When Being the Good Spectator is Wrong

A-League Rd 5 - Central Coast v BrisbaneA player dribbles up the sideline and pushes the ball past the defender in a U12 soccer game.  The defender tries to kick the ball; he’s late, too late, and kicks the dribblers shin pad instead.  The dribbler continues up the sideline without missing a step.  Another play that happens a thousand times and has already happened a dozen times in this game.  Yet the referee sprints to the defender and starts yelling at him.  The defender is only nine-years-old and the ref towers over him.  So the ref bends down so his face is inches from the defender while he is yelling at him.  Now the referee is pointing his finger in the defender’s face.  All the while, play is going on, not that the referee seems to care.  When it’s finally done, the defender is in tears.

I would like to say this is an article I read about some game somewhere, but it’s not.  It happened in my son’s last soccer game as I watched from the sideline.  I’d also like to say I said something to the referee though the defender was my son’s teammate not my son but I did not.  Truth be told, it wasn’t until well after a player from the opposing team had climbed into the referee’s car and the car was long gone out of the parking lot that the reality of what I witnessed really hit me.

This isn’t a post about bad or biased officiating.  It’s about a bully, much as I hate that word because of how we overuse it today, who has no business being anywhere near a youth sports field let alone refereeing a game, and how immobilized we all were.  In no universe is this behavior remotely condonable.  In no way should this person be allowed near young athletes.  The referee’s role is to officiate and perhaps to help teach and there were two appropriate approaches here.  In terms of officiating, if he believed the play warranted discipline for any reason then he should have blown the whistle and given card.  In terms of teaching, whether he handed out the card or not, if he thought it was a dangerous play, he still should have blown his whistle and used it as a teaching moment to explain to the kid or his coach or both where the issue lay.  Instead, he berated and belittled a young athlete.  That is inexcusable.

To be honest, I’m not sure what could have or should have been done.   And I’m not sure what I should have done differently in the aftermath.  I thought the boy’s father handled it well and I agreed with him when he told me, “I’m biting my tongue.”  But now I’m not sure any of us handled it correctly and I wonder if it’s because the news surrounding parents at youth sports is so prominent and not in a good way, we’re no longer able to identify when a situation calls for intervention and we’re paralyzed by the fear of being the “bad” youth sports parent.

What I do know I witnessed a bully bullying a young athlete and did nothing.


The Once and Future . . .

046-the-once-and-futureWhen I started 8U Travel it was meant to be an outlet as I rediscovered baseball through the eyes of my son and as I gained an understanding of what my old man experienced and a backdrop for his behavior when I was a young ballplayer.

What I “discovered” was a world where the kids, you know, the ones actually playing, are secondary to the needs and power trips of the adults.  We all see the headlines every day, everywhere in every youth sport.  And so 8U Travel often turned to attempts to wrap my head around that.

The more I wrote though, the more I came to see there were three undeniable truths which made the writing feel pointless.

It’s Truly Hopeless

We like to believe the crazy behavior we see on the sidelines of our kids’ games is something that has been born out of the explosion of the club/travel scene.  We like to “remember” how much better it was when we were little leaguers.  Well, the nostalgia has fogged our memories.  The behavior has been going on since someone first got the idea to take kids games from the sandlot and organize them.

It’s 1979 and I am ten years old.  It’s my second year in kid-pitched, organized baseball, and I play for the Gold team.  My dad is a coach, we are the best team in the league and I am the best player in the league (I’m not being conceited – I was, but as I’ve said repeatedly being the best at ten means just that and nothing more.  I would have much rather have been the best when I got to college.)  The next best team is the Orange team.  There has been some sort of feud between the coaches since the season began though, at ten, it’s beyond my grasp.  It’s a playoff game and I am pitching and, it being 37 years ago, I cannot remember the details other than there is a play at the plate and I am covering the plate and I get barreled over.  Perfectly legal play, but I can’t breathe.  The wind has been knocked out of me.  I have no idea what is happening and I’m scared.  As my dad is rushing over to me, the opposing coach yells out “We got him!  We got him!”

An isolated incident in a meaningless game in the long history of youth sports?  It would be nice to believe so, but who are we kidding?

It’s the adults.  It always has been.  And the behavior of some has always been atrocious.  We just didn’t have the internet or social media or mobile phones, let alone mobile phones which are mini-supercomputers, to publicize the lunacy.  So we can tweet about it and blog about it as if it’s all new, but it’s been going on forever and it always will.  I ended up going to school with that coach’s kid the next year and we got along famously.

