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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Turning 40: From a Glass-Half-Full Kind of Guy

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I’ve always been a glass- half-full kind of guy. Even on my worst day, when I’m convinced that half the country is half-full-of-shit, I choose to focus on the better half. The half who wake up every morning and realize that, despite its imperfections, America is still the greatest country in the world. But for the better part of this summer, I’ve struggled to keep my glass full enough to appreciate all the little things I love about this great country of ours.

Dear Mr. Vernon: Is that why you’ve battled blogger’s block worse than an axe-wielding Jack Torrance? [Rent “The Shining”]

To paraphrase my favorite country singer, I’m just a blogger of simple blogs…I’m not a real political man. I do lean right, but I’ll be the first to admit when the right is wrong. I’m a man of faith, but I have no such faith in Bible-thumping politicians who speak of “legitimate rape” and preach on the miracle of the female reproductive system’s kill switch.

What concerns me? I’m concerned about a New Jersey unemployment rate that’s at 10% and swelling faster than Governor Christie’s waistline. I’m also preoccupied with the prospect that I could one day join this group of 10-percenters. Think “Obama Care” and the FDA have spun our nation’s healthcare system into disarray? You should join me every day as I attempt to write for, and about, a pharmaceutical industry that currently doesn’t know its ass from its elbow cream. In my humble, glass-half-full opinion, the state of American healthcare isn’t in flux. It’s legitimately fu**ed. And at the rate our economic recovery is going, Generation X will hand the reins of this country over to “Generation Y us?”

[And I’m about to turn 40…can’t you tell?]

Today I find myself a few weeks shy of life’s half-way point. That mid-life mile marker called 40 will soon appear in my rear-view…and I’ll struggle not to wax melodramatic about what America is, was, and may never be again. Life’s glass will soon be half-empty for me, but I’m determined to keep the glass full with hope for our nation’s future.

During my one [and only] week of vacation this summer, two events gave me hope for America’s future. Even more than those “Chevy Runs Deep” commercials narrated by Buzz Lightyear.

“We’re just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the [corporate-sponsored] farm.”
Even in an America where development threatens to spoil whatever pristine country remains, the dream of wide-open spaces and down-home living endures. So much so that 56,000 city-slickers (like my father, brother, and I), flocked like lemmings to Met Life Stadium on August 10th. We didn’t dust off our shit-kickers to see The Boss, Eli, or Mark Sanchez’s back-up play. We were a bunch of Metropolitanities who came to get country-fied by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

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Yep, we’re talking a mix of blue- and white-collared folks who are about as corn-fed country as I am juiced-up junkie. We were all wannabe rebels who didn’t have a clue we weren’t on a farm, but in a corporate-sponsored behemoth of a stadium.

Heck, even my old man was acting like he didn’t have a clue he was 72-years old. For example,

[As a 20-something walked by in Daisy Dukes, showing off her future skin cancer]

Brett:
“Dad, when do you think 20-year-old girls finally stopped looking at you?”

Dad:
“Who says they ever did? Asshole!”

After the summer sun fell out of sight, we were still singing lyrics like “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”…  knowing full well my Korean-built Hyundai was unsexy. It didn’t matter. For nearly six hours, we drank, sang, and sweat our red, white, and blue asses off. Country music has that ability to transport you from the realities of your fast-paced/tech-obsessed daily life. These are simple songs about a simpler life. Songs that paint the perfect picture of an idyllic America that may only exist in our refried dreams.

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“Is this Heaven? No, it’s [Williamsport].”

If you’ve never visited Williamsport, PA for the Little League World Series, then you may be missing the very best example of youth sports, camaraderie, and sportsmanship that this country has to offer. Entry is free, the umpires and concessionaires are volunteers, and watching the games will make you feel “as if you dipped yourself in magic waters.” Repeat that quote in a James Earl Jones voice, then stroll the friendly confines of Howard J. Lamade Stadium and tell me that Williamsport isn’t “the place where dreams come true.”

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At the tail end of my one [and only!] vacation week this summer, I took my boys to Williamsport to support our local Par-Troy East little league team. While my boys were disappointed to see their local team fall in their opener, they quickly shifted their focus to an international story that was just unfolding. We had heard the story about a diamond in the rough where a shoeless version of baseball is played on rocky fields among cows, goats, and anthills. And here they were, the team from a third-world country…captivating everyone in Williamsport with their unbridled joy for life and the game of baseball.

Long before their improbable 3 to 2 victory over Oregon, the Ugandan team had already staked their claim to the title of undisputed fan favorites. Despite lives filled with adversity that most Americans couldn’t possibly fathom, the Ugandan players were so happy, so gracious, and so ready to show their appreciation for a dream-come-true that wasn’t given to them…it was earned. We Americans have a tendency to focus on all that’s wrong with our country. The Ugandans showed us that every second in America felt like paradise to them.

