A baseball player strikes out. Disappointed, he turns to the stands where he makes eye contact with a man who yells, WHAT A WASTE OF A SPACE. The player slowly walks back to the dugout, his head hung low, a routine he seems familiar with. He is isnt a major league superstar like Anthony Rendon, George Springer or Mike Trout, accustomed to the wrath of impatient fans. He is an eight-year-old boy and the disgusted fan is his father who, based on his body language, might as well have yelled, What a waste of a life.
This happened a month ago in a midst of an under-nine tournament as we waited for my sons game, which happened to be against the kid with the angry father. I wanted to hug that kid or at least compliment him in front of his dad. That wasnt necessary. His team demolished ours and the boy walked away with his father, who looked a little less incensed than he had a couple of hours prior.
The night before, I learned about a parent from a different team. He wore a shirt that read, FUCK OFF, and took a swing at a parent from our team for politely pointing out the inappropriateness of his attire. This was a youth baseball tournament sprinkled with players as young as six. Fuck Off Guy was given a proverbial Fuck Off when he was escorted out of the complex, a baseball Disneyland called Big League Dreams that hosts weekly tournaments and makes gobs of money in the process. There are beautiful fields and two bars. Apparently watching your kid play sports is better when buzzed.
That weekend was our first full-scale experience on the youth baseball travel circuit, a baseball business that presents kids as young as seven with a chance to compete at a theoretically higher level of competition by participating in regular tournaments. A key part of the USs $15bn youth sports industry, these travel teams often come with hefty price tags that automatically excludes many families. It was a contrast to the league we had played in the previous summer. There, my son was selected to a team of the best players in our local baseball league. We participated in three tournaments that were sweet, community-based annual events. Kids ran the snack shacks, there were trophy presentations for the winners and plenty of local pride was on show. The whole thing was so innocent it felt like it was played to the soundtrack of John Fogertys Centerfield.
A far different animal, last months tournament was just one of many for a company that runs tournaments every weekend all year long, trying to squeeze in as many teams (and their entry fees) as their permits allow. Our tournament involved 10 teams, and we started one game after 8.30pm. By the time my son came in to pitch, it was 10.17pm, 107 minutes past his bedtime.
There is no parenting manual that differentiates between the glorious aspects of youth baseball and the predatory ones. No one can fully explain how youth sports can monopolize your world until youre in it. And, for better or for worse, were officially in it.
My eight-year-old son is a multi-sport athlete. Its ridiculous to refer to him as an athlete since hes really just a third-grader obsessed with body-part jokes and his fantasy football team. But he plays soccer and baseball competitively and hes good enough at the latter that hell probably be playing for the foreseeable future.
Im one of those parents who is not only interested in her kids endeavors, I want to participate unless they tell me to get lost. So despite the fact that I never played softball or baseball as a kid and eschewed most organized sports for the performing arts, I have transformed into a hardcore baseball mom. I learned proper glove mechanics, the throwing motion and youth baseball rules so I could participate in the thing he loves most, which thankfully is baseball and not base jumping. Just yesterday, my son made my heart burst when he said, youre awesome at baseball for a mom, which was almost as gratifying as the follow-up, I love that you play baseball with me. It seems logical but I cant emphasize enough the magic of interacting with your kid on his turf.
Committing to a travel team requires drastically altering your life. Multiple practices a week are just the start. If you have a two-sport athlete like I do, it means tournaments every weekend, hotels, expenses something we are lucky enough to be able to afford and making sure siblings are sated. When the stars align like they have for us and the parents are amazing and your kid becomes instant friends with his teammates, you indulge in everything because you suddenly have a baseball family.
If my kid decided to walk away from travel baseball tomorrow, I would be devastated, but also aware that my number one job is to support my children. Not every kid has that luxury. I polled several friends with sporty kids on the travel circuit, and many have been witness to parents who seem to care more about youth baseball than their kids do. Some are simply trying to relive their glory days (or construct glory they never had); other parents from certain socio-economic backgrounds view a baseball as their childs only viable path to college and see youth baseball as a training ground for a scholarship. No wonder, for some, every game feels like life or death. This of course can lead to detrimental team dynamics as parents gossip or aggressively lobby coaches for playing time. I cant even imagine that type of in-fighting among our baseball crew, but our kids are only eight and nine. Who knows if in five years one of us will go postal if a coach makes a decision that we feel unfairly harms our kids trajectory?
For now, I am laser-focused on protecting my son against the outside forces who care about what they can squeeze out of him. Last summer, my son was invited to play on a travel team he could even make it without a tryout, the coach said. When we politely declined citing concerns about burnout, the coach said my son is the type who will never burn out because he loves baseball so much. He was pleasant about the whole thing and we eventually joined his fall travel team, largely because my son likes him and a ton of his friends signed up. But Im concerned about fending off future invites.
The future scares me. I dont want my sons joy to wane. But I know there will be more recruiting, more join-this-or-that-or else-your kid may fall behind sales methods.
I dropped my five-year-old off at an after-school class a few weeks ago and had a coach ask me if my eight-year-old would be participating in their winter workouts. I said no, that we didnt want to burn him out. The coach looked at me like I was torturing my child, and simply uttered, I hope he doesnt get too rusty. I smiled on the outside and rolled my eyes on the inside. Then I left to pick up my kid and meet my husband at a local park where we all played catch for the next hour. Like we always do.
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