By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
Watching the Hall of Fame induction speeches this weekend I was struck by the speech of Atlanta Braves legend John Smoltz. Smoltz who pitched for 21 years in the big leagues and missed only one due to injury made an impassioned plea to young ballplayers looking to come up today.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport,” said Smoltz.
That message is one that isn’t heard enough in today’s day and age of youth sports, particularly baseball. Sure it’s been said by other players and luminaries over the past couple of years, but truly listened to? Rarely.
Smoltz knows what he’s talking about, as he is the first player to have gone through Tommy John surgery, recovered and then been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Tommy John surgery has become an epidemic among youth pitchers today. Laken Litman did a piece on the impact of the surgery on the sport last year and spoke to renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Within the piece, Andrews revealed that the highest concentration of TJ surgeries he does, come from youth baseball players.
“The largest number of all those different groups, believe it or not, is high school kids,” Andrews told USA TODAY Sports. “They outnumber the professionals. There was a tenfold increase in Tommy John at the high school/youth level in my practice since 2000. I’m doing way more of these procedures than I want to.”
Part of this increase in injuries is due to the high volume of pitches thrown, but another part is the crazy year round cycle that youth sports maintain today. Pitch counts have been instituted in many youth leagues and a set of guidelines have been installed by MLB’s Pitch Smart initiative, those pitch counts are an assumption based on a season’s worth of pitching, not all year round.
The hyper focus on one sport is a trend seen across sports today as parents and kids alike look to try and lock up that all-important “free ride” athletic scholarship to college. I understand the hope and the need in many cases as college tuition prices rise higher each year. But as Smoltz said, don’t allow that to dictate your kid’s life.
“Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way,” said Smoltz.
There was a recent study done that shows 15-19 year olds represent 56.7% of the Tommy John patients between 2007-2011. That’s means more than half the surgeries performed were done on youth. This is no longer speculation. It’s a trend. One that is undeniable when it comes to youth pitchers.
The reason why Smoltz’s speech resonated so much with me is because I have a younger brother who pitches. He doesn’t play competitive baseball year round. He’s not really looking to play in college. However, he is one of the few kids on his team that doesn’t play in a fall league, or an indoor one during the winter. He hasn’t lost any competitive advantage by not playing year round, rather his arm is stronger than I’ve ever seen it in the summer. The speech that Smoltz gave is one that should be shown to every Little League, American Legion, and AAU coach throughout the country. Adults are the ones who have to watch out for these kids. Most kids, heck, most athletes won’t tell you when they’re tired or need to be taken out of a game.
“I want to encourage you, if nothing else, know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside, they don’t have fun, they don’t throw enough — but they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems. Please, take care of those great future arms,” said Smoltz.
Words to remember, words to live by, coming from one of the best pitchers to ever take the mound in the Major Leagues. Coaches and parents everywhere, take heed of his words or your child could be the next in the operating room.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email or tweet him.