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At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves learning disabled children, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question: "When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?" The audience was stilled by the query. The father continued. "I believe,that when a child like Shay, physically and mentally handicapped comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes, in the way other people treat that child."Then he told the following story: Shay and his father had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked,"Do you think they'll let me play?" Shay's father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps. Shay's father approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shay could play, not expecting much. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning." Shay struggled over to the team's bench put on a team shirt with a broad smile and his Father had a small tear in his eye and warmth in his heart. The boys saw the father's joy at his son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as his father waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible 'cause Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing the other team putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over, but the pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the head of the first baseman, out of reach of all team mates. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, "Shay, run to first! Run to first!" Never in his life had Shay ever ran that far, but made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to second base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball, the smallest guy on their team, who had a chance to be the hero for his team for the first time. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions and he too intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay" Shay reached third base, the opposing shortstop ran to help him and turned him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third" As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams and those watching were on their feet were screaming, "Shay, run home! Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the "grand slam" and won the game for his team. That day, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world. Shay didn't make it to another summer and died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making his father so happy and coming home and seeing his mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day! A wise man once said every society is judged by how it treats it's least fortunate amongst them.
Too Much Baseball is Not a Good Thing Stephen D. KeenerPresident and Chief Executive OfficerLittle League Baseball and Softball (Note: This column by Little League International President and Chief Executive Officer Stephen D. Keener, is reprinted from the 2005 Little League Baseball World Series Program with permission of Little League Baseball International.) Each August, the Little League World Series celebrates children playing baseball, and families and fans of Little League Baseball come to Williamsport to trumpet the success of these champions, but the final score and world championship banner are certainly not the most important things. Little League is about playing, having fun, and learning some of life’s lessons along the way. Too many times in recent years stories have been told about children playing and sacrificing for baseball where the only thing that seems to matter is the outcome. That is most definitely not what Little League is about. Terms like “overuse,” “burnout,” and “epidemic,” have been unjustly linked to the Little League program when these stories surface involving children as young as 10 who are playing dozens and dozens of baseball games during the summer and continuing throughout the year. Too often, the tradition and worldwide respect Little League Baseball and Softball has established has created the misconception that all youth baseball is Little League Baseball. To the contrary, Little League remains true to its values of character, courage, and loyalty by regulating its program to create an environment where children from any walk of life can participate. Throughout its 66-year history, Little League has been fortunate to have volunteers who join the program to do their part in nurturing future generations. Building strong citizens and improving the quality of life for families in their communities is paramount. Regrettably, there is another cross section of society that seems aimed at profit and self-satisfaction that is fed by a twisted sense of commitment to children. These people look like Little League volunteers. They may even talk like Little League volunteers. But, their willingness to disregard the dramatic difference between “play” versus “work” for nothing more than a chance to exploit the children they are entrusted to mentor, has the potential to cripple the future of youth athletics. The evolution of ultra-competitive, excessively-expensive, and loosely-regulated “travel ball” has brought Little League unwanted and unwarranted criticism, especially at tournament time. Because of the misleading comparison between tournament-hopping travel teams, and the “Road to Williamsport” traveled by Little League International tournament teams, critics claim the tournament is detrimental and contradictory to Little League’s mission. In reality though, those who support travel ball are in many cases fulfilling a self-serving goal by seeking out a “higher level of competition” for the expressed purpose of supposedly increasing their child’s chances of landing a major college scholarship, or professional contract. The intent of the various World Series tournaments is, and has always been, to reward local players and leagues for their participation in the Little League program. No local league is obligated to play in these tournaments, yet most do. Why? Because it’s fun. In the Little League division more than 7,000 teams play in the World Series Tournament that concludes here at Howard J. Lamade Stadium with 16 teams vying for the title of Little League Baseball world champion. Yet, 90 percent of the teams entered in the World Series tournament are done playing in the first three weeks. In years past, Little League’s critics have called the tournament too long, too stressful, or too competitive, but now come horrific reports of children and teenagers enduring arm and shoulders surgeries to repair ruptured tendons and broken growth plates as the result of playing too much baseball. Little League’s mission has always been to create an environment that promotes a healthy, fun experience, and never has it been about grooming Major League prospects. As noted author, and Little League volunteer, Stephen King once wrote, “A Little League field is a place where excellence should always be applauded, but never expected.” Do we expect too much of children today? For the parents who each year spend hundreds of hours traveling to “elite” tournaments, and thousands of dollars for private coaches and the like, these questions have to be asked: What’s important? At what point does the child, who is playing several games a week, in different baseball programs, have to take a stand and say enough is enough? Should the child have to say anything, or is it time for the moms and dads to cast off the unfulfilled dreams of their youth, and focus on what is in the best interests of their children? Little League is unyielding when protecting its players and adult volunteers. Whether governing the number of innings a player can pitch in a week, conducting background checks on volunteers, enforcing mandatory play rules, or requiring a player to solely commit to a Little League International Tournament team, all Little League rules and regulations are rooted in what is collectively believed to be most beneficial for local leagues and their participants. Little League cannot manage, and is not responsible for, the operation of other youth baseball programs. Instead, the parents of the players who play on these travel teams are responsible. Moms and dads must in turn hold these people accountable and evaluate why they feel it is necessary for their son or daughter to be there. It was not long ago when such specialization was frowned upon and diversity was in. Playing multiple sports made for well-rounded athletes with balanced skills, and an energy level that was peaked by new teammates, different challenges and variety of competition. New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who is on our Little League International Board of Directors, grew up minutes from Williamsport in Montoursville, Pa., and he was a three-sport athlete. Mike has reminded me during several conversations on the subject that the cream of crop is destined to rise to the top regardless of how hard he or she is pushed at 9 or 10 years old. In today’s society so much is based on numbers, so the numbers I use when describing the long-range prospects of any youth baseball player go like this … For the five million children playing baseball in the United States, 400,000 will play ball in high school. Of those 400,000, around 1,500 will be drafted by a professional baseball team. From those 1,500 or so, 500 will play two seasons or less in the minor leagues. Of the 500 in the minors, 100 will reach the Major League level, with one making it to Cooperstown, N.Y. and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Travel ball is the latest degree of separation between the haves and the have-nots, but is it best for the children? Little League does not think so, and for that reason will not subscribe to the interpretation that the Little League program is too competitive, or not competitive enough, because being a Little Leaguer is not simply about competition. This is the time to relish youth. The best way for grown-ups to respect the next generation of Little League coaches and volunteers is through their involvement, and understanding of what in means to be a role model to the children of today. In life, perception too often is reality, and if a parent perceives his child to be a prodigy, then that child must prove that to be true, or not. If the answer is the latter, isn’t a life-altering injury too high a price to find out, especially for a pre-teen? I thank you all for coming to the 59th Little League Baseball World Series, and wish you an enjoyable time while you are with us in Williamsport. Stephen D. Keener President and Chief Executive Officer Little League Baseball and Softball