The most essential equipment at this week's Little League District 11 Major baseball tournament isn't a baseball or a bat or a glove or even a safety helmet.
It's a three-ring binder.
Inside each binder is all of the paperwork necessary to prove the eligibility of all the Little Leaguers on the seven teams participating. The essential nature of that binder has a lot to do with the state of youth sports in the 21st century.
The Portage Lake Little League crew (and last week, the Keweenaw Little League crew) have done an excellent job organizing these tournaments locally and should be applauded for their presentation and their recruitment of a small army of volunteers.
Just the paperwork alone is intimidating stuff. The following is an incomplete list of documents I've seen reviewed this week: Proof of age, proof of residency (including an annotated map displaying the actual locations of players' residences within league boundaries), an affidavit confirming players are members of their league (having played 60 percent of the season), forms confirming pitch counts, a medical release form, and a form confirming compliance with the Michigan state law on concussion awareness instituted last year.
The problem probably isn't with Little League. After all, millions of children around the world participate every summer and 99.9999 percent of them are the better for it.
The problem is that just about every form mentioned above, every scrap of paper, is almost certainly the product of a problem that actually happened, whether it was the 14-year-old 12-year-old Danny Almonte, the 1992 World Series title forfeited by a Filipino team flagrantly violating both age and residency requirements, kids throwing 150 pitches a night, too many of them curveballs, and having elbow surgery in middle school or having a concussion against Holland and getting thrown right back into midfield three minutes later. (Sorry, that was the World Cup semifinal Wednesday).
Little League also has mandatory play requirements that, after eight summers covering tournaments, still make my head spin. Everyone must play two innings in the field and bat once, which created the farce that got a Gladstone-Munising game national attention in 2011: Gladstone, leading 4-0, was retired in the fifth inning before all of its kids could get their required at-bat, thus leading them to deliberately walk Munising players to ensure there'd be a bottom of the sixth until Munising started swinging at the deliberate pitches, lost, then won because Gladstone didn't fulfill the requirements, then lost because the regional office in Indianapolis said Munising didn't properly file its protest.
Riding into this maelstrom on their white horse is ... the Michigan High School Athletic Association. During an AP sports editors meeting in June, we had a chance to hear directly from MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts, who said the MHSAA is actively considering (and he is personally in favor of) extending its purview over school sports into as deep as the fifth grade.
"If we looked at interscholastic athletics, being a competitive business in the youth sports marketplace, we would do a lot of things differently than we do in school sports today. We wouldn't wait for the consumers to reach high school and come to us, we'd go get the consumers earlier," he said.
The approach that your 11-year-old son is a consumer to be marketed to is intimidating, but not altogether ridiculous.
Consider the truckload of basketball tournaments that take place across the peninsula, particularly for kids in those 'target' grades. I've seen a couple with my own eyes - one in particular, I remember having to bring my brother from Gwinn to West Ishpeming for an 8 a.m. game on a Sunday.
I have serious doubts about the benefit of the majority of these tournaments for these players' skill development. Even the best coach can't turn a fifth-grader into Jabari Parker. But what I know is these tournaments create captive audiences of hundreds of kids and parents who pay registration fees, buy concessions and thus underwrite the costs of many cash-strapped athletic programs at all levels.
I claim some guilt in this process, too. I run results of the athletic contests of 9-and-10-year-olds (among others) because I believe our audience enjoys seeing local events and the exploits of local youth. Where I draw the line as an editor is at entitlement. We're happy to publish team photos and submitted game results as we get them as a public service in accordance with our needs. However, there is no right to publicity, no matter how much the registration fee is, no matter how much Junior's bat cost.
To this day, I have not received a complaint call or even been sent a photo by a member of a youth sports team (that is, unless their parents needed help with the computer). They're too busy being out there and having fun, and God bless them for that.
As for the adults outside the lines, it appears the mountains of paper are the penance we all owe for our sins.