Some thoughts on high school age sports today, otherwise known as the era of Let’s Give Everyone a Trophy. I’ve been down this road before, but it’s a road that needs to be traveled again.
The American Legion baseball program, which once upon a time had a truly elite postseason tournament, has succumbed to the Let Everyone in the Postseason tsunami. Each year the Legion has found a way to expand its postseason, even while the time allotted for the regular season has diminished.
There are usually around 75-78 Legion baseball teams in this small state. The teams are divided into eight zones -- that’s Legionese for leagues -- of less than 10 teams per league.
Under the Legion postseason, 40 teams qualify, five teams from each zone. That’s more than half. That guarantees teams with losing records -- the definition of a bad team -- will be “rewarded” with a postseason berth.
That’s bad. But there is a reality that makes it worse. Even poor teams usually have one good pitcher. So bad team A is matched up with good team B in the opening round. Bad team A, behind its one good pitcher, knocks off good team B, which has three good pitchers, 2-1.
There are those that call this good. I call it unfair.
Baseball is a game of averages. In the Major Leagues, the best teams lose 60-plus games. It’s the nature of the sport. As John Sterling, the Voice of the Yankees often says, all you can do it hit the ball; can’t guide it. Over long seasons, good teams rise to the top; bad teams don’t. MLB rewards that.
But we live in an age of enabling, so at the teen-age amateur level, even bad teams will get an opportunity -- an opportunity they did not earn -- to beat a good team.
By the way, under the Legion postseason, in order to win a state championship, a team might have to play 12 postseason games. Welcome to the NBA.
The Legion, at least, rewards its zone champions a bit this season. Of the 40 teams in the tourney, 32 have to survive rounds of single elimination play before meeting a zone champ. Then those survivors have to beat the zone champion in a best-of-three to get to the double elimination tourney -- which is played at two four-team sites in Torrington and Stamford -- before the winners from those two sites play another best-of-three for the state title.
But my goodness, even then, a zone champion might have to play 10 games in the postseason to win a title. Too much, folks, too much.
This setup places little premium on winning a zone crown and trivializes the regular season. The system rewards mediocrity, which is a life-lesson we should never teach kids.
Speaking of rewarding mediocrity, the CIAC state high school basketball tournament is underway. Here, if a team won 40 percent of its games, it’s a state tourney team. Was ridiculous, is ridiculous, will remain ridiculous.
Oh, I know, every once in a while a team comes out of the swamp of mediocrity and wins. Heck, you know the line: every once in a while a blind squirrel finds an acorn, too.
I know, I know, that team had injuries early, or a transfer became eligible in January, or a couple of kids suspended for discipline or academics got reinstated. That does not justify their inclusion in the tourney at 8-12 or 9-11.
The whole season should count. If a kid flunked out for a term, isn’t academic performance why the kid is in school in the first place? If a star got hurt, isn’t that part of the game? I don’t recall MLB giving the Yankees a pass to the postseason last year because Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson were out with injuries. Podunk High shouldn’t get one either.
Let’s look at some numbers.
There are approximately 180 boys basketball teams in the state. The following umbers will fluctuate a bit, but there are 30-plus teams which will qualify with less than .500 records. At .500 you’re mediocre. Under .500, you’re, well, you know. Some 55-60 will not make it.
So boys basketball teams started “official” practices in December and played three months to eliminate less than one-third of the teams playing. Yippee, we’re No. 107!
This make sense to anyone?
Now pay attention to those teams that qualify with .500 or worse records. The sub-.500 and .500 teams will likely total 40-45. Look at how they do in the opening round of the tournament. Go to Las Vegas and bet the house that the won-lost records of those teams will be, oh, maybe 5-40 or so.
Those teams don’t deserve to be in the postseason. Just don’t. Teams with similar records in soccer, baseball and softball perform about as “well.”
If the CIAC -- and the Legion -- required teams to be good to play in the postseason, if these organizations rewarded performance, then a lot of other good things would happen.
1. The regular season would instantly become more important.
2. Kids would learn that what is rewarded in this life is performance, not presence.
3. A lot of schools would save money. Example: Team A has an 8-12 record. It is forced to hire a bus to travel maybe 30 miles or more, to play a game. Team A loses 77-45, as almost always happens. That bus cost local taxpayers hundreds of dollars. A drop in the bucket, I know. But floods start with single drops.
Example B: The team that hosted that meaningless game is out a lot more money. School security has to be hired. Police/constables have to be hired. Scorekeepers/clock operators/announcers have to be hired. Game officials have to be hired. Staging one home basketball game typically costs upwards of $600 to $700.
Maybe a school will make that money back in gate receipts. Maybe not. It’s not exactly a first-rate attraction
4. Most importantly, there would be better tourney games, the tournaments would be shorter, therefore much less costly to run. And no kid would be hurt by this.
There is this notion that keeps surfacing that to cut back on the tourney would “deprive” kids of the experience. Look, this should be an earned experience, not an entitlement. A kid’s life is not ruined by failure to play in a postseason tournament. She is not deprived.
Kids are deprived when they have to go to school in substandard buildings with substandard technology, not enough books, and not enough learning materials.
They are deprived when school sports programs are cut, but they are not deprived when their 8-12 basketball team doesn’t get the privilege of getting run over by a vastly superior team from another school. Find me kids who were thrilled their team made the tournament at 8-12 and then got slammed 80-40 by a good team. All tourney teams should be good teams.
I love high school sports. I love Legion baseball. I love covering all of them and love commenting about them. I love the innocence of kids’ sports. I have more fun than a human ought to have.
But I want kids to learn that rewards should be earned. That there is something important about every game. That the postseason is something that should be the reward for performing at a high level, not performing at a mediocre or worse level.