Miriam and Robin recently finished their first baseball “season” with a rousing game at “Little Fenway,” a beautiful replica field out in the woods near Oakland, Maine. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a fun season. Our season lasted a couple months, with a game and a practice a week — nothing too demanding, and folks did not take anything too seriously.
Not all Little Leagues are so low-key. A friend of mine down in Texas recently sent me an email from the coaches in his son’s league, which had set up an online scorebook system to keep stats on the players. The coaches were all excited because this “data,” as one coach called it, would be used to set lineups and evaluate the players…who are 7 years old.
There are so many things wrong with this idea that I originally thought it was too ridiculous to comment on. But then I realized that that was part of the problem. Common sensical parents generally roll their eyes but stay silent when the over-the-top parents sail beyond the pale. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why we don’t have time for family dinners or vacations, or why our kids seem to learn the wrong values from sports.
So what’s wrong with keeping stats on 7 year-olds (or any kids, really, until at least high school)? Here’s the beginning of a long list:
• It assumes a reality that does not exist: Have you ever seen 7 year-olds play baseball? It’s a circus! A kid hits the ball and it will bounce off one kid’s mitt, or another kid will toss it to the wrong base, or the runner will trip on his or her way to first. Even the best players have trouble fielding a ground ball and throwing it to first. So what counts as a hit or an error? Who knows? Who cares? In Little League, “hits” are a function of the scorer’s judgment (or lack thereof), not the player’s actual ability.
• It’s mathematically ignorant: These coaches may think they are being all scientific and analytical, yet they display a stunning ignorance of mathematics. The “data” that they are collecting are not reliable in any statistical sense, even if there were actual “hits” that could be distinguished from “errors.” No statistician, let alone a big league GM or manager, would find value in such a tiny sample size of unreliable numbers. How many at-bats does a kid get in a Little League season? 20? 30? If they’re really playing a lot, 50? That’s a week or two of spring training. Meaningless.
• It puts undue pressure on kids: Once you start keeping stats (and posting them, as some teams do), you amplify the pressure that kids feel about succeeding. One 0 for 3 game will deep-six a kid’s average and make him or her feel like a failure. That destroys their confidence and (ironically) makes them much worse at hitting. It’s bad enough that some parents scrutinize every at-bat and dissect their kid’s play in post-game analysis. Attaching seemingly-objective (but actually artificial and unreliable) numbers to their performance magnifies the problem.
• It’s more about the parents than the players: This is “Fantasy Sports Syndrome” at its worst. You get parents (mostly dads) who are simply projecting their own fantasies on their kids, trying to put (false) numbers on their kids’ activities so that they can rank and sort and argue about who’s kid is better. Pathetic.
• It distorts a beautiful game: Keeping stats changes how adults view the game and how kids play it. It’s less about fun or even about winning as a team. Instead, it becomes about accumulating stats and encourages kids to view their teammates as competition. Kids (or their parents) start arguing about a scorer’s decision; they steal a base even though they’re up by 10 runs; they run up the score to pad the stats.
Don’t get me wrong — I love baseball stats. Most of the math I learned in elementary school came from analyzing my baseball cards. If a kid wants to keep her own stats for herself, fine. But keeping them for the purpose of ranking and evaluating Little Leaguers is simply idiotic.