BIG LITTLE LIES?

Ken Hoffman handicaps Little League's wild World Series

Photo by LittleLeague.org

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This has been the best Little League World Series ever — with championship weekend still to go.

The coach of the New Hampshire All-Star team accused the Rhode Island team of stealing signs, a definite no-no, totally against the honor code of Little League. Thou shall not steal signs or bases. There's no leading off bases in Little League.

Online gambling sites are taking wagers on the Little League World Series this year. Bovada, one of the most popular sports books on the web, has the international children a -150 favorite over the U.S. tykes. The Japanese and South Korean teams are the bettors' picks to win the title.

Bet on these kids

Why not bet on Little League? I've bet on dogs, horses, jai alai players, celebrity boxers, the Academy Awards, and whether a tiny little ball will land in a red or black slot.

A player on the New Jersey team threw a hissy fit on TV after his coach pulled him for a pinch runner. You don't see that too often in Little League. I was rooting for the Jersey boys because the team was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and practiced on the same fields in Warinanco Park where I played Little League.

Here's the thing about Little League that you don't hear mentioned on ESPN, maybe because ESPN paid $60 million to air the Little League World Series.

A big drop for Little League

Little League's popularity is in steep decline. Participation is way down across the U.S. In the Southeast Region (Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas), once a hotbed of Little League, the number of players has dropped 43 percent from 2007, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The culprit is select baseball, which takes youth baseball to crazy levels of competitiveness, expense, and sometimes heartbreak. This is the sales pitch select managers give to parents of a talented 12 year old, "Do you want your kid playing Little League … or real baseball?"

Little League...or Select?

Little League doesn't allow leads off bases, the bases are only 60 feet apart, there are strict pitch limits, everybody makes the team regardless of ability, and everybody must get in the game.

Select ball pretty much plays by the same rules as college and professional baseball. The highest levels of select ball are super serious and cutthroat. A player could pour his guts into making a team, only to be replaced if the manager finds a better player. That's life, kid.

True story. I once wrote a column about a local, absurdly successful select baseball program with teams in several age groups. These teams travel to tournaments across the U.S. Parents pay about $3,000 for their kids to be in the program. I met a woman who said her family was moving from North Carolina to Houston, so her 13 year-old son could play for one of the teams.

Select’s domination

How dominating are these select teams? I asked the manager, if your team of 12 year olds played the Little League champions, who would win? He laughed at me. "We'd win every time. Give me a number, that's how many runs we'd win by."

As for the Rhode Island team being accused of stealing signs, the coaches and kids allegedly used an elaborate system of hand gestures to relay to the batter what pitch was coming. I never saw sign stealing when I coached in Little League, but here's how I watched coaches work it during summer travel ball.

If the third base coach caught a glimpse of the opposing catcher's signs, he'd let the batter know by innocently saying his name. If a fastball was coming, the coach would shout "Come on, Jimmy!" If a curve was on its way, the coach would yell, "You can do it, Johnson." A changeup was "Let's go, son." First name, fastball. Last name, curve. Son, changeup.

Continue on CultureMap to find out if Little League is still dangerous.

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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