Very Young, And Very Competitive

Beyond Play

Up close, Trent Grondin can only be described as a sweet kid: Shy and polite, even when his folks aren't around, he likes Super Nintendo and the hit song from "Titanic."

At the specific distance of 44 feet and elevation of 6 inches, however, he may be the most terrifying 10-year-old in Texas. From there, his 72 m.p.h. fastball crosses the plate in 0.454 seconds, smacking the catcher's mitt with the leather-slap thunk of a 12-ounce sirloin heaved from an eight-story window onto concrete.

That's the same time it takes a 91 m.p.h. fastball to cover the major-league distance of 60 feet, 6 inches And that's the reason young Trent is the talk of the Sam Bass youth baseball league in this baseball-crazy city of 48,000.

The quiet boy's thunderous arm is perhaps the supreme expression of the Sam Bass league. Far from the pastoral sandlot stickball of American folklore, Sam Bass is hard-core baseball. Yet many critics of such leagues across the country worry that they have gone too far, replacing an emphasis on character development and equal playing time with an all-out blitz for competition.

The push to push young athletes harder, sooner, has given rise to a whole new breed of leagues and traveling teams nationwide. While supporters say they're just giving kids what they want - an opportunity to improve their skills - opponents counter that the leagues lead youths down a path where few succeed while giving them a skewed system of values.

For his part, Terry Grondin, Trent's father and commissioner of the Sam Bass league, makes no excuses about Sam Bass baseball. "In this league, we 'spect results," says the self-described "baseball addict" with a close-cropped goatee. "We 'spect our kids to go to the top tournaments ... every year."

It's an attitude that is increasingly common, says Dave Destler, editor and publisher of Junior League Baseball magazine, based in Canoga Park, Calif. Decades of research by professional teams, coupled with advances in communications and technology have resulted in an explosion of knowledge of the mechanics of the game, he says, creating better trained, more competitive athletes at every level.

But this professionalization of the lowest levels of amateur sports has its detractors.

Sociologist David Hunt, who studies the interplay of extracurricular activities and schools at Northwestern University's Policy Research Institute in Evanston, Ill., views it as the lowest rung on a value system that disproportionately rewards athletic greatness over other achievement.

"Kids are being pushed toward sports at an earlier age," he says. "For most people, it's putting a lot of emphasis on something that ends up being only a trivial or entertaining part of their lives. Perhaps they should be emphasizing other things, like interpersonal relationships and academics."

Mr. Destler, however, has heard this argument before. "These people are by and large attached to the good memories they have of the game from the way they were playing it as kids," he says. "What they don't realize is the game has changed."

Round Rock's competitive revolution began in 1991, when a bloc of parents, upset by Little League International rules that they said stifled the game (limiting lead-offs and stealing), bolted to form Sam Bass.

The split sparked a bitter debate over the proper emphasis on competition in youth sports. Since 1939, Little League's stated purpose has been "growing good citizens," not necessarily good athletes. Round Rock Little League stalwarts said Sam Bass gave that principle a back seat to winning.

But somewhat surprisingly, the city's Kiwanis-sponsored Little League last season followed suit, dumping its Little League affiliation and linking up with same group that Sam Bass is connected to - PONY (Protect Our Nation's Youth). The reason? Parents wanted more competition.

While Little League officials say they gain about as many programs as they lose to rival leagues each year, Destler disagrees, saying rival leagues like PONY are making significant inroads into Little League's 66 percent market share.

Yet Little League isn't the only one taking a hit. All the leagues have been hurt during the past five years by burgeoning "club" or "select" teams. Club teams operate wholly outside league structures and function almost like professional teams - except that players don't get paid.

These teams promise the most competitive games of all. They accept only top players, and reserves often spend games at a stretch on the bench. Club coaches can command salaries as high as $10,000 a season.

"For a kid who loves the game, the chance to play at this level, with a professional coach is very attractive," says Wayne Christensen, editor and publisher of Knoxville, Tenn., based Baseball Parent newsletter.

Yet for those not prepared to the big time, the transition can be shocking. "It really tore my son's self esteem to spend all his time on the bench," says the mother of one 12-year-old who experimented with the club route for one season before returning to Sam Bass this year. "Now, since we've gone back to the league, he's one of the all stars."

Still, the staunchest proponents of club baseball believe that everything works out in the end. "I believe in baseball," says Scott Savins, organizer of Round Rock's 96-team club invitational. "In everything, there is good and bad. But baseball ... is a great teacher in helping people get along and understand their existence. And sooner or later, everyone out here is going to have to face up to that."

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