How Big Should All-Star Rosters Be?

When “all-star” tournaments roll around in recreational sports, there are usually two camps when it comes to choosing teams. Those who believe that the more kids who get to participate the better, and those who feel rosters should be whittled to the smallest number to create the most competitive teams.

First, there are probably some differences in philosophy between various sports. For instance in soccer or basketball it would be easier than say, baseball, to insert a weaker player without serious adverse effect on the team. Because these are sports where there is always a teammate to help cover for potential mistakes, a coach can feel less anxiety if he subs a stronger player out for a few minutes. Plus, because both of these sports are so physically taxing, coaches may want a deeper bench to spell their front line players.

However, baseball may be the only team sport that is also an individual sport. When a batter is at the plate, it is one-on-one between him and the pitcher. No teammate can step in behind and bail him out. Furthermore, in a youth league six-inning game, each team only gets to make eighteen outs before the contest is over. And since most baseball organizations mandate a minimum amount of play, (in Little League all-stars at least one at-bat), then it becomes more difficult to add more players knowing they will be taking precious at-bats from the top hitters.

So it really comes down to the league, and or, coach’s objective. Is all-stars when we shift away from recreational mode and into competitive mode? Is this the point where we say that it is about being as winning-oriented as possible and only putting the most elite on the field? Little League International has its opinion. Below is a question submitted to Little League via an online forum, and their response:

What is the minimum number of players a team can have on a tournament roster?
Tournament Director’s answer:
By rule, a tournament team is only required to field nine players. Playing Rule – 1.01 clearly states that Baseball/Softball is a game between nine players. Little League would not encourage fielding only nine players because if one player becomes ill or is injured that team is subject to forfeiture by action of the Tournament Committee. From a philosophical perspective, Little League would encourage all local leagues to carry the maximum number of players, (14) to give as many children the opportunity to participate and experience the International Tournament.

So why not create a rule mandating that a league carry fourteen players, and eliminate the question? One reason is it’s possible that some small leagues might not even have enough interested players to fill fourteen spots, and it would not be right to exclude that league from participating. And it also seems likely that organizations want to allow local leagues some latitude when determining who and how many to carry.

I find it interesting that most of the International teams in last year’s Little League World Series brought the maximum fourteen players. The U.S. teams were a different story. The Great Lakes Region representative from Kentucky brought ten, others came with eleven, and the average was twelve. However, the team that won it all, Ocean View from Southern California, carried thirteen, and perennial powerhouse Warner Robins, GA  filled all fourteen spots.

This is not to say one philosophy is better than another, or that leagues that allow more kids to play are right and leagues or clubs that are more exclusive are bad. There are many factors that weigh into the decision. One year when I was managing all-stars, our league decided to carry twelve players. There was a thirteenth boy who was very close, but left out after the initial vote. I added him to my squad even though I worried that an extra player might cause substitution headaches and put us at a competitive disadvantage. It worked out great. While our team didn’t go far, winning three and losing two before being knocked out, we wouldn’t have fared better with fewer players. Every kid on the team got at least one hit during those five games and they’ll all have those memories and bragging rights forever.

The next season, our league had a team that thought they had a good chance to go all the way to the Little League World Series, based on the championships they’d won when they were younger. Four of the league’s managers and a coach had sons who’d played on the team each of the previous two years. The son of the league’s fifth manager was a very good player who, I felt, deserved to be included. When the five managers got together to choose the team, the fifth manager’s son was left off. He argued his boy’s case for over an hour but the others would not budge. They wanted to leave their original team intact and maintained that a thirteenth player would hurt their chances of going a long way.

Instead of making a deep, weeks-long tournament run as expected, that team was eliminated after only  three games. Its hard to know if they would have done better if they’d added an extra player, but they certainly wouldn’t have done worse.

In youth sports, especially recreational youth sports, there is always a judgment to be made relative to the balance between playing for fun and playing to win. We all know all-stars are more about winning than the regular season. How much more is the question.