Penn School playground, Steel Field, passing the hat in the stands during games for donations to the North Central Little League. These are my earliest memories of baseball. Good memories. I remember going up to the playground almost every day after school with my bat and glove to play a game of pick up with whoever showed up, then going to Steel Field on game evenings, and so my love affair with baseball began. I’m talking elementary school, way back in the day. Back in the day when I loved baseball for the game, and friendly competition between teams was kept to just that. Parents came to watch their sons play the game, not run the show from the stands; or maybe I just wasn’t aware of that side of it. After all, I was just a girl who came to watch the boys play.
By the time I had boys of my own, it seemed different. My husband tried to coach every team our boys were on, if he was able to, because he loved the game, loved our boys, and because he wanted to ensure that every kid on the team was given a chance to play and learn different positions. Amidst occasional tongue biting and teeth grinding, he tried to play to teach and to have fun. Winning was a plus. In all fairness to coaches who didn’t practice these principles to the same extent, they are often caught between a rock and a hard place: play the less talented boys the bare minimum required by the rules and have a better chance of winning or give everyone an equal chance to have fun and risk losing. No one wants to be on a losing team and everyone wants to win. There is just no pleasing everyone.
And then there are the parents. I’ve been known to yell at an ump or two in my time, but the vast majority of my time as an athlete’s mom I tried to accept the decisions that were passed down, even if they royally ticked me off. I think most moms were the same; dads, however, were a different story. There were times I actually felt sorry for the refs and the coaches, as the armchair athletes in the stands tried to tell them how to do their jobs.
Even that I could handle, but the emotional abuse some of these young boys suffered at the hands of their wannabe athlete dads chilled me to the bone and then boiled my skin. Tell me, parents, did your child grow up to be a professional athlete, or did he grow up fearing your disapproval? Or maybe both? These are children, and children should be taught, guided, and disciplined with love, not constant criticism and judgement. I don’t believe in sugar coating realities, but I don’t believe in belittling children for what a parent may consider a shortcoming, either. The only failure is the one that is not tried at all, in sports and in life. They should be given credit for giving it a shot. Not everyone was born to be a baseball player. Every child is unique with unique talents, and just because your dream of smashing it clear over the fence never materialized doesn’t mean your child should be expected to fulfill that dream for you. He might want a pair of dance shoes or a violin instead. If you want to be disappointed, that’s OK, but keep it to yourself. Nurture the talents he has shown. Some apples fall a little farther away from the tree than others.
Now here I am watching my grandsons play. Many changes have come down the pike since I sat in the bleachers at Steel Field watching Little League games The structure of the leagues and teams are a little different and there aren’t as many neighborhood playgrounds that kids can walk to by themselves and enjoy a game of pick-up, especially for those of us living in the ‘burbs. Even for those living in the city, many children are bused to more distant schools and still can’t get to a neighborhood playground easily. Between the inaccessibility of playgrounds, air conditioning, and device addiction, the knowledge, expertise, and love of America’s past-time has been diluted.
Another trend is what I see as an increasingly vocal group of parents: moms, dads, and even grandparents. I still yell, but it’s all positive. Parents still yell at the umps, but now they are yelling at not only their own children when they make a mistake, which is bad enough, but at other children, which is even more unacceptable. They coach from the stands, which confuses the kids. Who do they listen to? Their coach? Their dad? Their mom? Their grandmother? (Oh yeah, I see that, too.) That other parent yelling instructions to them? Coaches have given their time to help everyone’s children learn how to play the game. Let them do their jobs and don’t confuse the kids with conflicting stereophonic advice.
In the event that coaches are feeling a bit left out right now, I have some news for you, too. You’re not coaching the MLB, or even high school. They’re kids. Much like my advice to parents, don’t berate your little ballplayers. They are there to have fun, learn the game, and practice sportsmanship. not be chastised, and you are their role model. You are the tree and at this moment you have many little apples looking up to you. It’s just a game, and if you are there to win just to prove your own self worth instead of for those other, more important, things, then recuse yourself from the bench. Additionally, don’t show favoritism to your own son or your friends’ sons. Don’t take play time away from other players or deny them prime positions so your own son can have them. Rotate positions to make it more equitable. Explain to the team that no one is going to get preferential treatment, but you expect them all to do the best they can at whatever position they are assigned. Tell them, and yourself, to relax, have fun, and play ball!