Too many youth league coaches believe their job is to win, something that pushy parents remind them. (When they are not complaining about playing time for their kids.)
Youth leagues are really for developing skills, whether that is hitting, fielding, running, sliding or pitching. Few kids will recall a team's record in four or five years, about the time some of the kids will begin feeling pain in a shoulder or arm or elbow thanks to an overzealous and egocentric coach. No players are more prone to injuries than pitchers. That's why sports writers should step in and start counting pitches. And that's why we should work on some more in-depth pieces that chronicle these issues, stories that can educate parents who otherwise would have no idea that throwing 100 pitches three to four times a week is not okay. Many parents trust these coaches to do the right thing.
Sometimes, the coach might not know better. Remember, many youth league coaches are drafted into service because no one else is willing to volunteer some time. But that does not absolve them of the responsibility of protecting these kids. You could gently ask a coach about the number of pitches a player threw in a game, something that might spark some interest in this coach.
Some coaches definitely do know better. I came across one such coach while covering prep sports in Florida 20 years ago. The coach got pretty surly when I challenged him on the number of pitches his kids threw, claiming he never had any injuries. Sadly, one of these kids, a pitcher for the University of Florida, died about five years later while having surgery on his pitching arm. He was a great kid who deserved better.
Don't believe those who say that softball pitchers are not prone to such injuries. The underhand motion also can put tremendous pressure and strain on a young girl's shoulder and arm. A 15-year-old girl died a few months ago here in east central Illinois while having surgery on her pitching arm. Count pitches in all games you cover. Some travel softball teams play up to 100 games a season.
Denny Throneburg, a two-time national high school coach of the year, warned parents of these dangers in his pitching camp this morning. Throneburg, who has also won six state softball championships at Casey-Westfield High School, said a pitch limit depends on a pitcher's age. Girls under age 12 should be limited to 60 pitches a game, while those 14 and under can throw 80 and high schoolers can toss 100. But he warned that these girls should not pitch on back to-back days. Pitchers need to rest their bodies to avoid pulls and muscle tears, among other things. In camps, Throneburg tells the girls to smile, have fun and to earn good grades. My kind of coach. Clearly, he knows a little about winning, too.
Studies performed by the American Journal of Sports Medicine and Tulane University say injuries to young pitchers have become an epidemic, especially among girls aged 12-18. I also recall a story on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" where famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the man who advanced arthroscopic surgery techniques, lamented the number of high school baseball pitchers he's starting to see. These are kids, dammit, not pro prospects, so we need to start covering them that way.
We should not lionize prep stars (and younger) who win several games during a weekend or who record high numbers of complete games. Rather, we should question why this is happening, letting readers know (through expert sources) that throwing so many pitches is not a good thing. (Even major-league pitchers rarely go the distance, something that way too many so-called experts and fans lament.) Yes, a young pitcher might go a little longer in playoff and championship settings, but these performances should be exceptions. We need to protect these kids the best we can -- and writing stories about pitch counts and in-depth pieces about injuries educates parents, coaches and family members so they can, hopefully, take a more active interest in the lives of their loved ones.