Month: February 2014

LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL: PARENTAL GUIDANCE ISN’T SUGGESTED

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“Hey dad…you wanna have a catch?”

251415_420212768037111_1648127768_nMy favorite line from my favorite baseball movie of all-time still manipulates my tear ducts every time. For me, the simplest, purest, American-dreamiest act of childhood is a baseball catch with the old man. Like leather bookends, a pair of game-weathered baseball gloves catches more than just a cowhide sphere tossed back and forth. They capture memories that span multiple generations of sons who become fathers and fathers who become little league coaches.

I was a son coached by his father. For the past seven years, a coach of my own two sons. From the beginning of my coaching days, it was hard not to wax nostalgic and think back to my own playing days. The idealist in me wanted to believe that little league baseball was nothing more than an organized version of The Sandlot. Every game would begin at the crack of dawn and end under a night sky lit by fireworks and accompanied by Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. Best of all, in this most wonderful of baseball worlds, parents were nothing more than glorified extras who sounded an awful lot like the adult actors from the Charlie Brown TV specials.

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After seven years of coaching little league baseball, however, the realist in me knows better than to get all misty-eyed when I hear Mr. Armstrong’s heartfelt, raspy-voiced lullaby. In this coach’s opinion, what happens between the little-league foul lines is still every bit as wonderful a world as promised. But outside the foul lines, a little league field of dreams can become a nightmare for some unsuspecting players and coaches.

“I always said that the only team that I would coach
would be a team of orphans, and now here we are.”

–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Mike Matheny’s letter to parents is a must-read for every coach. For little league parents, it sets the perfect tone for what a coach is trying to accomplish and what he expects from parents. “The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat.” Matheny continues: “…if you hand your child over to me to coach them, then let me do that job.” 

Without the benefit of Matheny’s words, I signed up to coach in Louie Armstrong’s version of little league baseball. My goals were simple: 1) Have fun and teach the game of baseball the same way my father taught me; 2) Try to be a positive influence on and off the field; 3) Play to win, but teach my players how to win and lose with class. In terms of setting expectations, I still preach a simple philosophy: Regardless of how far your future baseball career takes you, baseball is never more fun than when you’re a little-leaguer. Unless, of course, a “bad little league parent” stands in the way of the fun.

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables
or  taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing.
Can you  believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.”
–Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams

Yes Ray Kinsella, I can believe that an American boy would refuse to play catch with his father. Especially if each backyard catch comes with a time clock, and each punch of the time card raises expectation levels. It’s these expectation levels that can burden the child with an unspoken promise to repay dad with a stellar little league career. Call it little league baseball’s “Daddy IOU.” If you think that’s a stretch, visit a neighboring town and sit anonymously in the stands during a Williamsport All-Star game. If that’s not possible, read about the ongoing survey conducted by two former coaches, Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller. They asked hundreds of college athletes to think back to their worst memory of playing youth sports. The most common response: “The ride home from games with my parents.”

Based on this response, it’s not surprising that nearly 75% of kids who play organized sports quit by the age of 13. Sure, you can argue that some quit out of necessity…as they fail to keep pace with their bigger, faster, more athletic peers. Yet so many others quit for a simpler reason. Like Ray Kinsella before them, they start playing baseball for the love of the game…and wind up playing for the acceptance of their parents. What starts out as a game played for fun ends with anxiety-inducing memories that are stitched into a child’s psyche tighter than cowhide to string.

“I know that it is going to be very hard not to coach
from the stands… but I am confident that this works in
a negative way for their development and their enjoyment.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Before I started coaching, I used to love it when the ESPN cameras panned the stands during a Little League World Series game. “What were all those cheering parents feeling?” I’d ask myself. Joy for their children; pride for their hometown team’s accomplishments; gratitude for their coaches? I’m sure there’s plenty of all three. But I’m also willing to bet that for every “root, root, root for the home team” cheer, there’s an email being composed about playing time. There’s a whisper about how “my son” would have made that catch. And there’s at least one parent who feels that even the biggest victory is pyrrhic if “my son” doesn’t shine.

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It’s no different when you move back to the diamonds in the rough in your own home town. Every player is dissected, each inning is revisited, and statistics are obsessed over like hanging chads. Parents record at-bats and then analyze the swings frame-by-frame like the Zapruder film. Coaches are second-guessed about batting positioning, defensive positioning, and playing time. Worst of all, unsuspecting players are often evaluated through the rose-colored (“my kid is better”) lenses of parenthood.

“I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that
this experience is ALL about the boys. If there is anything
about it that includes you, we need to make a change of plans.”
–St. Louis Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny, in a letter to his little league parents

Now most baseball parents, to be fair, are well-intentioned. They simply love their children and want them to enjoy the same highs or avoid the same lows they experienced as children. Even Matheny admits: “A large part of how your child improves is your responsibility. As a parent, you can help out tremendously by playing catch, throwing batting practice, hitting ground balls, or finding an instructor who will do this in your place.” I couldn’t agree more. There’s no better way to help nurture your child’s love for the game than having that backyard catch every time he or she asks. The challenge comes when you move from the backyard to the ballpark.

