LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES : Little League System Is Simple, but Challenging : Baseball: Preparing a team with sound fundamentals is coach’s primary role.
Little League, quite simply, was designed to be baseball made easy.
Runners cannot lead off bases until a pitch crosses home plate. And a batter cannot run to first base if the catcher misses strike three.
These rules eliminate a great deal of baseball as it is played from high school to the major leagues.
There is no need for pitchers to use the set position and hold runners close to bases. Stolen bases are infrequent. The hit-and-run play is impossible.
Fielders, unconcerned with holding runners close to bases, can remain still and focused on the batter when the pitch is thrown.
“I am a strong proponent of the Little League system because kids concentrate solely on the fundamentals of catching, throwing and hitting the ball,” said Jeff Burroughs, a former major leaguer who coached the Long Beach Little League team to World Series championships in 1992 and ’93.
Simple, maybe. But easy?
Ask that question of any batter who has faced Nathaniel Dunlap, Northridge’s hard-throwing right-hander, and you’ll get a look like you are, well, batty.
Dunlap was clocked throwing 70-74 m.p.h. consistently in Monday’s World Series opener. The pitcher’s rubber in Little League is 46 feet from home plate, compared to 60 feet 6 inches on a regulation diamond.
Basic algebra reveals that the 5-foot-11 Dunlap throwing 74 m.p.h. from 46 feet is the equivalent of a 7-foot-9 pitcher throwing 97 m.p.h. from 60 feet 6 inches.
No wonder Little League at its top level is considered a pitcher’s game. A pitcher such as Dunlap, or even Northridge’s Peter Tuber, a 5-foot-9 right-hander who mixes a 66 m.p.h. fastball with a sharp curveball, is downright intimidating.
“With Nathaniel’s long arms, he’s not pitching, he’s handing the catcher the ball,” said Larry Baca, the Northridge manager.
Remember, too, that home plate is the same size in Little League as it is in the major leagues. A kid less than 5-feet tall must cover the same strike zone as a long-limbed major leaguer such as Ken Griffey Jr.
What’s a Little League batter to do?
Crowd the plate a bit, develop a short, compact swing, and dig into the batter’s box with what it says on the back of those T-shirts everybody seems to wear: No fear.
“A long, looping swing is death (for a Little Leaguer),” said Jack Fisher, whose son, Matt, Northridge’s shortstop, was 11 for 17 with two home runs in Western Regional play despite weighing about 90 pounds.
Those are the same words a major league scout will tell a high school prospect. Thus, Little League forces hitters to develop habits that will carry them into higher levels of baseball.
“Good Little League has the competitiveness of good varsity baseball,” said Baca, who in addition to being a longtime Little League manager was coach of the Granada Hills American Legion team in 1991 and ’92. “It’s a bang-bang game, very fast, with close plays and solid fundamentals.”
Carrying a state-of-the-art, ultra-light aluminum bat to the plate doesn’t hurt, either.
Hitters have been able to take the game back from oversized pitchers in recent years because of bats that can be as long as 31 inches yet as light as 23 ounces. Only a few years ago, the weight of bats corresponded much more closely with the length.
The lighter bats enable hitters to generate more bat speed and extend their arms against faster pitching without sacrificing much power.
Preparing a team with sound fundamentals is a Little League coach’s primary role. Once the game begins, less coaching is necessary than on a regulation field. Without stolen bases and hit-and-run plays, teams must wait for the ball to be hit to create action.
“You can still be aggressive, but in a different way,” said George Saul, the Northridge coach who also helped Baca with the Granada Hills legion team. “The bunt is a big tool, and you teach aggressive baserunning after the ball is hit. Round bases aggressively and slide hard.”
“Otherwise it’s like over-the-line. You wait for the ball to be hit.”
Little League rules speed up play. Without pickoff moves and base stealing, games often are completed in less than two hours.
Short, simple games with loads of action, lightning-quick pitches with swings to match. Strip away the hype from the Little League World Series, and that is what remains.
For Little Leaguers worldwide, that is plenty.