Not everyone is cut out for youth baseball
Dear Parents of Pre-adolescents,
We’ve come upon summer now. The spring baseball and soccer seasons have concluded. The parks and recreation lawnmowers have since cuffed down and smoothed over the fossilized cleat marks on our fertile ball fields. Perhaps now is the time to get our thoughts together.
Allow me to introduce myself. I was once a benchwarmer—a bony, klutzy, happy-go-lucky youngster who became sucked into the maw of organized athletics until the age of 14, by which time it all had become a source of suffering that broke me down, game after game, season after season, into smaller and smaller fragments of self-worth. And that’s all because no one thought to sit me down, put an arm around my shoulder, and gently say, “You know what, Felix? Maybe sports aren’t your thing. Have you considered music? Or the arts? You like the arts, right?”
I write to you now because I wish to help. Your child is, what, 11 years old? Twelve? Are you sure sports are a good idea? You can end this all right now, you know, before signups begin for fall. Let’s be frank. The time of coddling has concluded. Coaches’ directives have become more pointed. The herd is being culled and the gifted sorted out. Winning matters.
And you see that bench over there? A small group of youngsters will be consigned to sit their buttocks upon it—day in, day out. Their foreheads won’t break a sweat. Their uniforms will remain unsullied. Will your child be among them? I know how all this works. While my swift-footed teammates fought with furrowed brows and martial ethics out in the field of play, I sat on that wooden bench and etched my initials into it with my fingernail. Out in far-flung towns, I was called to play only in the last minutes of games in which all was horribly lost anyway, summoned like a dog to spilt milk to make it all go away as swiftly as possible.
How did I come to this point? It seemed like one minute I was playing duck, duck, goose with my buddies and the next I was casting about blindly in the boiling tar pits and gastric juices of structured sports: basketball, soccer, baseball. I recall baseball the most. It’s all coming back to me now. Key in the trippy, flashback music, and cue to childhood …
In Smalltown, U.S.A., I played T-ball with a clutch of other distracted kindergartners. The coaches spoke in a bubbly blend of upper harmonics, retrofitting their speech to child-size voice boxes—communicative catalytic converters that removed the toxicity of the world.
“Good throw!” they cheered after we heaved a baseball like a Molotov cocktail to somewhere in the middle of an imaginary enemy fortification that looked nothing like our teammate’s baseball mitt.
“Atta boy! Way … to … go! Very … very … good,” they told us, selecting each syllable with a set of tongs.
It was OK if, through the third inning, the T-ball stand was pitching a no-hitter. And whenever anyone did manage to hit the ball, no one got too upset when the entire squad would chase the ball down, including the hitter and that kid over there on the monkey bars.
And it was OK that in the off-season baseball didn’t even enter our minds, that we put our efforts into dressing up in pith helmets, 3-D glasses, and flippers to chase the cat around the house.
And when the sports season commenced again, maybe when we were seven, sure the coaches spoke of “fundamentals,” of hitting, base running, fielding, and throwing. But baseball bats could still double as light sabers.
When we turned eight, unbeknownst to the budding benchwarmer, hard, right angles of baselines were being branded upon soft, curving attention spans. Then we turned nine and the coaches duly noted those among us who showed up pre-season with plastic mitts that had spent the winter in our toy chests. It was no longer OK to form mud balls in the outfield and keep tabs as they hardened in the heat.
What the budding benchwarmer did realize was that something surely was amiss. Several former duck, duck, goose colleagues had become little Dustin Pedroias, throwing baseballs along extended horizontal planes. They were kicking their cleats. They were chewing gum as a calming mechanism. The budding benchwarmer began to notice his or her parents on the sidelines shifting uncomfortably in their foldout chairs, suddenly taking a keen interest in birds in the trees and cloud formations.
Am I going overboard here? The point is, we’ve come upon summer. The season has concluded. The age of innocence has passed. The smacks of high-fives have Dopplered off toward the future, toward autumn, toward 12 and 13 years old, where high-school athletic coaches will surely be hiding in the brush, planning ahead, taking names, and making notes.
We all know there’s no “I” in team. But there is an “I” in time, and maybe it’s time to consider whether organized sports will be kind to your child. There’s always band. Or art class. They like art, right?