It’s just quite possible that Little League is more for the parents than for the kids. The tryout and draft are the real deal, and coaches are there to get a competitive advantage to win during the upcoming season – even they’re only doing it for the kids.
I began coaching my son’s Wakefield youth baseball team since Tee Ball, three years ago. The last two seasons he was in Single A, consisting of the coaches doing the pitching. With my son 9 years old this year and entering the “real minors” where kids pitch, he had the privilege of entering the Draft for the first time.
As a rookie in the Minors, I believe this is how it works: 9, 10, 11 and 12 year olds all try out for the Majors. Once they make a Majors team, they remain on that team for the rest of their Little League career. Only kids not already on a Majors roster go through the draft by trying out.
This year, eleven 12 year olds were going through the draft. In other words, these kids were either playing baseball for their first time, or didn’t make the Majors their prior three attempts. There were also twenty-three 11 year olds, sixty-eight 10 year olds, and ninety-nine 9 year olds. 201 kids overall.
The Tryout took place on an early Saturday morning in the Wakefield High School Fieldhouse. Each age grouping had 1.5 hours to complete three sets of drills. Each hopeful was clocked running around the gym, simulating running from home to second base. Then, in a fielding session, they took 1 fly ball at each outfield position, followed by 1 ground ball at each infield position. Wakefield L.L. Board member Pete Beck threw every ball, more than 1,200 of them. Then, in a hitting session, each kid took 8 pitches at 40 MPH off a pitching machine. The director of Minors, Joseph DiFazio, fed every pitch. Managers could rate each kid 1 through 5 on fielding, throwing, and hitting.
As one of the creators of the Boston Baseball Draft back in 1998, I have vast experience drafting adult baseball players. This was my first experience drafting kids, and luckily, I had help from an assistant coach.
Sitting through the tryout, some thoughts crossed my mind as ranked these kids based on the 1-2 minutes I had to observe them. First, there was a noticeable difference as the kids aged from 9 to 10 to 11 to 12. Huge, actually. Secondly, with the exception of perhaps 10% of the kids who weren’t very good and another 10% who were exceptional, within an age range, they all looked the same. Near identical. And thirdly, it was clear that some parents use Little League for their children to play baseball, while others look at it as merely a way to get their kids out of the house a few times each week. This was quite apparent by the handful of kids showing up in jeans, and the remarkable number of other kids not wearing a baseball cap. This was a tryout right? Essentially a baseball interview. Dress the part!
For me, it will be just as important to draft the Top 10%, as to not draft the bottom 10%. For the other kids, my selections won’t be based on ability, but things such as form, attitude, and did they show up at the tryout on time and looking like a baseball player. I’m not drafting a kid who showed up in jeans. Take note, parents.
A week after the first tryout, on the following Saturday, there was a makeup tryout for those kids who couldn’t make the first tryout.
Now, I understand that due to a variety of reasons, including playing another sport, there are plenty of reasons a kid might miss the first tryout. But as a drafter, and all things being equal, do I really want to draft a kid who’s parents felt another obligation on the initial tryout day was more important than the annual baseball tryout?
My son has been taking lessons at The Cage Baseball and Softball Training Center every Saturday since Thanksgiving, and attending a Winter Clinic with other Wakefield boys for the last 16 weeks of Sundays. I want kids with that type of dedication. So as I draft, and two kids score a ‘3’ across the board, I will always pick a kid who made the initial tryout over a kid who comes to the makeup.
I’m sure as you read this, you’re thinking this isn’t fair. It’s not the kids’ fault. Maybe he even had a basketball tournament that day. Perhaps you’re right, and perhaps he did. But I don’t know this, and I need to play the odds when I draft.
Plus, as a manager of a Little League, the parents are as important as the kids. Are the kids going to make it to games at least 30 minutes before the game starts, or drop them off right at game time? Are they going to have their kids at practices, or miss them because they have a meeting at work? Are they going to dress their kids appropriately in long pants with cleats, or just grab some shorts from the dresser because it’s hot outside?
As a manager, I want the answer to all of these to be the answer that gives me the best baseball team. The best way I can take an educated guess on these answers is based on whether your kid made the tryout on draft day, on time, and looking ready to play. And those are factors determined by the parents.
The Sunday immediately after the makeup tryout is the Majors Draft. All the 12 year olds get scooped up, as well as any studs across the other age ranges. Then the following Wednesday night is the Triple-A draft where 6 teams of kids will be drafted. Two days later on Friday night, all the remaining kids will be drafted on to the 6 other Double-A teams.
As a manager, I’m in a conundrum. I know my son is 9 years old. But I want my kid in Triple-A. Why? Because the pitching is more likely to be accurate, there will be better play in the field, the kids will be older, and likely have a higher level of maturity. I’m hoping this will help my kid grow baseball-wise. Plus, he’s been training all winter, so I think his skills are top notch, even if his true talent has some catching up to do.
On the flip side, if he plays Double-A, he could be one of the better players on his team, and really be a star. As a manager, my son is in a rare category that he goes where I go. If I coach Triple-A, bam, he makes Triple-A. And that’s the plan.
One coach I was talking to during the tryout suggested that instead, the league hold the tryout the prior Fall. After all, how would you do if you had to show up after not playing all winter and having to hit off a pitching machine? Might it take you 8 pitches to warm up? These kids didn’t get any warm ups. They didn’t even have a chance to throw or play catch before the fielding drills.
Another coach suggested just having the coaches assess each kid, and splitting them up equally to make teams. Shouldn’t it be about equality, and not allowing a top notch scout to draft a better team?
I will say this. The experience has been an adventure, and one I’ve enjoyed. But to be clear, each kid only had to perform for a few minutes. The coaches are working two Saturdays of Tryouts, and then a Draft.
Little League is an activity for the coaching parents – it isn’t just volunteering. It’s fantasy baseball using kids as players. And I like it.
The parents of the players play a huge role in getting their kids drafted, and most don’t even realize it. The whole thing is a game, and one I’m just starting to learn. I’m like a kid all over again.
Brett Rudy lives in Boston, Massachusetts where he created Baseball Is My Life, and is co-founder of Charity Hop Sports Marketing, helping athletes raise money for their philanthropic initiatives. Brett helped launch Charity Wines with more than 30 professional athletes, selling more than one million bottles of wine. Brett is also the creator of the Corked Bat Collection, 100 Innings of Baseball for ALS, the Cooperstown Classic at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Winterball for Toys for Tots. In his spare time, Brett plays outfield in the Boston Men’s Baseball League.