So sure I could have written about the tournament game in which coaches were jumping all over the umpire on every pitch that wasn’t called their way or the four of them who came out to argue with that lone umpire a call on a tag-play at second base or their parent in the stands who berated the umpire in a game we were winning by 15 runs.

But to what end?

As for the fact we’ve gone over the top with “elite” travel t-ball teams and playing 600 games a year.  I don’t agree with so many aspects of it, but it’s hard to deny there are some benefits.  Giving kids a chance to play into the summer as opposed to the “April, May and see you next April approach” is always going to help kids improve.  Moreover, travel-mania is here to stay.  You just have to figure out how best to navigate it and not get caught up in the hype – your ten-year-old doesn’t have to play baseball year-round to “succeed.”

Fast Path to Pariah

As much as I remove names and specifics and anything else I think might give a hint as to the identity of anyone or the location of the events, it’s not too hard for anyone close by to decipher the what, where, when or the who.  I live in a “small town” when it comes to baseball.

046 The Once and Future.pngIt was all too clear I would be calling out more and more people and putting out an even greater “air of superiority” (basically a “my [expletive-deleted] don’t stink” inference) the more I wrote.  I am going to see those very same folks for years to come, our kids are going to interact and I am likely to coach their kids at some point.

There was a post back in the spring which I edited down to the point where it became fairly meaningless as far as I was concerned.  But my wife and a friend a trust both kept telling me the original draft was too much.  Knowing they were right didn’t make it taste any better, but I still don’t like it.

So I could have written about the sublimely comical time an opposing parent told a parent of a player on my son’s rec team before our game, “We know what you do.  We’ve scouted you.  We know you bring Johnson in to pitch the last two innings.”  Leaving “scouting” 9U rec teams alone, Johnson faced 75 batters over the course of the season, getting 72 outs on 71 strikeouts.  Coaching isn’t exactly rocket science when he’s on your team.  But anyone in our “baseball family” could easily discern who Johnson is and which game I’m talking about and instantly know the backdrop.

I’m No Different

Mamma bears protect their young fiercely.  I’m no different.  I am going to do everything I can for my kids and everything I can for my players.  And I’m going to react if I think someone is pushing them around.  I think the same things any parent or coach thinks when there is a bad call or I feel like someone is taking advantage of them.

I think it is insane to spend anything north of $100 on a bat let alone $280 for a Mako, yet there is a Mako on its way to my house as I write this.  I got it cheap enough for sure, but it’s still a Mako when I sincerely believe a kid who can really hit can hit with a broom handle.  The bat doesn’t make a difference and if it does the kid isn’t that good a hitter to start with.

When I coach, I am going to use every inch of the rule book bound only by what I believe is fair play for the age level.

In a rec game, an opposing third base coach sent his runner home on an overthrow on a steal of third which is not allowed by our league rules.  As the runner was slowly making his way back to third, I had my shortstop tag him.  The umpire called the runner out, game-over and that set off the aforementioned post-game incident which I watered down when I wrote about it.

I’ve thought about that play a lot in the intervening time and whether I did the right thing.  And every time I ended with the same conclusion: I would do it exactly the same way if we did it another 1 million times.

So I’m no different than anyone else though perhaps I’m a bit better at keeping my mouth shut.

And the point?  The point is it’s been a huge drag knowing I am only going to continue to witness and to have to deal with the insanity of youth sports as my kids continue their journey wherever it make take them and for however long they can or choose to stay on the ride.  But it’s also been a drag not writing about it.  So despite knowing it’s a losing battle and knowing it’s a battle I have to not lose within myself, it’s time to start writing again.  After all, just because it’s been going on forever doesn’t make the world in youth-sports-ville any less surreal.

We Don’t Do Social

039_We Don't Do SocialI don’t post game results or highlights on Facebook.  I don’t tweet them either.  I keep stats manually because I think they’re an invaluable tool for any coach, but I don’t use an online app to keep my book.  I never share the stats with the players or their parents.  I think TeamSnap and the like are fantastic for organization, but I will never stream a game.

I’m not technology-adverse.  I’m a CTO in my day job.  I simply believe in the incessant posting and streaming, we are getting it wrong.  We are putting the focus squarely on the outcome and forgetting the journey is what it important.

I won’t stream games because to me the beauty of youth sports as a parent is watching your child experience everything that comes with playing the game.  “Watching” the game as a series of blips on a screen puts all the emphasis on where the blip ends up.  Suddenly it is becomes really important the blip ends up on the other side of the fence and not as a backwards K when the reality is neither really matters at this age.  I recognize not everyone can juggle schedules and be there and there is no judgment or condemnation here.  A blip on my screen isn’t a substitute though.

