Summer is right around the corner, which means millions of kids will be putting in countless hours on baseball fields across the country.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. The issue lies in the fact that baseball has now become a year-round sport, a problem that is especially damaging to a young generation of pitchers.
Like anything else, baseball is best in moderation, especially when it comes to the unnatural motion of throwing a baseball. Gone, though, are the days of just playing Little League and school ball in the spring and summer. There are travel teams, showcases and indoor facilities that allow for constant practice. If you are a kid looking to go pro or even just ensure you start on your varsity high school team, there is a lot of pressure to play or train 365 days a year.
While position players may not face the same dilemma as pitchers, those on the mound are at increased risk. The human arm, especially an undeveloped youthful one, is not meant to withstand the stress that comes with constant pitching. The evidence of such a claim is supported by the ever-growing number of adolescents in need of Tommy John surgery (TJS), a procedure meant to reconstruct ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears in the arm.
UCL tears have become an epidemic in Major League Baseball. It used to be that 15-20 big league pitchers would need TJS per year, but that number has been closer to 30 each of the last three years, according to Pitch Smart, an initiative run by MLB in an attempt to provide pitchers with healthy guidelines. The program also found that 40 percent of pro pitchers – both major league and minor league – had undergone TJS at least once.
What not enough people realize is that the need for these procedures at the professional level stems from what pitchers had done as amateurs. Kids – whether it be Little Leaguers, high schoolers or college athletes – throw too much. They learn breaking balls too young. They are not taught proper mechanics or training regiments or given enough rest between outings. Far too often the only concern is winning and making it to the next level. The result for so many pros has been serious injury once they get there.
Sometimes, it happens sooner.
A study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that pitchers between 15 and 19 years old required 56.8 percent of Tommy John surgeries performed between 2007 and 2011, more than any other age group.
The culture in youth baseball now revolves around doing whatever it takes to climb up the ladder and worrying about the consequences later.
As someone who played baseball and pitched year-round from the time I was 10 until I was 18, and eventually did so without dreams of playing in college or professionally, I can say that this culture is not healthy. I was lucky to have never sustained a serious arm injury. I could have, though, and I was just playing for the love of the game.
There are plenty of kids playing for a lot more, and they are unfortunately willing to disregard their health to get to where they want to be.
Gary Phillips is a journalism major from Ramsey, N.J. He can be reached at gary.phillips@student. shu.edu or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.