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Transition Game: Little League Develops District-Wide 50-70 Program to Ease the Move Up to Standard-Size Baseball Fields

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa., (Feb. 15, 2011) – In its efforts to keep children playing baseball into the teenage divisions of Little League Baseball, Little League International is in the second year of a pilot program designed to ease the transition of Major Division players from the 60-foot Little League diamond to the standard 90-foot diamond.

Dave Wetmore, California District 57 Administrator, has been an advocate of such a program for years and has successfully implemented several levels of the 50-70 program throughout his district.

“There are 12 leagues in District 57 that have a 50-70 program,” Mr. Wetmore, who has operated a similar 80-foot program since 2000, said. “We have two leagues with two 50-70 teams and one league has three teams at 50-70. These leagues are structured for 12-year-olds to play, with our 13-year-olds playing on an 80-foot diamond with a 54-foot pitching distance.”

More information on the Little League Baseball 50-70 Pilot Program is available here: http://www.littleleague.org/media/newsarchive/2010/Sep-Dec/50-70PilotProgramOfferedAgainFor2011.htm

From its inception in 1939, Little League Founder Carl Stotz miniaturized the game of baseball so that children could play and enjoy it in many of the same ways as big leaguers of the day. Over the generations, Little Leaguers wishing to continue playing after graduating out of Little League at age 12, were expected to make the leap from 60-foot base paths and 46-foot pitching distance to a field with 90 feet between bases and 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitching rubber to home plate.

For decades, leagues have had the regular-season option of using 80-foot basepaths, but few leagues have elected to use this option.

Responding to the call from its constituent leagues to explore the possibility of making this jump a little less drastic, Little League International developed a mid-range diamond structure whereby the bases would be placed at a 70-foot distance and the pitcher would throw from 50 feet.

“This program is being provided as a supplement to the Majors program by Little League and options are provided to leagues to operate as an 11-12 year-old; or 12-13 year-old program,” Mr. Wetmore said. “In California 57, the 13-year-olds play in our 80-foot program, which is an option for regular season play. The 50-70 pilot program is for 11- and 12-year-olds exclusively, while the standard Little League program remains separate.

“In 2010 and 2011 our leagues decided to operate the program district-wide,” Mr. Wetmore said. “Each league has established one or more teams with games taking place on a designated weekday and on Sundays.

“It’s simply a training and development program to introduce the 60-foot players to the larger base paths and longer pitching distance. Prior to games, district training and development directors put on a clinic for players and parents in regards to the differences in play.”

Currently, the Little League’s age structure serves players league-age 12-13 and gives the option for players to return the Little League (Majors) division for Little League International Tournament play.

Devised as a district-wide program, players participating in the 50-70 pilot program would interleague and play other teams throughout a given district. Since its introduction, the 50-70 program has been met with acceptance and fair share of struggles.

Those leagues and districts embracing the program have seen it inspire a higher level of play that does as Little league International had hoped, by giving these players an edge in adjusting to the large fields. Those areas interested have had to overcome or adapt to the physical challenges that come with converting a field to these distances.

“The biggest challenges are converting or building a lot of fields, registration, scheduling and rules,” Mr. Wetmore said. “I think that our program has shown that by giving all levels of players the opportunity, that we keep players and families in the program.

“Our retention in the upper programs is outstanding, but it has not resulted in any postseason wins,” Mr. Wetmore said. “Still, but it is an overall win for our children, families and communities, because we make it fun for everybody.”

In the two years, since Little League has operated the 50-70 Pilot Program, Mr. Wetmore has addressed questions about long-term competitiveness of the Major division and the impact the program will have in the physical well-being of the players.

The questions about competition stem from the additional level taking the better players out of the 11-12 division and placing them into the 50-70 program. However, as the program is presently designed, players taking part in the 50-70 program are eligible to play as Major Division or age-appropriate “all-stars” provided they play in the Major Division the minimum 60 percent of games in the Majors to be eligible for tournament play.

Prevention of injury, especially from overuse injuries are always at the forefront. For this reason, Mr. Wetmore and the leagues in California 57 have limited to the number of games and established rules that eliminate make-up games due to rainouts and end games at the end of regulation.

“Since this is a part-time program leagues are concerned about the overuse of players, the preconceived "all-star" status of the 50/70's players and double-teaching of players,” Mr. Wetmore said. “Some league presidents did not like this because they believe it would take the best players away from the Majors division and make it very weak.”  

To date, district administrators are encouraged to have their leagues charter 50-70 programs and provide feedback to Little League International on how it is received in their communities. No decisions about the long-term future of the program have been made, but the more responses and opinions that are provided, the better chances are a thorough examination will be made.

“In California 57, we have been very lucky and are so pleased that Little League now has introduced the 50-70 program,” Mr. Wetmore said. “In 2000, I introduced the 80-foot program and since then it has been a huge success and it’s been a tremendous retention tool within our district.

“Now with the introduction and affordability of this program, we have a real nice stepping stone-type program from 60 feet through 70, 80 and up to 90; and both the players and parents completely understand it,” Mr. Wetmore said. “I'm hoping that if all works out, our district will have more than 24 teams in our 12 leagues. The ability to adapt and adjust within the local structure is so important.”