I also won’t stream games because of the stats-myopia it encourages.  The stats are meaningless.  No one should care what Dante’s batting average is or how many doubles he’s hit or how many RBI he has.  The stats are important to me because they are a confirmation or refutation of what I believe I am seeing on the field and in practice.  And I don’t look at any batting average or doubles or RBIs to inform my thoughts.  I don’t want the kids obsessing over them and I don’t want the parents obsessing over them because what really matters is Dante getting better.  Is he swinging the bat better than he did before?  Is he making contact better than he did before?  Is he hitting the ball harder than he did before?

I won’t post to Facebook about our games or our team because there’s a kid on the other end of every post with the ubiquitous video about some 9U pitcher blowing it by the hitter.  Do we post a video when that same hitter tattoos the ball the next time up?

And I won’t tweet because no kid deserves to be publically shamed no matter what the offense.

He’s a twelve-year-old kid who made a mistake, a bad mistake, but the only people who should know or care are his coach, the opposing coach, the umpires and his parents.  The rest of us should even know it ever happened.  Yet we do.

And I won’t post to Facebook or tweet because what does “the best 9U team” or the fact you won the “XYX 9U tournament” or that your kid did X really mean (and on occasion I’ve been guilty of that last one which I have promised myself to never do again)?  So did 100,000 other teams and kids on that same exact day and time just in a different place.

I feel bad when I mention my son on this blog.  He didn’t ask or consent to be showcased for better or for worse.  He simply said, “I want to play baseball.”  It’s not his fault his old man has stumbled and bumbled blindly into the teeter-totter world of youth baseball.  It’s also why I will never use anyone’s name, kid, coach, umpire or otherwise.

In our need to show our “friends” and “followers” how great our kid is, and by extension, I assume how good we are as well, we have forgotten the fact the vast majority of our kids will only play for an ever-so-limited time that does not include college let alone being paid to play.  We’ve forgotten their enjoyment is paramount, their accomplishments now matter not one iota other than for the joy and pride those accomplishments bring to them, emphasis on them, and if they want to keep on enjoying playing this game, their improvement from one day to the next is what we should be worried about.

I understand it.  When I am coaching my daughter’s t-ball softball and have to miss my son’s rec game, I wish someone was streaming it and I wish my fellow coaches on my son’s team would text me periodically with the score and what my son has done.  But then I think about the conversation he and I are going to have when I get home, about how Timmy did this, and my son did this and the umpire made this call and then my son did this.  And I’ll listen intently and picture it all in my mind and know, no matter what he did, hero or goat, he’ll need a hug and for me to tell him I love him and an affirmation that “it sounds like an amazing game.  I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to watch you play tonight.  I’ll be there next game.”

Baseball Family

I034 Come On Dad 003 played my first ballgame of any sort in 24 years this past weekend.  It was everything I remembered – a mix of adrenaline, fun and a bit of fear, but mostly fun.  It helped that I had a good game (despite not wearing #13 or #23 which were unavailable,) that we had a huge last inning to cap a comeback win and that I’ve got a great bunch of teammates.

My son was begging to come watch, but with a 7:00 p.m. start on a school night and a game-time temperature of 40o with 25 mph winds discretion won out (i.e., my wife said absolutely not and rightfully so.)

One of my teammates did bring his son and the kid was great – no complaining, no getting in the way.  He pretty much just watched and soaked the game in.

That same teammate came up in the top of the last inning with runners on and us trailing by one.  As his father stepped into the box, in a voice barely above a whisper, the son said, “Come on Dad.”  It was awesome and touching, and in that moment, I desperately wished I had brought my kids.  Not for the adoration or accolades but because here was a kid’s love of baseball being further cemented by the reason this game has captured our imaginations for so long: on any given day, at any given moment, our hero might do something magical.  The essence of our love affair with baseball in plain sight, worn on a kid’s sleeves.

Melodramatic?  Maybe.  After all, the kid is still in that phase of life where his dad is a superhero to be idolized and worshipped.  And the kid is clearly hooked on baseball.  Why else would he have been so well behaved throughout it all, especially considering it was a softball game between two teams of middle-aged, tending towards out of shape men reliving their youths on a cold night in April?

