Youth Gone Wild

Eight-year-olds should not pitch.

Young pitcher.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

Eight-year-old humans are fascinating animals. They still have at least some of the vestiges of toddlerhood’s softness but they are starting to form the shape they will come to fill. They begin to smell a little weird. Inexplicable tantrums yield to moments of insight and clarity beyond their years. They are physical and psychological marvels that lay bare the intersections and diversions of nature and nurture, trapped between the lightness of innocent wonder and the boring, adolescent crush of fact. They absolutely should not fucking pitch in youth baseball.

The first half of my son’s baseball season in Brooklyn, New York, featured the coaches pitching to their own players and frequent deployment of the five-run-per-inning mercy rule; the average 8-year-old has just enough eye-hand coordination to smack a politely delivered meatball, but not quite enough to properly field one once smacked. Games moved fast and were fun and feisty and never didn’t resemble the sport of baseball, as opposed to the picnic-ants chaos of my 5-year-old’s tee-ball league. But once the league switched to kids pitching, the immediate effect was less a momentum-halting needle scratch than removing the record completely and flinging it in the general vicinity of a child.

One thing about little kids playing baseball, regardless of skill level, is that it’s cute as hell, even at the relatively hoary age of 8. These leagues are as much extended photo-op as source of competition or instruction, accompanied by opening-day parades and participation trophies and uniform shirts emblazoned with the names of sponsoring local realtors and professional photographers peddling refrigerator-magnet baseball-card portraits of your child, which you will absolutely buy too many of. A kid on the mound feels right aesthetically—numerous Tanners Boyle in uniforms not quite the right size doing things we are conditioned to seeing older people do with precision. But there is a twinge of melancholy upon realizing that your kid is graduating into something more real and more challenging, where the specter of cuteness is grounds for impatient, embarrassed eye-rolling.

With the transition into kid-pitch came teens umpiring and people of all ages harrumphing about called balls and strikes—an essential part of the baseball experience that you just can’t get from someone’s dad benevolently soft-tossing over the plate. In this league, there are six balls for a walk, eight when the bases are loaded, which they almost always are. A lot of the pitchers throw hard enough that when a pitch does come within the neighborhood of a generous strike zone, the batter can’t hit it, leading to long innings of multiple at-bats of nine or more pitches without contact. For every kid who takes wild tomahawk swings at neck-high pitches, a half-dozen others are content to wait it out for the free base, still processing the visceral experience of a peer hurling at them with abandon from 33 feet away.

A lot of batters do get beaned, which seems more upsetting to the pitchers than the batters. (At a recent practice, five kids got plunked in about a half-hour span.) Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdowns are not uncommon, and the coaches have to serve double duty as counselors: It’s OK, he’s not hurt, just take a deep breath and play catch, buddy. Beyond the guilt of possibly injuring another player, there’s the angst from the creeping understanding that a pitcher and the pitcher alone is responsible for an inning going off the rails. They can feel their teammates standing idle behind them, they have to endure the opposing team and parents cheering every misfire. Even the best players—and at this particular age, the difference between the kids who possess natural athletic grace and those who try hard but simply don’t becomes more readily apparent—have yet to be tested in this way.

There is no professional consensus as to when exactly kids should start pitching in league games. A handful of online forums mention 9 or 10 as being the right age, but not as any sort of hard, fast rule; the official Little League site has kids pitching starting at age 9. Major League Baseball’s official Pitch Smart guidelines recommend that players 8 and under throw no more than 50 pitches in a game. (My son’s league limits pitchers to two innings per game, consecutive or not.) No one is in danger of tearing a rotator cuff. The issue here isn’t about damage to young arms or even young psyches. It’s more that this just … doesn’t seem very fun. And with baseball under seemingly near-constant existential threat, in danger of being usurped in the fickle hearts and attention spans of idiot kids by literally anything else, this seems like a pivotal age to be turning kids off.

My own son is on that bubble; baseball does not have its hooks into him the way it did with me at that age, despite the fact that I was unconditionally terrible. During long innings parked in right field, he absently pantomimes fadeaway jump shots, struggling to keep focus, not yet convinced of the romantic and restorative effects of baseball’s languid, deliberate pace. He isn’t naturally skilled enough to pick up a relative fastball down the middle or disciplined enough to lay off what isn’t; his first game of kid-pitch, he wasn’t fazed by the wildness, he was annoyed that the pitchers were too good. It seemed unfair. He wants the quick validation and dopamine rush of a hit; he is inconsolably discouraged when it doesn’t happen, and all the reasoned speeches about patience and concentration and how even Aaron Judge strikes out four times in a game are no match for the stubbornness of an 8-year-old.

And for the spectator, kid-pitch offers tension, but of all the wrong kind: Will this inning end without some kid feeling miserable, or without once hearing the satisfying ping of aluminum? At its heart, my complaint isn’t about my son’s growth as a player or as a person or the integrity of a beloved pastime or anything other than me. If the stereotype of the youth-league dad is the hypercompetitive blowhard bellowing from the stands, then consider me the counter-trope: a guy who just wants his money’s worth, to be entertained by a lively game, and to hold onto the last remaining scraps of the childishness of childhood for wholly self-serving and unsustainable reasons. Someday a dribbler past the outstretched mitt of a first baseman won’t be an easy home run that can buoy a kid’s entire week and turn into a victorious war story; today does not need to be that day.

This selfish appeal for the benefits of arrested development is in no way meant to impede your child’s path to becoming the next Clayton Kershaw. There are a couple weeks left in the season still—plenty of time for kids to get that much more used to this, for the games to feel a little less like behavioral science experiments. But consider the modest proposal floated by frustrated baseball fans for as long as the game has existed: Wait ’til next year.