Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Little League fields will grow, except in Williamsport

Thumbs-up to Little League Baseball for recognizing that it was time to shake things up.

There have been two major changes out of Williamsport in three months, which just about matches the total over the first 70 years. Monday, LLB announced it is creating what amounts to a new league for kids eligible for the traditional Little League 12-year-old program (and 13-year-olds, too), but mature enough to play on a larger diamond. In the spring, local leagues will have the option of moving games to fields that are, essentially, one size bigger. (Cal Ripken Baseball and numerous "travel leagues" across the country already are doing this).

Another Little League change was announced in November: an increase in mandatory rest days for pitchers in the regular season and the Little League World Series.

This is what Little League is saying about the bigger-diamond division:

"[I]n an effort to further ease the transition from the standard Little League field size (46-foot pitching distance and 60-foot base paths), Little League is offering a pilot program for league age 12- and 13-year-olds. The pilot program will be conducted on fields that feature a 50-foot pitching distance and 70-foot base paths. The pilot program will be available to all Little League programs worldwide for the 2010 season.

"Additionally, base runners will be permitted to lead off in the 50-70 Pilot Program (requiring pitchers to hold runners on base), runners may attempt stealing at any time, and head-first sliding is permitted. In the Little League division, runners cannot leave the base until the ball reaches the batter, and sliding must be feet-first unless the runner is retreating to a base.

"Also for the 50-70 Pilot Program – unlike the Little League division – the batter becomes a runner on a dropped third strike, the bat can have a diameter of 2 5/8 inches, and the on-deck batter is permitted."

Again, I applaud this move, mostly because it will encourage 13-year-olds who otherwise would quit baseball (fearing the big jump to a regulation diamond) to stay in the game.

Now I'm wondering how all this affects the Little League World Series.

Apparently, not at all. Little League isn't giving up the small diamond for that annual spectacle, which generates dozens of corporate sponsors, big crowds, an ESPN deal worth $1.5 million each year and untold exposure for the Little League brand.

Never mind that those kids entertaining us in Williamsport, more than any, are ready for the bigger diamond. You don't mess with a sure thing, which, at the box office, the Little League World Series surely is.

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