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Let’s be honest. Who among us, present writer included, hasn’t been a “bad little league parent” from time to time. Have you ever argued a blown call made by a teenage umpire? Maybe. Have you ever second-guessed a coach about your child’s batting position or playing time? I’m sure you have. Heck, have I failed to show the same level of post-game enthusiasm after my son’s 0 for 4 as I have after his 4 for 4? You bet. But I’ve learned to stop myself. I’ve learned that the game should be played between the foul lines, and it should end when you step outside those lines. I’ve also learned a lot from Bruce E. Brown and Rob Miller.

In the same survey from Brown and Miller, the same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great. What elevated their joy during and after the game? The overwhelming response: “I love to watch you play.”

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Before the Winter thaws into Spring training, drive through your hometown and slow to a crawl as you pass by your local little league field. Look passed the weathered advertising banners, the makeshift press box, and the broken-down bleachers. Just focus on the field. The field represents so much more than just the promise of next season. The field is a time capsule. It holds the memories and dreams–both fulfilled and unfulfilled–of every little leaguer who’s ever stepped inside the chalky-white foul lines.

“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.”
–Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

Allow yourself to think back to a moment when a little league field was “the most special place in the whole world” to you. Close your eyes, listen closely, and you just might re-hear the cheers or re-feel the goose bumps from your most enduring little league memory.

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And if we all listen to the words of Ray Kinsella, Brown and Miller, Mike Matheny, and Terence Mann…maybe we won’t hear all the screams, the whispers, the second-guessing, and the berating this coming season. Maybe during each game we’ll hear the raspy-voiced lullaby of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”.

And after the game, regardless of the outcome, maybe we’ll hear six simple words from a parent to their child:

“I love to watch you play.”

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Vanity Scare: George Costanza’s Guide to Male Pattern Baldness

you-are-a-young-george-costanza-1-30845-1366996589-9_big1I write about my age a lot. I’ve written about being a 14-year-old freshman in a 4-year-old’s khaki suspender pants. About turning 40, but still acting 14. And about spending the first 3 months of 41 glued to my toilet and breaking bad wind.

Age was still on my mind when I started my 4-week treatment for colitis in early January. I was feeling old and weary. I needed some light at the end of my ulcerated tunnel. So I threw caution to the wind and made it rain on StubHub. Since Super Bowl weekend would coincide with the end of my treatment, I marked that weekend as my coming out of the bathroom party: Keith Urban at The Garden followed by The Chilli Peppers at Barclays Center.

En route to the world’s most famous arena, my father and I stopped at Jersey’s most famous diner. Unbeknownst to me, Tops Diner would soon turn into Tom’s Restaurant.

I’m [41] years old. I haven’t outgrown the problems of puberty…I’m already facing the problems of old age. I completely skipped healthy adulthood.”

Like the show about nothing, I expected a meaningless conversation during our pre-concert meal. I ordered my colitis-friendly chicken blandwich. Dad ordered the hot open roast beef with French fries, extra gravy, and a side order of stent.

Then I made a colossal mistake. I asked my dad for pity. I whined about my colitis and how the doctor decided to extend my treatment indefinitely. I told my dad that I felt old. That’s when I started having dinner with George Costanza.

Dad:
“Old? How do you think I feel? I got moles on my face.
My skin’s startin’ to sag. My hair’s all wispy. And I have tits.”

 Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!”

Dad:
“Yeah, but you don’t get it Shane. Up until a few years ago, I still had it. I mean,
young women would still check me out. But nowadays…” 

As a young, mildly attractive waitress passes by without returning dad’s smile…

Dad:
“You see that shit! I get nothing!”

Shane:
“Dad, you’re 74!!!”

 Dad:
“Shane, I have tits!!!”

“After seeing my father’s hooters, I threw up all night. It was like my own personal Crying Game.”

When we reached the Garden, I was still feeling old and I was surprised to see so many young Keith Urban fans. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I felt like a frat boy at Kenny Chesney’s Garden party? Flash forward a few years, and I couldn’t even drink beer. I had to trade in my “keg in the closet” for prune juice in a f**king sippy cup. 

“You should have seen her face. It was the exact same look my father gave me when I told him I wanted to be a ventriloquist.”

When dad failed to get so much as a “look at the cute old man” smile from a female fan, he turned sour for the rest of the night. Every wannabe Urban Cowboy was “a DOOF” in dad’s eyes. Every woman “built like a brick shit house” was a woman he could no longer woo. Sensing dad’s vulnerability, I shifted the focus back to me. I opened up to him about things that make me feel old. Most notably, the current state of my hair. 