The Ugandan story is a triumph of the human spirit, and it’s quite possibly the greatest thing to ever happen to little league baseball. Perhaps the only thing better than watching how the Ugandan team responded to their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was how our American little leaguers responded to them.

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Thanks to clothing and equipment drives run by many of the American teams, it’s safe to say that the Ugandan All-Stars will bring more than just memories back home with them. No, the Ugandans didn’t win the Little League World Series. They won the hearts of America instead.

Now please excuse me while I refill my glass.

The Sandlot: Great Expectations in Little League Baseball

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[WARNING: SHAMELESSLY EXAGGERATED, SELF-AGGRANDISING OPENING PARAGRAPH]

I was somewhat of a local legend back in the day. In the spirit of the great boys of summer who came before me, I once delighted Morristown fans to a brand of baseball that was seldom seen in these parts. A glove man of such grace, fans would pack-in the friendly confines of Burnham Park just to watch me take infield practice.  You could have charged admission and they’d still come to behold the wizard of Burnham Park turn a diamond in the rough into a field of dreams. My hands were so soft, they called me “Hoover” back then. If you already caught the vacuum analogy, please let me hose you with the rest of my hyperbole. My glove was the place where base hits went to die, and I could count the number of errors I made on my middle finger [it’s still sticking up if you’re knocking me for bragging]. And my curveball didn’t just break, it broke the hearts of opposing batters.

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If all that shameless self-praise has you ready to eject me from the blogging game, please keep in mind that I was only 12-years-old at the time. I’m allowed to boast now because my baseball career didn’t have a Roy Hobbs-like ending. I never tore the cover off the ball or shattered the stadium lights with my Savoy Special. Heck, I could hardly splatter the inner edge of the outfield grass with the 30-inch Easton Big Barrel that outweighed me. I didn’t even win a varsity letter…unless you count the endless string of Es I committed during my freshman baseball season. Burdened by expectations, I started playing less like the vacuum Hoover and more like the President Hoover. Yep, my career as a slick-fielding, weak-hitting ballplayer peaked at the age of 12. So I guess you could say I didn’t live up to people’s great expectations of me. Or maybe I simply crumbled under the weight of those expectations.

So to this day, when I reminisce about playing baseball….I’m not wearing a uniform for my high school team. I’m playing on the Burnham Park little league field where my father/coach stood outside the dugout smoking his Winston reds right down to his nicotine-stained finger nails. I’m heading up to Newburgh, NY with my 1985 Morristown National Little League state championship teammates. Or I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my brother and friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, and helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. In other words, I’m playing baseball with only one expectation in mind: having fun!

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Today I coach baseball on the very same little league field where I played as a kid. And I follow my father’s Hippocratic-Oath-like first rule of baseball: “FIRST, have fun!” Believe me, this isn’t always easy. Coaching my son on the same field I played on, it’s almost impossible for me to not set high expectations for him and his teammates. I’m as competitive as the next coach, and I’m a firm believer that it’s a lot more fun to win than it is to lose. But every time I find myself getting caught up in the good plays and bad plays, the hits and the misses, or the wins and the losses…I remember my father’s golden rule of little league baseball. If that doesn’t work, I pop in The Sandlot.

“Man, this is baseball! You gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball!”

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The Sandlot is youth baseball in its purest form. It’s about kids passing time playing the great American past time. No benchwarmers or All-Stars, just boys growing up with baseball in the foreground and the expectations of parents and coaches far off in the background. The kids are the players, coaches, umpires, and spectators….and they’re all having fun. Too often, I fear, kids aren’t playing baseball for fun. They’re playing to meet or exceed the expectations set by everyone but themselves. Sometimes it’s the expectations of the coach, or a parent…or as is often the case: the parent/coach like myself.

As a parent/coach to my 11-year-old son (and 6-year-old daughter), I’ve learned to not set too many expectations for a couple of reasons:

1. Expectations are probably what took the fun out of baseball for me after little league. And it’s probably why, to this day, I feel my son’s strikeouts and errors as if they were my own.
2. Expectations backfired when I named my firstborn after Cal Ripken…and he named his first love SOCCER.

So if you ever find yourself frustrated by your child’s recent slump or string of errors, try to remind yourself of the golden rule set by the greatest coach I’ve ever known: “FIRST, have fun!”

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If that doesn’t work, rent The Sandlot…or just read the tagline on the movie poster: “The Sandlot: A piece of paradise a half block wide and a whole summer long.”

Little league baseball lasts longer than a whole summer….and for most kids, it’s as close to baseball paradise as they’ll ever get. But only when expectation #1 is to first have fun.