What's the Best Way to Pick Youth Teams?

Alex Furlow, 6 feet tall and lanky, had played baseball, the sport he loves, since kindergarten.

So when the 12-year-old all-star came to the annual Little League tryouts in Davis, Calif., he figured he'd be a shoo-in to move up to the next level where most kids his age play.

But Furlow was shocked when a poor showing landed him instead on a team with kids several years younger and many inches shorter.

"I never even dreamed that that would happen," said his mother, Teri Furlow, recalling how crushed Alex was upon hearing the news.

While Alex's case may not be typical, it illustrates the complications — and seeming illogic — that surrounds how youth sports leagues choose their teams.

Everyone involved agrees the purpose of organized sports should be for kids to make friends, learn and — most importantly — have fun.

But as baseball and softball seasons get underway this spring, the perennial debate is about how to organize teams to achieve that.

"I think it's as much a social thing as anything for the kids," said Steve Gwiasda, president of the Ames Girls' Softball Association in Iowa. "It's important they meet new friends. The emphasis isn't on winning, but you're playing the game for a reason. I don't mean it's ignored — kids are still competitive — but I think it's as much a social thing, too."

To Draft or Not?

For decades, teams that are part of the official Little League International organization, as well as some other leagues, have favored selecting teams with a draft system.

But groups that are not affiliated with Little League often opt for a more random method of selection, such as assigning players by neighborhood.

The idea behind the more random selection methods is that each team will have a hitter like homerun king Barry Bonds or a pitcher who throws bullets like USA Softball's Jennie Finch, along with a mix of players at other skill levels.

Proponents of each approach believe their way is the fairest, ensuring that no team dominates or is always defeated.

So which is better: Draft or selection? Depends who you ask.

Chris Downs, spokesman for Little League International, said usually after teams are ranked by the previous season's record, they pick draft positions in order from worst to best after tryouts. "There's no way of playing favorites, so to speak," he said. "It's a blind draft."

But others argue what works on paper may not work in reality, especially given the varied abilities of the volunteer adults to judge players. Said Rick Wolff, chair of the Center for Sports Parenting and author of The Sports Parenting Edge: "You get one team that is more talent laden and others that are talent bare."

Yet it was a draft approach that helped parents and coaches in Spokane, Wash., found a successful Little League group this year. The draft, said Dan Peck, president of the Spokane North Little League, allowed the community to combat the politics it found in existing youth leagues which "allow coaches to go out and recruit whoever they want to."

As a measure of its success, one new Spokane league has 30 teams with almost 400 participants and a waiting list, while another has 60 teams with 800 players.

Alternative Methods

But just having a draft doesn't guarantee the team selection process will be politics-free, according to Steve Brown, director of baseball for the Davis Little League, where Alex plays, and which has a draft for the 10- to 12-year-olds in its 900-member league.

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