When It Really Was Just a Game

Take a close look at the picture below.  Closer.  I’m the batter.  It’s from a game played in 1981.  It might as well be a picture from the baseball’s Dead Ball Era compared to what we see today.

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What struck me immediately was that I’m not wearing a helmet.  Then I remembered the catchers didn’t wear any equipment other than a face mark.  Though the ball we played with was rubber ball which is what they used in Japan (we were playing a team from Tokyo), it was still a hard ball so I don’t know how we got away without wearing any equipment.  What really got me laughing though was the umpire.  He looks like he  came off the set of The Richard Simmons’ Show.

This wasn’t some minor little baseball game out in the back of beyond.  The game was played in Central Park.  It was the opening game of the Nanshiki Baseball Games, a.k.a., the Friendship Series, five games played across the five boroughs that pitted a team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from New York City against a team of all-stars from Tokyo.  There was news coverage – John Tesh, he started out as a TV news sports reporter, gave me two of my 15 minutes of fame when he interviewed me for the nightly news  – and some congressman made sure we were mentioned in the Congressional Record.  You’d never know it from the picture though.

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With NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion

Today we seem to get rankled if there aren’t two umpires with 15 certification badges on their uniforms at an 8U tournament game or if the field isn’t in pristine condition or there are no batting cages.  Every kid has their own bat, two usually, batting gloves, an infield glove, an outfield glove and a first baseman’s mitt.  My kids are no exception.

I’m not saying it was better in 1981 and I’m certainly not intending to minimize youth sports injuries.  It’s a little nuts they let us bat without helmets, rubber ball or not.  But when we treat the players like mini-major leaguers and we expect the fields to be mini-major league stadiums and we expect the umpires to be major-league umpires, we start looking at the games like they are the World Series.  We lose sight of the fact the games really don’t matter.  Worse, we start to teach the kids the trappings are important rather than “just go out and play.”  Second game of our summer season.  As the visitors stroll in to our admittedly horrible fields, one of the kids turns to a teammate and says, “These dugouts don’t even have roofs.”

Sure, we took the games seriously and our coaches coached hard and they coached to win.  But take another look at the photo.  No one is asking the people behind the plate to move as if somehow they will have an effect on the game.  The bat I’m using was one of four we had for the entire team, and in a million years I never would have thought of asking my parents for batting gloves.  And then there’s that umpire who I can’t help but think was fished out of the stands.

None of it detracted from the game or made us play any differently or made a difference in the game itself – we won though the series ended 2-2-1.  It was the most fitting outcome, and one I couldn’t imagine being allowed to happen today.

Teammates

Beacon Jewelers Little League, Spring 2016. - Photo by Schram“Batting 4th, #13!”

A simple comment which brought with it a flood of memories of games and escapades long gone.  It was social media response from a high school teammate to birthday wishes I had sent him.  I had used his nickname from when we played together.  In the intervening years, I’ve neither spoken with him nor seen him, and if not for social media’s having made the world tremendously small, I doubt I would have had reason to think of him (I’m sure the reverse is true.)  Yet 30 years later, we still remember each other by things ascribed to us on a ballfield.

When you stop playing the meaningful games, not the adult, beer can stuff, but games you believe are important at a time when the majority of your years are still ahead of you, no one tells you it is the last time you’ll truly be part of a team.  It’s the last time you’ll ever being willing to go through a wall for another person simply because they wear the same jersey you do.  I’m sure in some walks of life the team is the single most defining element, but for the majority of us, nothing will ever approximate the feeling of being a teammate.  It hit me hard when I started my first job out of college.  My colleagues and I worked hard together and had lots fun, but at the end of the day we went our separate ways.  We didn’t share the same experiences and “live” in the back of a bus the way teammates do, so how could I have really thought it would be the same?

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When I look back over my son’s travel seasons and my daughter’s just completed first softball season, I’ll always remember their accomplishments and feats, both the good and the not-so-good.  But what seems to always come front and center are the moments they first started connecting with another kid as a teammate, those precious moments in which what any one player did didn’t matter, but what they did collectively surely meant the world.  They probably don’t even recognize it yet because they are at the stage where the games are important to them and they have so many more moments ahead of them.  But this is where it starts.

It’s the championship game of our summer league playoffs.  It’s clear during my pregame spiel (I gave them the Herb Brooks’ “Not this game.  Not tonight” speech) they are nervous.  My son is nervous as he’s getting ready to hit.  Sensing it, his teammate, a nine-year-old kid, pulls him over and says “You’ve been doing it for us all year long.  You can do it.”  It loosens my son up immediately and though neither of them know I’ve heard their exchange, I know coaching these boys has been worth every minute and all the effort.

