Five years ago, while covering a state championship game for Little League Baseball in Tuckahoe, Va., I heard something in a postgame interview that made me cringe.
It was an 11-year-old, telling me how well his curveball was working.
The question I asked myself then, and the question I continue to ask myself today – especially over the past two weeks, as the Little League World Series has been broadcast on ESPN – is why in the world are 11-year-olds throwing curveballs?These parents should be ashamed of themselves. No kid should be throwing that pitch, or anything like it, that early.-
When I was that age – I know, I know, a dangerous way to start a sentence for someone in my position – throwing a curveball or another breaking pitch where I snapped my elbow was strictly prohibited by my dad.---- As it should have been.
What my dad impressed upon me is the same thing I wish for those playing Little League Baseball today: that more emphasis should be placed on throwing a changeup, one with proper arm speed (identical to how you throw a fastball) and one that can be thrown for strikes. It’s something too few pitchers today do.
Yes, I know there have been studies published that say curveballs are OK for kids that age, provided they are thrown properly. But what’s your faith in a 12-year-old repeatedly throwing a curveball that’s physiologically correct?
Probably the same as mine, which is not very good.
In response to a 2011 study published by the American Sports Medicine Institute, one that said “there was no association between throwing curveballs and injuries or even arm pain,” Dr. Timothy Kremchek, an Ohio orthopedic surgeon who serves as the Cincinnati Reds’ team physician, went ballistic.
“They have an obligation to protect these 12-year-old kids and instead, they’re saying, ‘There’s no scientific evidence curveballs cause damage, so go ahead, kids, just keep throwing them,’ ” Kremchek was quoted as saying in a New York Times story published in March of this year. “It makes me sick to my stomach to watch the Little League World Series and see 12-year-olds throwing curve after curve. Those of us who have to treat those kids a few years later, we’re pretty sure there is a cause and effect.”
Instead of allowing me to tinker with a curveball and take unnecessary risks, my dad taught me how to throw a circle change – where you grip the baseball with your entire hand, holding the thumb and index finger in the shape of a circle.
Even a palm ball or a three-finger change will work. Really, anything to slow the speed of the pitch, to keep hitters off-balance and to keep under-developed arms from snapping off violent pitches before they’re ready.
In the next few years, a safe way of developing a feel for this pitch can be done with a tape ball, where you take a bunch of masking tape, sticky side down and form it into a shape of a baseball.
Kneel about 20 feet and let the tape ball roll off the fingers, first focusing on how the wrist can absorb most of the snap, then work in the elbow. I remember being a sophomore pitcher at Westminster College, still throwing a tape ball with one of my roommates in the hallway of our dorm, 20 feet apart. Try it. It works. The focus on throwing the nastiest junk has not only made youth baseball unsafe, but it has also made it entirely too intense. (At that same game, I watched a father berate his son for striking out. Think about it: striking out, in a baseball game.) At that age, a kid shouldn’t worry about whether or not his curveball buckles the batter’s knees; it should be about having fun. But before you send an e-mail telling me how your kids will never learn to be competitive, that this is what they have to do to gain a competitive edge, at least let me finish the column.
I grew up an extremely competitive person. I still am. By no means am I advocating not caring, lazy play or not wanting to win. But I’m glad my dad worried about my arm so that one day, when I have a son, I can actually play catch with him. Plus, the biggest win of any season doesn’t mean much if you celebrate it with a trip to the emergency room. Try lifting a trophy in the air when you’ve shredded your elbow. I’m not saying go out there, screw around and don’t worry about winning or losing. Just don’t let Little Leaguers – who don’t know any better – emulate Barry Zito or A.J. Burnett. Let them enjoy the journey. Oh, and throw a few changeups along the way.