Terry Ricker couldn’t believe his eyes.

With his Elliot Ave. Little League all-stars locked in a tense state tournament game against Bangor last summer, Ricker watched the opposing hurler accumulate a pitch count that might have made a workhorse such as Curt Schilling squeamish.

“His 146th pitch was the last pitch of a complete game, and he was back out there three days later,” said Ricker, now Elliot’s player agent and a coach at Lewiston Middle School.

The pitcher was a 12-year-old.

“Everyone’s got a story,” Ricker said. “That’s ours.”

Left to their own devices, a few Little League managers stretched pitching rules beyond their intended limits. Starting this spring, new national regulations should successfully stop the madness.

Little League Baseball has mandated stringent pitch counts for each of its age classifications. Instead of innings per calendar week, pitchers in each division will be capped at a specific number of pitches in a day, with corresponding rest.

Pitchers 10-and-under may throw 75 pitches in a single day, with the number gradually ascending to 85 pitches for 11-and-12-year-olds, 95 for ages 13-to-16, and 105 for 17-and-18. Anyone throwing more than 25 pitches will require at least one day of rest, up to a three-day respite for a workload of 75 or more pitches.

Local coaches and supervisors welcome the change.

“In looking through my old scorebooks, I always kept track of the number of pitches,” said Auburn Suburban Little League Senior Division manager Dennis Sweetser, a 48-year coaching veteran. “I know I’m probably considered an old anachronism, but I guess I was ahead of my time on that one.”

“I’ve seen coaches in the past leave kids in there for 120 or 130 pitches. I think that’s too much,” said Erik Tiner of South Lewiston Little League. “You could tell the kid was exhausted. You’ve got to get him out of there.”

The unkindest cut

Too often, when coaches didn’t speak up on a pitcher’s behalf, young elbows and shoulders did the talking.

From 2000 to 2004, the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., recorded 627 cases of Tommy John surgery. That procedure, named after the Major League great whose career was interrupted by a catastrophic elbow injury, replaces a damaged elbow ligament with one found elsewhere in the body.

Roughly 20 percent of those surgeries – 124 in all – were performed on children.

“I’ve been in this for many, many years,” said Auburn Suburban President Jeff Benson, “and I see the value of protecting the kids’ arms. To me, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Little League phased in the changes on a voluntary basis last season. South Lewiston was one of the test leagues.

Tiner said the system worked with little controversy. He is concerned, however, that the counts for the 11-and-12 division (the most celebrated classification, with its national tournament aired on ESPN) are a tad too cautious.

“When one of those kids gets to 85 pitches, he’ll usually be in the fifth inning. He probably could go one more,” Tiner said. “I worry that we’re not strengthening those arms enough. Some of those kids are taller than me. They’re already weight training and working out every day.”

With boys in that age group at different levels of physical and emotional development, however, even reluctant managers admit that a cap has become a necessary evil.

“As much as I hate to say it,” Tiner said, “it’s a few irresponsible coaches who have brought us to this point.”

In the older divisions, many students split time between their Little League team and junior or senior high school squad.

“Early in the season, especially if the kid is already pitching for his high school team, 50 to 60 pitches would be plenty,” Sweetser said.

Innings are deceiving

Benson is also athletic director at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and coach of the New Auburn American Legion baseball team.

By the time his summer squad comes together, many pitchers already are arm-weary from Maine’s compressed scholastic spring season as well as Little League or Babe Ruth commitments. Pitch counts can be a more reliable barometer of fatigue than innings.

“Last year, Brady Blackman pitched the first game of the state tournament up in Brewer,” Benson said. “I shut him down after five innings. He was at 100 pitches, and I said, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ Now, the weekend before, he pitched a complete game in the semifinal of the zone tournament, gave up one run and only threw 80 pitches.”

There are no pitch count restrictions at the high school level.

In 1990, the Maine Principals’ Association instituted rest requirements based upon innings pitched. The MPA’s annual bulletin does contain a line that reads: “A coach who has the best interest of a player in mind will remove that player once a total of 90-100 pitches have been thrown.”

“They haven’t talked about (a pitch count rule) to my knowledge,” said MPA assistant executive director Larry LaBrie of Auburn. “The pitching rules have worked well for a long time.”

Little League relies upon each team’s scorekeeper and the umpire to monitor pitch count.

“To regulate it in high school would be very difficult,” Benson said. “I believe most coaches at that level understand the value of pitch count.”

Not wild about deuces

Area coaches also support restrictions upon another contoversial element of Little League: The use of the curve ball. Such an edict also would be difficult to enforce.

Tiner recently coached a 9-year-old whom he said could throw his bender “better than most 12-year-olds.” But the manager only allowed his pitcher to use the curve when he explicitly asked him to use it, and that was only two or three times per game.

Ricker discourages his middle school pitchers from throwing curves.

“I’m a fastball, change-up kind of guy. There’s all kinds of evidence that kids that age shouldn’t be throwing that third pitch,” he said. “The surgeons all say you shouldn’t be throwing a curve until you’re shaving.”

Aside from the medical benefits, Little League’s hard line on pitch count should promote pitching depth. Ricker has advised Elliot managers to develop five or six pitchers. Previously, teams were able to get away with two.

“We’ve done a lot of things to protect kids,” Sweetser said. “Suppose a kid is throwing a great game but gets to 95 pitches and has to come out. So what? Give another kid a chance to pitch.”

Benson said that he is inspired by something his late son, Jamie, used to say often about baseball: “I just want to play.”

“What are we about in Little League? It’s about two things. We’re giving kids a chance to play, and we’re giving them a chance to develop in a team atmosphere,” Benson said. “It’s a game. We have to remember that.”

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.