Time to stop overusing youth pitchers’ arms 

click to enlarge Little League
  • Gene J. Puskar/AP file photo
  • With the popularity of travel baseball and the rise of Tommy John surgery, players — such as Chicago’s Brandon Green in the Little League World Series earlier this year — should throw less innings in their youth.
It’s the most obvious solution to a glaring problem that exists in sports, and the bet here is that very few people will use it.

Or, perhaps more accurately, stop using it. More accurately still, stop overusing it.

The topic today is Tommy John surgeries, and the alarming number of them being performed on young big-league pitchers who ought to be in the absolute prime — in terms of health and performance — of their professional lives.

Much has been written and said about the epidemic. Theories abound. Now it’s time to save everybody so much hand-wringing and consternation. The reason the throwing arms of young studs are breaking down in their early to mid-20s is simple. They were abused in their teens.

And, yes, it should be considered a form of child abuse. On the part of parents, coaches and anyone else taking an active role in what’s become the scourge of youth sports in America: travel ball.

Anyone remember when travel ball as we know it became the in thing to do for young ballplayers that show early acumen and skill? It was about 10 years ago, maybe a little more. Thus, the 20-somethings we see going under the TJ knife with frightening regularity these days represents the first graduating class of that insidious school of thought that deceives the parents of these kids into thinking they’ll be on the road to Scholarship City if only they’ll plunk down a couple grand, pull little Tyler out of soccer, football and basketball, and commit to baseball year-round.

The more you play, these parents are told, the more your child will be seen. They’ll get more and better coaching. They’ll get stiffer competition. They’ll minimize the risk of falling through the cracks.

Let’s break down these promises, one at a time.

Will Tyler be seen more if he plays travel ball? Depends how old he is. If he’s 16 and up, sure. Scouts will check out top travel-ball tourneys. But guess where else scouts go, and to a LOT more of them? To high school games. You boy IS planning to attend high school, right?

More and better coaching? More, yes, because there are more practices during an 11-month season than the summer leagues in which well-adjusted, well-rounded young athletes play when they’re not playing basketball or football or soccer or tennis or golf or swimming or ... you get the picture. Better coaching? Not necessarily. A lot of the same gung-ho, know-it-all fathers you couldn’t stand in Little League have taken their oversized egos and competitive fire to the travel circuit.

Stiffer competition? No. If you’ve got the money, you’ve got a spot on the team. Not a ton of travel-ball teams make cuts. Money talks because that’s what travel ball is really all about. Altruistic it is not.

And finally, about anyone slipping through the cracks. No way in hell that happens. There are guys in the NFL who grew up in the middle of nowhere, playing 7-on-7 high school ball. They were discovered because: 1) they have talent, and 2) the world has this thing called the Internet. If you can ball, they’ll find you.

So what do you really get out of playing travel ball? Well, you, the parent, get hotel, gas and food bills for all those tourneys to which you travel. Tyler gets about 300 innings of work a year while his arm is not yet ready for that kind of stress. It might take a while, but he’ll also get a repetitive-use injury. And if he bucks the incredible inherent odds against earning a college scholarship and reaches the pros, he’ll almost certainly end up getting Tommy John.

Have fun!

Mychael Urban, a longtime Bay Area-based sportswriter and broadcaster, is the host of “Inside the Bigs,” which airs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on KGMZ “The Game” (95.7 FM).

About The Author

Mychael Urban

Mychael Urban

Mychael Urban has been covering Bay Area sports for 25 years and has worked for MLB.com, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and KNBR (680 AM).
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