But here’s what struck me.  For we baseball families, isn’t this why we teach them the game and all its history and then spend countless hours watching major league baseball with them?  So that they too will come to love this game.  So that they will get chills down their spine when they watch whatever great, unimaginable, unbelievable play unfold in front of them, their version of Nettles in Game 3 or BamTino and “Mr. November” or Jeter being in a place he has no business being to make “The Flip”.  So that they will come to believe magic really can happen.

Isn’t this why we race down to the field every time they ask, not as coaches, but as parents, to throw them 100 batting practice pitches and why we throw ball after ball after ball to them until they learn to catch one across their body?  So that they might have the chance to experience being the hero themselves, at whatever level they top out at, t-ball or rec league or the pros.  So that they come to believe anything really is possible, on or off the field, if they put their minds to it and work their tails off.

Isn’t this why baseball survives despite all the rumors of its imminent demise as a boring and outdated sport?  Doesn’t it hold sway over us because it brings us back to our childhoods when a ball and a broom handle were all you needed to pass those glorious summer months off from school imagining ourselves to be our heroes?  And isn’t it why we pass down its lore until it becomes part of what binds one generation to the next and the one after it?  Isn’t it how my father lives on when my son says, “I’m a catcher just like Grandpa was” though Grandpa died long before my son got a chance to meet him?

“. . . They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.  People will come Ray.  The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. . . .” – Terrance Mann, Field of Dreams

As I’ve thought about the kid, I’ve thought about everything which led to the moment, a journey five years in the making, back to the day of the rec league parade in my son’s first year of t-ball when I found myself standing in the same spot I would be if I were playing first base with a view of home plate I hadn’t seen in a very long time.  Too long a time.  It led me to decide to coach which led me to want to play again.  Then again the journey really started when I was 16 months old and my father put a bat in my hand and then spent all those hours teaching me how to play.  And then again didn’t it really start a lifetime before that for my father had to fall in love with the game and all its majesty in the first place?

Next weekend is game two and my kids won’t miss this one.  We’re a baseball family.

It’s so much better when you hear James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann . . .

Random Numbers

033 Random NumbersThe rec league uniforms came in.  We got road grey with navy and white trim and navy hats.  A little Yankees-esque which is not a bad thing.

My son asked for number ten and then wanted to know who wore it.  I told him about Chris Chambliss and The Scooter.  That was good enough for him.

We go through this ritual every season because he chooses a different number each season, seemingly at random.  I don’t get it.  Numbers used to be sacred.  You asked for the same number every year, you knew which kids wore which numbers and you never, ever, asked for someone else’s number.

The second year I played organized baseball I was given 13.  I had wanted nine for Graig Nettles, but 13 it was and it stuck.  I wore 13 through high school.  Every team.  Every year.

When I got to college, I switched to 23.  It was my first time away from home, and while Donnie Baseball being my favorite player and a first baseman had something to do with it, the switch was more about not wanting to feel like the same little boy anymore.  Even if I didn’t think of it in those terms, shedding 13 was symbolic.

Those two numbers meant everything to me.  They defined me or at least I thought of them in that way.  You could call me “Siegs” or you could call me by my number.  Most of the clothing I owned at the time had my number on it.  On the field, on the rare occasion my number wasn’t available, if we played a tournament which supplied the uniforms, for example, I was borderline distraught.  The number on my back was my version Samson’s hair.

13 and 23 remain tattooed on my brain today.  Last year I wore 23 as the coach of my son’s travel team.  I was happy none of the players asked for it because I’m not sure they would have gotten it.

Which is why my son’s seeming indifference is perplexing.  His first year in t-ball he was given 13 and was thrilled when the answer to the question who wore it was “me.”  I hoped 13 would stick but the next year he choose 3 (apparently the thrill wore off) and it’s been a whirlwind of numbers since – seven, two, 20 for the travel team when he could have had literally any number he wanted and this season’s ten.  My daughter is no better having also opted for ten after six last year.

I’ve wondered if it’s an attention span issue or perhaps a commitment issue.  Maybe choosing a number for life is just too much for a nine-year-old.  I’ve wondered if he just doesn’t care about sports which would be fine though I’d like to find out now before I invest another five years of blood, sweat and tears into coaching, schlepping and paying.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if maybe he’s right, if he gets something I never could.  Maybe he recognizes jersey numbers are silly trappings and the import placed on them only makes the game seem so much more serious and intimidating than it really is.  Maybe he’s figured out the simple beauty is he’s playing baseball.  After all, the number on his back isn’t going to make him a better player, and it’s sophomoric to be so attached to what amounts to laundry.

He’s happy playing regardless of the number is on his back.  Isn’t that all that matters?