Sports transcend the playing field.  That’s a simple truth, and if you don’t know that you’ve never played.  It’s a powerful feeling to belong to something bigger than you just as it’s a powerful lesson to figure out how to get along regardless of your feelings for the individual occupying the uniform.  I don’t like every guy I ever played with, but I’d sit down and have a drink with any one of them any time.  The bonds you make with your teammates are as eternal as they are strong.

I can’t think of a better reason for my kids to play team sports.

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.

A Little Faith Restored

041 A Little Faith RestoredMy son’s team played a game this past weekend which reminded me why it has always been important to me my children play team sports.  It wasn’t the result (they won) or how my son played (not his best game) or how the game unfolded (a tight battle until they slowly pulled away).  It was the fact the adults got out of the way and let the kids play.  And play they did.

The pitchers pitched.  Not pitches resembling something out of arc league softball but actual pitches.  And while there were lots of strikeouts, a funny thing happened with the better pitching.  Kids on both teams swung the bat and made more contact than we’ve seen all year long.

And then they made plays.  Not all the plays, they’re only nine-years-old after all, but a lot of plays.  Their third baseman made an over-the-shoulder backhand grab on the edge of the outfield of a ball my son hit with the bases loaded and two-out which would have blown the game wide open.  And another kid on their team dropped a pop-up but still had the wherewithal to pick it up and throw it to second to get the runner who was on first.  And we made plays – a two-out bases loaded come backer to get of a jam and a 5-to-4 get the lead runner play to shut down another inning.

And when the potential for controversy reared its ugly head when our first baseman dropped a ball thrown to him after making a great stretch which the umpire missed, it was over before it could even start when the opposing coach yelled out “nice play!”  Hats off to him.

In winning, my son’s team clinched first place for the regular season and to watch them emulate their heroes with the pitcher and catcher jumping into each other’s arms to celebrate and then quickly stop and lineup to shake hands was to be reminded about all that is good about youth sports.  Because isn’t one of the things we cherish about them playing is that it teaches our children about winning and losing and how to handle both.

The other coach is a good friend who played baseball in college.  We often discuss the crazy things we’ve seen this year and debate whether having played in college provides a perspective that makes it a bit easier to remember they’re just little kids playing a game.  The thing we always agree on is knowing the game is pivotal as a coach.

I knew he wouldn’t react to the out call on the dropped ball at first.  And I knew that meant that the coaches could get out of the kids’ way.

To paraphrase Skip, they threw the ball, they hit the ball and they caught the ball.  The game was a pleasure to coach and an even greater joy to watch.  It’s amazing what can happen the kids are just left to play ball.

Know the Rules

040 Know the RulesI am done with rec baseball.  I love my players, and how I do love this great game, the greatest game, of baseball.  But much like the shine of a new baseball is dulled by Lena Blackburne mud, this season has made going to games something I dread.  A general lack of knowledge of the rules invariably leads to misinterpretation which invariably leads to one team thinking the other is taking advantage which invariably leads to tension which invariably leads to escalated episodes.  And it’s all [expletive deleted] nonsense.

What I want to be thinking about tonight is all the hard work my son has put in and the minor adjustments he’s made to his swing over the last week to get out of his hitting funk, hitting buckets of balls, hitting off the tee and soft toss.  What I want to be thinking about tonight is that hard work paying off when he turned on an inside pitch and launched one, his first legitimate homerun and a grand slam that put us up for good at that.

These are the moments I coach for and, let’s face it, I coach for me and what I get out of it even if I’d like to believe I do it for the kids and to teach them the game.  These golden moments are what my players give to me.  It’s why I was high-fiving my travel ball player who was playing for the other team last night after he made two ridiculous catches against us, one of a ball of the bat of my son, because I couldn’t be happier for my travel ball player or prouder of him.

Instead, I am thinking about the play that ended the game, a game that was already over because of the league’s inning-run limit rules, and the episode that followed.

Again the particulars do not matter other than it involved a coach sending a runner, in what amounts to an attempted steal, in a situation where our league rules clearly state it is not allowed and the runner being tagged out on his way back to the base.

So to be yelled at, called an [expletive deleted] and told I’m not teaching sportsmanship . . .

Ten games into a twelve game season, everyone should know the rules.

The best advice I ever received when I started coaching was to know the rules, especially the local league rules.  If you are a coach, you owe it to yourself, to your players and to the other coaches to know the rules.  When you don’t, you cause conflict, emphasis on you, with other coaches and you set the worst possible example for the kids.

Know the rules.