In a recent viewpoint, parents suggested a coach-pitch league for 8-year-olds to prepare for pitch leagues, and to protect the younger boys. [Take the danger out of T-ball, Viewpoints, Jan. 13] I believe that if Oak Park wants to continue proving its strength and dominance of Illinois baseball, this cannot happen.
For the past five seasons, I have worked as an umpire for Oak Park Youth T-ball. I feel that there is an advantage to having 8-year-olds in T-ball. It benefits the competitive summer baseball program, and even the high school team. For the boys who play because their parents signed them up or who just weren't cut out to become athletes, T-ball is a fun experience that introduces them to a new activity and new friends. For those who find an instant love for the game and excel, T-ball is the beginning of a career. The reason these young baseball lovers develop fundamentals is because they are still playing T-ball at 8 years old.
To many T-ball players, 8-year-olds are known as "the big kids." They bring power and strength to the tee. There is only one proven way to counter their muscle. Defense. When that "big kid" rips a line drive at the shortstop, a play has to be made, or the ball rolls into the outfield for a homerun. Having 8-year-olds in T-ball forces an emphasis on defense because the fielders have to be able to make plays on hard-hit balls. The players who are solid defensively are the ones who control the infield where the hardest balls are hit and the most damage can be done. In order to succeed and protect themselves from the ball, they must be good on defense.
Many parents would argue that these same skills could be learned and developed in a coach-pitch league. At the young age of 8 years old, very few players make contact with the ball and are even less likely to make a solid connection. Therefore, the fielders are seldom used and are usually not challenged by the little dribblers that almost reach the pitcher's mound. This does not simulate the true speed of the game, and players do not develop skills as quickly. In fact, most coach-pitch leagues have a rule that, after a certain amount of swings and misses in an at bat, a tee is brought out for the batter. The use of the tee happens more often than one would expect. Players at this age will swing at anything, no matter if it's a strike or bouncing in.
For those parents who do have 8-year-olds playing competitive travel baseball, a difference can easily be seen at tournaments. Oak Park's defense is superior to the vast majority of its opponents. These players' success is because of the extra time spent learning defensive skills in T-ball. As a bonus, the time spent improving the technique of the swing using a tee gives players a better chance to hit in pitch-ball leagues.
Rather than throwing 8-year-old boys into a new league, keep them in T-ball to fine-tune their fundamentals. As a current Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball player and former reduced-impact factor T-ball player, I owe part of my success to my three years spent in T-ball. I started playing competitive travel ball since I was 8. My teams dominated Illinois baseball because we were fundamentally advanced compared to many of our opponents and still continue to win on a regular basis in high school.
I believe that if Oak Park wants to continue its winning ways, it needs to keep 8-year-olds in T-ball. While winning may not matter to all T-ball participants, it does to those who love the sport and who will continue to play it. After all, that is what competitive sports are all about. It would be a shame to see the winning history and tradition of Oak Park baseball diminish because of a decline in player skill level due to an unnecessary change in the Oak Park Youth Baseball system.
Kevin Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, Oak Park Youth T-ball umpire and baseball player for OPRF.