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.
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.
For example, current national rules allow a coach to draft and hold a promising 10-year-old "until they're ready to be a dominant player in one or two years," Brown said. "The disadvantage is the kid could get far less playing time in the majors than with younger [players]," he explained.
To combat this, Davis requires all kids play at least three innings in the field each game.
By contrast, the Ames Girls' Softball Association assigns players based on where the children attend school — and few other criteria.
"We try to make sure that each team has somebody that can pitch, somebody that's caught before and somebody that can coach them," Gwiasda said. "I think people are surprised when they hear how we do it, but I think by and large they like it."
Competition there does not appear to suffer. "Even a team that may not seem on paper to be a real strong team still has a chance to win," he said.
Rich Engelhorn, an associate professor of health and human performance at Iowa State University who has been involved in the administration of youth sports programs, likes the Ames approach. "I kind of like the random draft just because I think it has a philosophy that youth sports are supposed to be fun and try to build teams."
Balancing the desire to win against the need for children to socialize is at the forefront of adults' minds, regardless of the selection process.
Brown said he hopes the Little League organization will change the rule that 12-year-olds can be bypassed in the draft, since it is so important for those players to be with their friends. "We really acknowledge that social groups and peer groups are an important part of this age," he said.
Choices to Make
At his parenting seminars across the country, Wolff recommends that instead of a traditional draft, players should be ranked numerically and divided into teams of equal ability — before they are randomly assigned coaches. "It gets rid of all the so-called politics and conniving that goes on when it comes to the draft," he maintained.
Engelhorn added his experience with draft systems is that some teams are good and others aren't. "In little league baseball, it's all about the pitcher," he said. "The team that has a quality pitcher is going to be the best. There's no way around that."
But those from the draft system said it works best. Peck said teams in other leagues often have their top players poached by other coaches. "It's hard as a coach every year to have to face that," he said. "You work with a kid, bring them up to a good level, then somebody else just takes them."
Downs said all of the Little League rules are there to make sure the kids have the best experience. "The opportunity for kids to play in a setting that is comfortable for them is another reason why there are varied divisions [of] kids based on their skill level and the interpretation of coaches," he said.
But does it always work out for the best? In Alex's case, it did. He weighed his love of baseball against being on a team with kids half his size and decided to stick with it, his father said.
"To his credit, after being initially upset — and, you know, it's kind of an ego thing — he said, you know, he loves baseball and maybe he can help some of the younger kids," David Furlow explained.
As fate would have it, a player in the majors was injured, and Alex took his place. And he was such a good teammate that he ended up winning the "coach's dream" award.
But Furlow noted other boys who were assigned to younger teams opted to leave baseball for other sports. "I think that's a real shame," he said.
The bottom line, some argue, is for the adults involved in each community to decide what is best for their leagues. Or, as Brown said, "We have decided there's no right answer."