“These are not scraps. These are the historic remains of a once great society of hair.”get-attachment.aspx

It’s no secret that the Smith men are hair guys. I’ve been obsessed with my hair ever since my wife cited it as THE reason she said yes. And while I’m sure my father was a lot balder than me at 41, I never considered him bald. I mean, nobody has ever done so much with so little. 

When we were kids, my brother and I would watch in awe as dad would wake up, enter the bathroom with 72 strands of disheveled hair, and exit the bathroom as Fonzy. “How does he do it?” we’d ask ourselves. Was it a magic comb? Did he buy the comb from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans? (see My Cousin Vinny).

Whatever the case, I’ve been trying to replicate dad’s magic hair trick ever since. My brother Brett came close to replicating it when he joined the Marine Corps. During infantry training, Brett mastered the art of camouflaging his bald spot by shaving his sparse ginger locks tighter than Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find the magic beans strong enough to restore my windswept wisps to their Brandon “90210” Walsh heyday. But you can’t say I haven’t tried.

“I was in the pool!!! I was in the pool!!!”

When I was 35, I tried Propecia. For those of you who aren’t medical writers, let me break down Propecia for you:

  • Merck boasts that Propecia regrows hair by blocking the formation of DHT. 
  • After several months, I could only boast that it blocked the formation of boners. 

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“Significant shrinkage!”

Funnily enough, my brother started taking Propecia around the same time I did. Of course, he was far too proud to share his “frightened little turtle” story with me. He called me one night and used his best Lieutenant Columbo act to break me before he did. Vague statements like “…well, uh, they say it’s not uncommon for, you know…” evolved into a cryptic confession: “I mean, uh, it’s not like I can’t…you know…it’s just, uh, kind of bendy.”

So we said goodbye to Proshrinkage, and I vowed to never sacrifice my vitality for vanity again.

“I would like to dip my bald head in oil and rub it all over your body.”

I never gave Rogaine oil or foam much of a chance to regrow hair out of my head. After a few dollops, Rogaine made my heart beat out of my chest. So the last option I considered was Bosley Hair Transplantation. The Bosley commercials were inviting and the whole process sounded like a Sherwood Forest adventure. The doctor steals follicles from the follically-rich areas and gives them to the follically-poor areas. Here’s what they don’t show you in their follically-misleading commercials:

  1. “Stealing follicles” is Dr. Frankenstein speak for scarring your scalp.
  2. The hair that “regrows” is about as thick and voluminous as my 8th grade pubes.

Oh, and if you want to maintain your freshly grown pubes, you have to take Propecia for the rest of your life. Thanks Bosley! A lifetime of sex using my freshly boiled “Fusilli Jerry”.

“[Shane] is getting upset!!!”

That’s all it took. My father opened up to me about Father Time and feeling past his prime. So I cheered him up by reminding him that his sons, 30 years his juniors, often feel the same way. We laughed the whole ride home. 

I also reminded my dad that there aren’t too many 74-year-olds who still hang out with their sons. I mean, if my dad weren’t so young for his age, we’d drop him off at the Bingo parlor on our way to the show. The truth is, we love hanging out with him. And I’m sure hanging out with us makes him feel young again. Which is why, I think, dad turned into George Costanza that night. When I started talking like an old fart, I think dad started to feel like one. Never again!

“Appearance not important! This is unbelievable. Finally an ideology I can embrace.”

Two nights later, I found myself at a much younger, cooler event. The Chilli Peppers rocked out to a sold-out Barclays Center crowd half their age. My “old age” and bald spot were the furthest things from my mind. In fact, I’ve never felt so young and alive at a concert. And it wasn’t the strong gust of second-hand wind that must’ve blown in from Colorado that gave me such a buzz (and my kids the munchies). It was the opportunity to experience what my father experiences with his 2 sons several times each year. I was the old man, feeling lucky as hell to rock out with his young sons. With any luck, I’ll still be young enough to rock out with them 33 years from now. 

get-attachment-1.aspxThe truth is, I’ll never stop trying to look and feel younger. At 41, I’m probably not ready to stop shopping at American Eagle…even if my sons think it’s “getting kind of creepy”. I may never stop searching for that fountain of youthful hair. And the next time I post a picture of myself, I’m sure I’ll still search for a Hair Restoration photo filter between Antique and Sepia. But I will try my best to embrace my advancing age and my ever-expanding bald spot. When all else fails, I’ll follow the example of the youngest 74-year-old man in the world.

I will also hold out hope that my favorite prophet, George Costanza, was on to something when he said:

“Hey believe me, baldness will catch on. When the aliens come, who do you think they’re gonna relate to? Who do you think’s gonna be the first ones getting a tour of the ship?”

I know who…

Me. My brother. My father. And his tits.