, in the moment I'd rather be taking the beating. We can coach kids. We can work on winning little battles, such as putting up a fight in the batter's box and proper fielding technique.

When your team is thumping another early in the game, though, you're just trying to get out of there. Coaches think more about when and how much to let off the gas than what the players are gaining from the experience. When is it time to play backups and move kids around? Is it time to go station-to-station on the bases?

When my son was 9, his team played in a tournament that had a wide range of teams. In our last pool-play game, it was clear that it was going to get ugly. We led 10-0 before the other team recorded an out. It got to the point where our parents cheered the other team when they made any sort of a play. It was 23-0 after the first inning. Even with a strike zone the size of the backstop, our kids just kept smacking the ball all over the yard. We told them to work on hitting to right field. We told them to hit a fly ball to the outfield. The coaching staff began ponder -- do we tell kids to strike out? Wander off the bases and get picked off? The carnage finally ended, with a final score of 32-1. The other team's manager thanked us for being good sports. This mockery of a game, I believe, led to us getting bounced in bracket play. We simply couldn't resurrect that competitive edge.

When I've been on the wrong end of the mercy rule, I've never been irritated when the other team continues to play the game. Sure, they should put in backups and have kids try different roles on the team. And, perhaps you don't score from third on a wild pitch. What makes matters worse, though, is when the other team essentially stops playing the game. I will smile and shake their hands when it finally ends, but deep down I'm steaming -- not at the other team, but the game itself -- that at some point we all stopped playing and started watching the clock. That line between mercy and mockery is difficult to walk.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Umpires... why they do it, I will never know

Rule No. 1 for a baseball or softball parent or assistant coach: Never make eye contact with the team manager when they are looking for an umpire.

I will coach, drag the field, run the scoreboard, announce or even plunge the toilet -- anything that doesn't involve calling balls and strikes. When my son was in Minors, umps were hard to come by. I had it timed perfectly, though. I was an assistant coach, and as soon as the team manager began looking around like a lost puppy I'd make my trip to the Honey Bucket. I considered myself in lockdown until I was sure he'd found his victim.

While many sports pay umpires, Little League does not. There are people out there who are crazy enough to call games for free. Locally, I've seen everything from a man who's umped for 50 years, including the Little League World Series, to the parent in the stands who has average knowledge of the game and is umping for the first time. Why? Because someone has to do it.

I know I've come home more than once and asked myself, "Why did you act like that toward that ump? He's a volunteer." I don't have an answer, and I don't think "heat of the game" covers it. Umps -- volunteer or not -- make bad calls. Coaches make bad decisions, and players make bad plays. They're doing their best, and it's all part of the game.

It's hard to remember that when the ump misses that the potential game-tying runner slid under the tag at home. There's that slow-motion moment when everyone freezes, and you see the ump looking for the ball. He calls the runner out. One side erupts in cheer, with a few mixed gritted-teeth grins that say, "We got away with one there." On the other side, all eyes are on that ump. And, there's always a few that are really letting him know he blew it -- even though most of them would be hiding in the Honey Bucket with me before they would call a game.

I'm amazed at how most umpires simply walk off the field without acknowledging any of it. I'm even more amazed when they show up the next night for another game. Thanks, umpires. You're much more courageous than most of us. And, please remember that I said that the next time I question your call. 


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Coach's Kid

If you've attended a youth sports game, at some point someone has uttered the phrase, "coach's kid."

You might hear it after an ugly interaction between coach and player.
"Must be the coach's kid."

Or, after the shortstop makes two errors:

"Why is that kid playing shortstop?"
"Coach's kid," is the answer as the two parents share a smirk and a nod.

Most coaches try to think of their child as just another player when they are on the field. Most fail, because it's virtually impossible. Actually, it's plain silly. When is your child not your child? While I might try to forget that my pride and joy is on the team, it burbles to the surface. After all, that's my kid. With that, comes a larger breath of emotions. We all want our kids to succeed. We want them to feel the joy of the game-winning hit or the diving catch. The coach, like any parent, feels that extra burst of pride when something like that happens. On the other hand, boy does it ever burn when it seems like your child has relocated their head into his or her rear end.

You can see the steam coming out of my ears when my kid looks at strike three. And, the coach's kid feels that pressure. No matter how even-keeled the parent, the coach's kid has that added level of disappointment. "I've let myself down. I've let the team down. And, I've disappointed my dad." Some of that is human nature -- and some of that is the look of death or the sharp comment, "You've GOT to swing the bat!" -- a jab that is typically only directed at the coach's kid.

I recall a rough practice exchange with my son during his 10-year-old season. He'd been struggling playing up with the 12-year-olds, and it seemed his brain was M.I.A on that evening. While commiserating with a fellow coach, he said, "Coaching your kids is one of the hardest things you'll ever do." He's certainly correct. But, it's also one of the greatest. It's a delicate balancing act that doesn't always work.

It's a daily reality show.