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.

051-unapplied-history

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.

1981_friendship-series-006

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?

050-teamates

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.

Are Travel Teams Right for Your Young Athlete?

The folks at TeamSnap published an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog.

It’s a question that swirls around in parents’ heads the way midges swirl around the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field. In today’s manic, ultra-competitive youth sports culture, some parents fear their children will fall behind if they don’t play on a travel team.

Soccer Ball ParentsOf course, there are no have-to’s or cookie cutter approaches to youth sports. So, no. Your child doesn’t have to play travel.

But the reality is if your child has enough talent and has the desire (their desire, not yours) to play beyond recreational leagues, travel sports are in their future.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.

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.

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.