I longed for the day when my kids finally were old enough to play in Little League. Since I missed the registration deadline last year, this is the first year where they are finally hitting the diamond. I have to say that the league that we are in has been great so far. Both boys have gotten the opportunity to play and they both really seem to enjoy it. Right now the league is stressing fun and fundamentals and since it's your typical instructional league, there are no politics involved.
Politics? In kids sports?
I fortunately have not seen it yet, but I know it exists. There will be a time when they have the opportunity to take their games to the next level and this is where politics comes into play. Since I haven't experienced it yet, I thought that I would let an old college pal who's currently juggling parenting, marriage, work and coaching explain what is going on on baseball diamonds all across the country. Enjoy this guest post.
Out of My League
By Dresden Wolf*
When my son started playing organized baseball two years ago, he was six years old and the emphasis was on fun and fundamentals. As parents, we were happy when they’d hit the ball without knocking the tee over, or run around the bases in the right direction (yes, we had a couple who tried to steal 3rd …from home). Hell, we didn’t even officially keep score.
But as the seasons went on, tee ball gave way to coach pitch, and coach pitch to machine pitch. In that time, a funny thing happened. My son and a few of his buddies got very good at baseball (pause to pat myself on the back as coach – ha ha ha), and the emphasis shifted. Now, it’s more like baseball. We not only keep score, but offensive and defensive stats. They’re eating sunflower seeds in the dugout. Kids SHIFT FOR LEFTIES. This shit just got real.
All of a sudden, everyone is scouting other teams, bailing to join travel teams, and our own house all-star process is worthy of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. (Although I still don’t speak quickly enough to deliver the lines in one.)
I sigh and change the channel when I see “Pageant Kids” or “Dance Moms” or “I’m gonna grow up and have all kinds of issues because you started putting me in makeup and heels when I was 18 months old,” but I look around, and sports are no different. There are cliques, kids taking private lessons from coaches they won’t share. And everyone is jockeying to get on the “best” team with the best coach. Every playdate or schoolyard run-in is a chance to ask what team your kid is on, and if they’ve heard about the neighboring community’s travel team. There’s always rumbling about how competitive your league is (or isn’t). And everyone thinks they have an in because they know someone on “the board.”
As a friend said, “as long as the parents are involved, it’s always political.”
Back to my point. At the lowest competitive level, we’ve got 9U (the u is for “and under”) and 8U all-star squads. So, as you might imagine, many of the talented 8-year-olds try out for both. Where it gets sticky is when those 8-year-olds all get drafted by the 9U squad, leaving the 8U team with the less talented 8’s, as well as all the younger kids.
Having been to the tournaments these kids play in, an 8U squad of mediocre talent and a bunch 7-year-olds, no matter how good those 7-year-olds are, will get CREAMED. The other teams are huge. Like, “show me the birth certificates” huge. Then the kids will be discouraged, the parents will be sad, and the coaches (and the league) get blamed for setting the kids up to fail. On the flipside, a 9U team with a bunch of 8-year-olds will ALSO get creamed. BUT, everyone believes that “playing up” will get their kids a baseball scholarship (which coincidentally averages $5K, even at big baseball schools) and eventually into the MLB. But there’s a difference between playing with older kids and having your asses kicked by them.
So, is it better to be a big fish in a small pond? Or the smallest fish in a big pond? Personally I think being a goldfish in a plastic bag at a carnival is the worst, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. At the end of the day, I want my son to feel good about himself for being good at something among kids his own age. He’s got the rest of his life to compete with older guys for girls, jobs, social security checks, whatever.
Anyway, the opportunity to choose between the teams puts parents in a position to negotiate. And this is where it gets fun. Not.
So as the clock ticks on draft day (35 hours and counting), I find myself pouring over rosters, checking birthdates, and planning to call parents as late as 10PM on a Tuesday, trying to convince them to “play down” with the 8s instead of playing up with the 9s. Some have already asked “what’s in it for them.” Uhm, baseball…a uniform…a few nice days outside this summer? Some want guaranteed playing time, to only play a certain position, to bat ahead of (insert name here), or for their kid to be named team captain.
EIGHT. YEARS. OLD.
I joke a little, but I legitimately fear that the next call will be one asking for cash considerations or an actual contract.
Crazy, isn’t it? But in a world where kids get trophies just for showing up, and think they’re the best at everything, this sense of entitlement is not surprising.
But at the end of the day, the kids want to play. And at this age, they want to win, no matter what mamby-pamby, kumbaya, politically correct crap we’re supposed to be subscribing to. I still believe that kids’ sports should be fun, but anyone who’s ever competed with an 8-year-old boy will tell you, winning IS fun to them. So, we do what we can to put them in a position to win – or at the very least, compete. Because losing 24-2 because you’re out of your league stings a lot more than losing 6-5 to a team you can hang with. (I’ve done both.)
But if you’re a parent who cares more about telling people that seven-year-old Johnny “played ball with kids two years older than him,” than Johnny actually having fun playing, I don’t know what to tell you.
Ugh. I think I had a point, but now I’ve got a call from an agent on line two. (Insert touching conclusion that includes the phrase “for the love of the game.”)
*To protect the parties involved, mainly the kids, Dresden Wolf is not his real name.