Why the Little League World Series is a sham.

The stadium scene.
Aug. 19 2003 11:39 AM

Little League Bullies

They're big. They're bad. They're ... 12?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In last year's Little League World Series, Aaron Alvey was a one-man wrecking crew. The 12-year-old from Louisville, Ky., set series pitching records with 44 strikeouts and 21 shutout innings and tied the record of 12 consecutive no-hit innings. Alvey also hit three home runs in the tournament, including a 250-foot rope in a 1-0 victory over a team from Sendai, Japan, in the championship game.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

On the heels of 2001's tawdry Dannygate and the Harlem shakedown earlier in the 2002 series, Alvey's wholesome brand of domination was just what Williamsport, Pa., needed. For two years the custodians of Little League Baseball have worked to restore the luster to baseball's sugar-coated Eden. Yes, the tickets are still free, the kids learn about different cultures, and everyone gets a chance to bat or play an inning in the field; and teams that reach regional play are now required to bring documentation of each player's age and residency to every game. But age-fudging isn't the problem with the Little League World Series. The problem is the beefy Alvey, who measured in for last year's tournament at 5-foot-7, 175 pounds. Every year, the big kids beat the ever-loving crap out of the little ones.

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A tour of the Little League record books shows that, for an American team, success is found by riding on the coattails of a hypertrophic hulk-child. Cody Webster, the hero of the Kirkland, Wash., team that ended Taiwan's 31-game Williamsport winning streak in 1982, is a dead ringer for Alvey: He also stood 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds at the age of 12 and hit a home run and threw a shutout in the championship game. The next year, 6-foot-2 Marc Pisciotta—yes, he was 6-foot-2 at 12—who pitched for the Cubs and Royals during a brief major league career, used his overpowering fastball to lead East Marietta, Ga., to the title. San Diego Padre third-baseman Sean Burroughs, who as a 5-foot-5, 170-pound 11-year-old looked eerily similar to the inflated baby from that year's Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, took his Long Beach, Calif., team to back-to-back titles in 1992 (when a team from the Philippines was disqualified) and 1993, when he hit .600 and threw two no-hitters.

All those exploits pale in comparison, though, to those of the patron saint of big-kid dominance, Gary, Ind.'s Lloyd McClendon. In 10 plate appearances in the 1971 series, the 6-foot 12-year-old was intentionally walked five times. In his five official at-bats, McClendon, who now manages the Pittsburgh Pirates, unleashed his terrible wrath, hitting five home runs. He might as well have passed out wet willies and Indian burns in the opponents' dugout, just to rub it in.

Being the big, bad bully doesn't guarantee that you'll be the best—in the 2002 U.S. championship game, Louisville beat 5-foot-9, 206-pound pitcher Frank Flynn of Worcester, Mass., by the score of 4-0. But in the last 25 years, there's been perhaps one American Little League hero—5-foot-2, 104-pound Todd Frazier of 1998 champion Toms River, N.J.—who didn't have a 5 o'clock shadow. The age cutoff (this year's tournament is limited to those born after Aug. 1, 1991) ensures that teams are divided into two castes, the pubescent and the prepubescent. Anyone who's ever been to a junior-high dance knows that the age of 12 can produce comic disparities in development. That's true on the field as well. Playing alongside the 206-pound Flynn on last year's Worcester squad was third baseman Andy Fallon, who carried all of 74 pounds—about the weight of Flynn's bat.

Every player in the tournament is good at baseball, but good little baseball players can only do good little baseball player things, like bunt, take a walk, and keep their eye on the ball. Meanwhile, the one or two titans on each team breathe fire, shoot thunderbolts from their wrists, and exchange pictures of their kids. It's not that the hulk-children aren't talented—Pisciotta, Burroughs, and McClendon all eventually played in the majors. But the tiny dimensions of a Little League field exacerbate the built-in advantages that the big kids already have. For a 12-year-old behemoth, the 60-foot distance between bases takes just a couple of strides. Their moonshots often clear the 205-foot fences by a good hundred feet. And the pitcher's mound is where things really get unfair. When a 6-foot pitcher fires a 75 mph. fastball from 46 feet, it looks like Yao Ming shooting down at you with a BB gun.

If the overgrown bullies—or, God forbid, their parents—had any sense, they would play in a league where the bases are 90 feet apart. That would burnish their careers far more than fanning Emmanuel Lewis 15 times on national television. National television, you say? That's right—part of the reward for the hulk-children that dally in Little League is that ESPN and ABC will air 35 games this season. Michael Broad—5 feet 7 1/2, 134 pounds—of East Boynton, Fla., was already overexposed even before he got to Williamsport. The 12-year-old with the 78 mph. fastball threw a no-hitter and hit a grand slam in East Boynton's 4-0 victory in the Southeast region finals, a game broadcast by ESPN2. That night, his heroics earned him the top spot on SportsCenter's countdown of plays of the day.

There's a chance that a new rule may keep Broad, or 6-foot, 182-pound Matthew Muldoon of Saugus, Mass., from playing Godzilla in Williamsport's friendly confines. This year, no pitcher can go for more than the regulation six innings, and for those who go at least four there's a compulsory extra day of rest. But it's likely that the hulk-children will still find a way to impose their gargantuan will. In one game last year, Alvey was forced to leave the mound after pitching nine no-hit innings. He moved to the infield and hit the game-winning home run in the 11th.

When the next hulk-child comes along, a Little League official needs to stand up, on a chair if necessary, look him in the eye, and tell him to go play somewhere else. By knuckling under to a few dominant players, Little League implants a lasting lesson in the heads of the millions of youngsters that play in its leagues worldwide: The big kids always get their way. It's only fair that, for a year or two, normal-sized kids should get a chance to feel big. That is, before they get cut from the high-school team.