Small Ball

The Little League World Series (LLWS) is being played now. It is, as you might imagine, a tournament with some distinctive features.

As first blush, it would seem that little league baseball should be a competition that puts a high premium on participation, possibly compromising some other of the FEPS goals. And this is probably true, at least to some extent, of Little League Baseball in general. But a moment’s reflection should be enough to conclude that participation needs to be severely compromised in order to hold a Little League World Series.

If there really are 2.4 million children playing each year in 80 countries, you’re going to have to cut some corners in order to select a single winner. There’s got to be considerable tension between the desire to give all of those kids a chance to play baseball, and the need to ruthlessly eliminate about 99.9995% of them in order to crown a single championship team in August every year.

The LLWS is a 16-team double elimination, without recharge, and with a couple of other special features. The four teams that lose the first two games get a special consolation game against another such team, so that each team gets to play at least three games.

Another participation-enhancing rule is one that mandates that every player on the team has to get at least one at-bat (the severe substitution rules observed in most other forms of baseball are moderated to make this easy to accomplish). Bear in mind, however, that the teams at the LLWS are all-star teams, assembled from the best players in a little league district, so the participation rule doesn’t really mean that each team will have to play their scrubs as well as their stars–LLWS teams are chosen so as to have no scrubs.

Half the teams that qualify for the LLWS are from the United States, and half from the rest of the world. They’re seeded so that all the United States teams are in one half of the bracket, and all of the others are in the other. This is, I can only assume, a rather heavy-handed way of ensuring that one of the teams in the final championship game is an American team.

Keeping the U.S. and international teams separate requires a few alterations to the standard double-elimination bracket. In effect, the tourney is is run not on a 16 bracket, but on a pair of 8 brackets. This means that C drops have a substantial likelihood of getting a repeat pairing. What would otherwise be the D round is used to reconcile the upper and lower brackets (with no recharge round), with the D winners going to the championship game, and the D drops going to a “third place” game. The two consolation games for double losers are also played against teams from the other bracket.

Thus, there are four games (among the 30 games played) in which a U.S. team plays against an international team. If the 16 teams were simply slotted into a single 16-DE bracket by blind draw, roughly half of the games would feature such a matchup. Four games is, apparently, as much of a cosmopolitan gesture as the organizers are willing to stomach.

The qualification process for the LLWS is quite different in different parts of the world, and it differs somewhat from one state to another in the U.S. These differences would, no doubt, generate hair-raisingly large statistics for fairness (B) and (C). I doubt, however, that many of the people involved are particularly concerned with this – perhaps the LLWS is best understood as a bastion of fairness (A).

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