For parents there is no more transformative experience than the introduction to Little League Baseball. Gone are the days of everyone wins and “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you get a cold drink after the game”. All of the sudden there are winners and losers, champions and also-rans, All Stars, everyday players and kids who are cut from the league due to lack of skills.
This season has showed me the best and the worst of little league baseball as well as renewed my hope that volunteers, parents and others involved can and will continue to make Little League what it has always been, a place where lifelong friendships are built, a place where a love for the game is developed and a place where boys learn the values of sportsmanship, fair play and to a large degree, the facts of life.
Too often than not, Little League baseball to some degree turns into “daddyball”, where dads relive their former glory days through their kids. Moms aren’t innocent either. Any Little League mom worth her salt can tell a ball from a strike from 50 yards. But in Little League baseball as with all youth sports, the vast majority of coaches are parents of kids in the league. This year I have experienced the frustration of seeing individuals say things I hope they didn’t mean to say and also the joy and thankfulness for a coach that left me in tears sitting on a plane bound for home.
First the frustration.
When in the course of human events did Little League become so important that telling a child or their parent that he is not good enough to play furthered the game of Little League baseball or anything for that matter. The league my boys play in is competitive. I mean C-O-M-P-E-T-I-T-I-V-E. Always has been and always will be. This year, some coaches desires for control of who plays on their teams and to compete in “travel ball” caused the number of “willing” but not “available” coaches to drop to a level that the usual six teams in an age division had to be reduced to four teams. This resulted in over a dozen kids who signed up to play to be cut from the league and be told that they should look for another league if they wanted to play. “Travel Ball” is a relatively new phenomenon where kids play “rec” ball during the week and “travel ball” on the weekends. Little League becomes a full time year around ordeal for many families. A season includes an average of 5 practice games, 15-20 regular season “rec” ball games, 8-10 Mid-Season tournament games, 20 plus travel ball games and 20 plus All Star games. Add up all of those games and you get 68 to 75 games in a year for an 8 to 12 year old boy. Whew! That is a single-A season before you can even walk from the parking lot to the field without adult supervision.
My frustration peaked when I pressed a prominent parent as to what I should tell the City resident parents of a child that paid their fee to play in a City sponsored league, on a city field, maintained by City staff that their child would not be allowed to play in the league while many kids from outside the City and outside the County and even outside the State are recruited, have slots on teams reserved for them and are allowed to play. The individual responded, in a room which included 2 City Parks and Rec leaders, “tell them for the same reason my kid can’t go to PATS if he is dumb”. REALLY? Is that what it is all about? I hope not. I hope it is like the life lesson taught to me on a Little League field last week by my friend Chuck.
On a recent evening, my son’s team was losing by 9 runs. We were struggling. My friend Chuck and I had coached together a few years ago but now he was managing the other side and was doing the unthinkable. He was not running up the score. He was holding up his base runners, even not scoring when pitched balls got by the catcher. I was even joking with him that he was being a “good Christian man” as we both attend the same church and the game was clearly out of reach. In the bottom of the last inning with my son’s team down by 9 runs, which could have been 19 if Chuck had pushed the score, the most unlikely of miracle comebacks occurred and my son’s team, which had not won a game all season, came back through a miraculous plethora of errors and hits to score 10 runs and win the game.
My heart immediately sank for Chuck. He must be beating himself up inside for having gone easy on us. What would he tell his kids? What would he tell their parents? I pointed out to my teams parents, as our kids celebrated the win, that if Chuck had not held up his kids and backed off, there was no way we would have won the game. They all agreed and respected Chuck’s decision. All night I wondered what was going through my friends head.
A few days later, as I sat on a Pensacola bound flight, I texted Chuck to see how he was doing and get his insights on that tragic/triumphant night. He said “I would do the same thing in the same situation. There is a right way and a wrong way to go through life. I WILL show my son and my team what I think is the right way. That is my job as a coach.” I asked him how he could face his team and explain this to them. He continued “Why is it so hard for our leaders to do the right thing when the right thing is so obvious? Pummeling a weaker team is no different than beating a weaker child. It isn’t good for any of the kids.” Then he made a statement that will stay with me for the rest of my life. “Many more of these kids will grow up to be Little League coaches than Major Leaguers. Is it not more important to teach the many what is most important than the few what is least important.”
Youth sports is about exactly that. Teaching kids about many truths in life that must be experienced to be appreciated.
My friend Chuck and I share a love of all sports and a passion for the game of baseball. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t critique the sonnets of Susan Sontag or debate the virtues of Astroturf or the designated hitter. But when life presented my friend with an obstacle, he didn’ rely on his friends, his trusty clichés.
No! He taught his kids the true facts of life “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”
Playball and thanks Chuck Kuba for being a difference maker in the lives of our kids as well as their parents.