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Neighbors Growing Together | Jan 23, 2018

Too much of a good thing?

By BROOKS TAYLOR | May 13, 2016

Recently while leafing through a Sports Illustrated, I noticed an article on “Perfect Game.” Perfect Game, headquartered in Cedar Rapids, is a nationally known baseball development program.

There’s a local angle here. The founder of Perfect Game is Jerry Ford, a former Iowa Wesleyan University (IWU) baseball coach.

In the article, he says an impetus to starting the program was that he felt high school baseball players were not getting enough exposure to land college scholarships and also attract the eye of Major League baseball scouts.

Some of that belief was formed during his son’s participation in the sport.

I’ve known of Perfect Game for over a decade. A baseball player from northwest Iowa was being recruited by the University of Iowa and strangely, Hawkeye baseball coaches never talked to the player’s high school coach, but awarded the scholarship on the player’s analysis from Perfect Game.

The player had talent but was a head case and never made it through his first year at Iowa. Had Iowa talked to the player’s high school coach, they may not have wasted a scholarship.

Prior to starting Perfect Game, Ford was coaching at IWU and also had a son, Ben, who eventually pitched for three big league teams. It was while at IWU that Ford noticed the lack of Major League scouts visiting the small college circuit. Something must be done about this, he said, and it resulted in Perfect Game.

Sounds like solid reasoning to me. But like many other good intentions, it has spiraled out of control.

At first, he built Perfect Game to bring scouts to Iowa, not to the world. But because the baseball world, like many other things, is based on reputation, Perfect Game meant nothing to the people Ford was hoping to attract.

That has changed. Perfect Game took in $15.5 million in gross revenue in 2014, and netted $1 million, double its profit of three years before.

How did it happen?

An infusion of cash from investors, naturally, didn’t hurt. And with additional money, Ford began setting up tournaments and “showcases” around the United States. Some of these tournaments and showcases were by invitation only, but the idea worked. It has worked so well that some baseball people think it is killing the sport.

Why?

Because now the baseball recruiting process is starting even earlier. College coaches are starting to identify prospects as early as seventh- and eighth-grade.

And guess what? To be noticed that early means you have to play, play a lot. As a youngster, I loved baseball and would play it every day — in the summer. Now, however, some kids — in the hopes of getting “recognized” — are playing it eight months or more a year as seventh- and eighth-graders. Whatever happened to time to just be a normal kid?

Too much of a good thing is taking its toll, too. A study by the American Sports Medicine Institute found that kids who pitched competitively for more than eight months of the year were five times as likely to undergo arm surgery.

Another study, published by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, linked warm-weather climates with a higher incidence of Tommy John surgery. The number of youth and high-school-aged patients among Dr. James Andrews’ (regarded as the top surgeon in the world for Tommy John surgery) ulnar collateral ligament (UCL or Tommy John) reconstruction cases jumped from four percent in 1997 to 26 percent in 2003. Now, Andrews estimates that one third of his patients are under 18.

Last year, Perfect Game hosted more than a dozen events for nine-year-old and under teams.

It gets worse. In 2015, the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, ranked 30 four-year-old-and under baseball teams. Yes, that’s four-year-olds, or pre-kindergarten students.

In addition to its tournaments and showcases, Perfect Game also ranks the top amateur players at each position. Most of the top-ranked players are the ones who are playing the sport year around.

The Sports Illustrated article mentions that one of the top-ranked pitchers is from suburban Kansas City, Mo. His father, who pitched at Iowa State, is doing it the correct way by limiting his baseball to the normal months it is played. The youngster, now a senior in high school, said that makes it tough, though, knowing in December there are kids in California who still haven’t put the glove and ball away.

There is a lot of young talent the last few years in the Major Leagues, due in part to organizations like Perfect Game. There also are more Tommy John cases, also because of more baseball at a younger age.

Rankings of teams with four-year-old players?

You have to ask yourself when enough is enough.

 

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