To tee or not to tee, that is the question - the question facing adolescents making their first foray into organized youth baseball.
Baseball-minded youths living along the Wasatch Front have a number of choices of pitching and ball delivery to choose from, with different leagues offering the traditional youth-pitch, or coach-pitch, tee-ball and machine-pitch competition.And just as the youngsters have a choice of playing styles, they also have a myriad of options of beginning leagues, with sponsoring organizations including Little League, Western Boys Baseball Association, Babe Ruth, Pony Leagues, YMCA and the numerous county-rec community centers - just to name a few.
Each of the four ball-delivery alternatives has its advantages and disadvantages, with the abilities, attitudes and confidences of each youth being the biggest factor in selection.
Tee-ball and machine-pitch are considered "more of a beginning alternative," says Martha Bindshedler, program coordinator at the Copperview Center of the Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation Department.
"We want to reach out to the kids who haven't gotten involved in the other leagues and who want to learn the structure of the game . . . There are kids who suddenly in the fourth grade express an interest in baseball, although they're developmentally behind other kids their age."
Rick Hansen, a regional director of Western Boys Baseball for the Salt Lake City and eastern Tooele County areas, concedes certain advantages of tee-ball and machine-pitch play for youth in their first stages of development. "If it's their first attempt at baseball, I think any organized experience can be positive," said Hansen, adding his preference for overall player development is the WBBA Pee-Wee program.
The bottom line to tee-ball - where a batter swings at a ball placed on a stationary tee above the play - is learning the basics. "We stress learning - to learn the skills of hitting, the positions and merely what to do," says Bindshedler, adding that youths as young as 4 and 5 have competed in tee-ball.
Still, it's not as easy as it sounds - some children have to spend substantial time and effort learning to hit a ball set upon a stationary tee.
The disadvantages, at least for more-developed youngsters, are obvious - a lack of pure hitting coordination with a pitched ball and the absence of the pitching element. Competition can seem a little awkward to a purist while play is stopped to place a ball on a batting tee.
As far as youth baseball is considered, a pitching machine on the mound is a relatively new concept, since it has only been in recent years that the price of pitching machines have made cush programs realistic. And, in the eyes of Bindshedler, machine-pitch play is a step up from tee-ball in the learning leagues.
Perhaps the biggest plus of pitching machines is their consistency in throwing the ball - in both placement and velocity - from one batter to the next. "There's a better chance of making contact," says Bindshedler on behalf of the developing hitter.
Besides the cost element (pitching machines and their needed sidekicks of a power generator can run in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000), machine pitch shares the disadvantage with tee-ball of not allowing pitchers to develop.
The biggest drawing card of coach pitch is a youth's confidence - confidence that he likely will not be hit by a thrown ball and that most of the pitches that come his way will be hittable - a big plus for a youngster still developing skills at the plate and trying to overcome accompanying fears.
Other advantages include the batter being able to learn how to judge the speed and direction of a thrown ball as well as keeping young arms and young minds from suffering any pitching-related maladies - overwork, emotional pressure, physical strain from throwing "specialty" pitches.
Disadvantages of coach-pitch competition might include a delayed opportunity to become accustomed to a peer's pitching and a diminished chance of developing a total sense of pitch selection. Also, the presence of an adult in the middle of the playing field can be a drawback. "The other kids look to that adult for direction," says Hansen, adding that without the coach-pitcher, "the kids do more on their own."
According to Hansen, two positives of youth-pitch competition are apparent - one at either end of the plate. First, hitters develop the necessary skill of judging and hitting peer pitching, and second, youngsters have the opportunity to develop as pitchers. Of course, most leagues have inning limitations for young hurlers on a specified inning and/or game basis.
"The faster you bring the game into its entirety, the more they understand the teamwork and the quicker they develop the coordination and the skills," says Hansen of youths playing at a complete, traditional youth-pitch level.
Possible disadvantages might include intimidating the lesser-developed batters, playing a game replete with bases-on-balls as youngsters on the mound learn to develop control and pitch placement, and placing extreme emotional pressures on a youth pitcher as frequently being the center of focus in the playing field.