In youth sports, when does competition begin? 

‘You don’t move your guys around?” the assistant coach asked, poking his head around the visitor’s dugout fence.
“I’ll come and talk to you when I’m done talking to my team,” the visiting manager said. “Now get out of my dugout.”

Just like that, it was on.

“What’s your problem?” the manager asked, stepping over the third-base line to answer the assistant’s original question.

“Why don’t you move your guys around?” the coach said. “We’re moving our guys into different spots. This isn’t the World Series, you know.”

“Listen, you coach your team and let me coach mine,” the manager said. “And you shouldn’t even be over here. If your manager’s got a problem, tell him to come and talk to me.”

It was Little League baseball for 7- and 8-year-olds, and it was becoming intense by the fourth inning. It turned even more intense when the managers finally did come together.

Nose-to-nose intense.

With the kids on both teams likely more focused on the impending postgame concession-stand treats than the final score, the grown-ups were playing out a scene repeated hundreds of times a season on Little League fields across the country: They were debating whether or not winning matters.

The visiting team in this particular exchange was undefeated at 11-0, and beating teams rather badly all season. That’s not to say they tried to run up the score on anyone, because they didn’t.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

In each victory, when the score was even remotely lopsided, runners moved station to station, one base at a time — even on balls hit to the outfield fence and then thrown all over the yard before making it back to the infield.

Nobody was permitted to take extra bases, despite the kids’ natural desire to leg out doubles and triples on big hits.

So what was the problem?

The problem, according to the home team assistant, was that the visitors wouldn’t rotate their slick-fielding infielders to the outfield.

In youth baseball at this age, rare are the balls that actually make it to the outfield, which means offensive success usually comes from ground balls in the infield that find holes — or are booted by young kids still learning to catch and throw.

This particular team’s infielders were the exact same age as the rest of the league, but these kids could catch and throw.

Very, very well.

The argument from the undefeated manager was simple: The opponent was probably the second-best team in the league and he wanted to put his best against theirs, see what happens. When the win was secure, then he would move kids around, as he’d done all season.

“But why wait?” the home team said. “Why not let your other kids play infield once in a while?”

Translated, the home manager was asking, “Why don’t you let your smaller, less coordinated outfielders play the infield for a while, so we can get some hits and get back in the game.”

That’s another way of repeating the question at hand: Should winning matter in youth sports?

Should every kid rotate every position on the field at age 7 and 8, just to give the other side a better chance to win? Or should more-capable kids play longer in the most-difficult positions?

At what age should kids be allowed to play their best, at their best positions, and play to win? Is 9 the magic number? Maybe 10?

Let’s hear what you have to say, parents. At what age does the scoreboard matter in youth sports? At what age should a scorebook be kept? Send your responses to the email below, and I’ll publish a sampling of the best responses in a future column.

Until then, have some great games this week, and may the best team win.

Or not.

Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at bfrantz@sfexaminer.com.

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014

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