By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
For decades, Little League Baseball had a rule that coaches were not allowed to get behind home plate and warm up a pitcher between innings. There was a very good basis for it. Now, that rule has been changed. And the reason for the change is a bad one.
Little League rule 3.09 used to state: Managers or coaches must not warm up a pitcher at home plate or in the bullpen or elsewhere at any time including in-game warm-up, pre-game warm-up, and in other instances. Now, the "must not" has been replaced with "are permitted to." The rationale given by Little League is to "improve the pace of play." That isn't why it was changed.
The reason is because this rule has been the most controversial, derided and complained-about one in the book. I wrote an article years ago about all of the social media comments I'd read from parents saying, "this rule is why my kid plays travel ball instead of Little League," etc. Dads (mostly) just really want to get back there and play catch. It's fun. And so, in justification, they claimed that having a player do it slows down the game. Little League apparently finally caved in and let the parents who want to play catch win.
I'm going to get heat for taking this stance, because I'm sure many people really do feel like not allowing a coach to run out with a glove and take some warm-ups while the catcher dons the gear slows down the game. And, what's the harm, right?
Here is the harm: Practices and games are supposed to be for the kids, not the parents. Look around the next time you see a coach warming up a pitcher. What you'll notice is a kid, who is not playing in the field that inning, sitting on the bench swinging their legs back and forth, doing nothing. So, the parent is getting better at catching a baseball, but the kid isn't.
Here is the way it worked on my teams. We went over this in the first weeks of practice and it happened automatically: Twelve players were at the game. Nine were in the field, which left three on the bench. One of them knew to run out and warm up an outfielder. That left two who understood that if the catcher was suiting up, one was responsible for grabbing a mask and a glove and hustling out behind the plate to take warm-up tosses.
I've heard people say, "Those kids don't want to do that." Yeah, in my experience, they sure do. I've watched them do rock-paper-scissors to determine who got to go out there. Kids don't want to sit on the bench. They want to play. Even if that's only for a few throws before the catcher is ready.
Then, when that player came back in from doing their job, we had a pat on the head and a "way to go" waiting for them. They just helped the team. They feel great about that. And the "pace of play" was not interrupted in the slightest.
Another argument I've heard is, "It's a safety thing. Usually those kids on the bench aren't that good and so they may get hurt warming up our best pitcher." No they won't. They're wearing a cup, a mask and a catchers glove. And let me ask you this: If they aren't that good, whose fault is that? Are they ever going to get better sitting on the bench watching you play catch? If you don't understand this, then you really don't care if your kids improve.
And, 'what do we do if we only have nine players, so there are not extras? Then, we just have to wait for the catcher to get on the gear?' No, the league makes it clear before the season begins, that in these situations the other team's catcher is responsible for staying back behind home to take the warm-up tosses. And, guess what. Now that player is getting more reps. Not the coach.
The other day I walked by a practice and observed a team working on infield with a group of players. They were in line at shortstop, waiting for a ground ball to be hit to them. They fielded it and threw it to first. Want to know who was catching the throws at first? A coach with a glove on. Meanwhile, five or six players who could have been over there instead of the coach, stood watching until it was their turn. Let me predict what's going to happen to this team this season. There will be a crucial time in a game when a shortstop fields a ball, throws to first, and the first baseman misses it. The coaches will yell at the kid that they should have caught the ball. Instead, they should be yelling at themselves because they didn't think to have a kid practice over there at first base during the infield drills.
The same concept applies to warming up the pitcher. Kids want to play. Coaches' jobs are to help kids get better. Neither of these goals is accomplished by having a parent behind the plate. When Little League changed this rule, they gave in to the mob. And they struck out looking.
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.