(Note: This column originally appeared in the Gwinnett Daily Post)
If you can spare a moment from your 9-year-old’s 60-game summer travel ball schedule, please consider the following:
Don Sutton pitched in the Major Leagues for 23 years, winning 324 games and striking out 3,574. Phil Neikro, who also spent 23 years in the Majors, won 318 games, 121 of them after the age of 40 ( an MLB record). Another 23-year vet, Carl Yastrzemski, had over 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. And Willie Mays, in his 22 years, hit 660 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .302.
What do all these guys have in common, other than the fact that they’re Hall of Famers? They played in the era before travel ball, 24-hour batting cages and year-round personal trainers.
Doesn’t seem to have hurt them much.
Sutton, now an Atlanta broadcaster, recently talked about this very topic on the Braves pre-game radio show:
“When I was a kid, we played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. In the summer we mowed yards to make extra money. I never had a chance to throw my arm out as a kid, because I wasn’t pitching year-round.”
Maybe that’s why he lasted 23 years in the Majors.
Sutton was responding to a position paper by Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the best-known athletic orthopedist in the world, regarding the recent rash of “Tommy John” surgeries.
According to Andrews, the increased number of elbow injuries he’s observed lately among baseball players in their late 20s and early 30s corresponds perfectly with the rise of “travel teams” in the mid-1990s. He concludes that the vast majority of those injuries result from severe overuse during players’ formative years.
To which we can all respond with a loud, collective: “Duh.”
Don’t misunderstand. I’m glad Andrews decided to address the issue. Having someone of his stature saying these things might just bring about some positive changes (although I’m not going to hold my breath).
But it should be self-evident that the increase in year-round organized youth sports, and the even more recent trend toward intense off-season training for even the youngest athletes, is largely responsible for the sharp rise in sports injuries that we’re seeing now.
I’m not quite as old as Don Sutton, but I did enjoy playing multiple sports when I was a kid. The idea of specializing in one and training for it year-round would have seemed absurd. For the most part, we didn’t even have organized teams, except for little league baseball, until we were in junior high.
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Before that we just played pick-up games in empty lots. No adults. No refs. No eligibility rules. Very little equipment. Just green grass, blue sky, an old scuffed-up ball and a bunch of friends playing a game together.
Know what? We had a blast. And nobody blew out his arm.
Rob Jenkins is a newspaper columnist, a happily-married father of four, and the author of "Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility." E-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @FamilyManRob, or visit www.familymanthebook