Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A travel baseball parent defends his -- and his kids' -- experiences

Bee will be mad at me for doing a number of sports-themed posts in a row, but I was inspired this morning by Lenore Skenazy's post on Free Range Kids, Your Child is NOT Going to Play in the Pros. She provides an excerpt from a longer piece by an Indianapolis ER doctor, Louis M. Profeta, that appeared Monday on DGIWire.

If you just read the Free Range Kids post, you'd think that Dr. Profeta was hostile to all organized sports, especially travel teams. It's really not the case; Ms. Skenazy let her own biases come through in her editing. She has a distinct point of view and -- for any younger parents that might be happening by -- if you're not looking in on her occasionally, you should. She's a breath of fresh air and common sense in an increasingly fearful world.

On the issue of travel teams being generally bad (her apparent view, not necessarily Dr. Profeta's), however, I must respectfully dissent. Links in this introduction will take you to both Ms. Skenazy's post and Dr. Profeta's original article. What follows started as a comment I left on Skenazy's post this morning.

The good doctor is right on one thing: Injuries will probably prevent most kids, even talented ones, from ever being pro athletes. The people who make it to the pros have a special combination of talent, determination and durability that most kids don't.

Lenore, two of my three boys played travel baseball. We didn't know it existed before my oldest boy tried out for his high school team. He made the team, but he came home from tryouts insistent that his brother find a travel squad. My oldest son played baseball through high school. His younger brothers pitched in college (the youngest is still in school). They both played Division III ball. It was not the big time. My middle son didn't get any interest from the pros (though he was the ace of his staff, and a lefty, his back gave out in the course of his senior season and he was ready to retire). My youngest boy probably will never see a pro contract at any level either, but he wants to teach and coach. His experience will help him get a job in his chosen field. My middle son got a job from baseball, too -- as an accountant -- because one of the players on his college team had a father who worked for an accounting firm and got both my son and his into jobs there. My son would never have had this connection without sports.

Along the way we've seen one kid from our park league make the majors (well, sort of, he's a Cub) -- and that kid left the house league early for travel ball. My middle son played with a kid who got drafted by the Nationals but never made it out of A ball because of, you guessed it, injury. My son also struck out a kid (twice) in high school who's now the starting second baseman for the Cleveland Indians.

You know what? We didn't do it from fear; we did it because we liked baseball (still do) and because the kids wanted to do it.

I coached in the park league when my youngest was little (before we thought it was time to find a travel squad -- although there are some travel teams for toddlers out there). I was the worst coach in the history of what I call Bluejay Park. But six kids on my last team made their freshman teams at various area high schools, including my son -- and baseball is a cut sport. So they didn't burn out. They had enough fun to want to keep playing.

The park, or house, leagues are supposed to be recreational -- less competitive. But every parent thinks their kid is a surefire Hall of Famer when they start playing T-ball -- and then they get discouraged quickly when the kids don't know where to run, how to catch or how to hit. By the time the kids can actually play something resembling baseball, a lot of the parents aren't coming out any more. It's a shame, too, because those games can be a lot of fun to watch.

Of course, sometimes the joy of watching is tempered by the fact that some of those in attendance are entirely crazy, and some of the coaches are the worst. I remember one game when my oldest son was playing -- he still played in the park during summers during high school because he never got on a travel team -- and the coach from the Colt team from the next park over was threatening to kill the umpire and anyone who tried to stop him. I live in a part of Chicago where many of my neighbors are policemen. I watched a few of them checking their service weapons in case things got really ugly. Someone eventually walked the belligerent coach back to his car (the coach was an off-duty cop, too) talking to him about his pension and how this game wasn't worth risking it.

I never saw anything comparable at a travel game. Ever. The parents were generally nice, often knowledgeable (OK, Youngest Son played on a team where the parents were still learning), and I think most of the kids -- not just mine -- did it for fun. For the love of the game.

I think my kids are better for the experience; they deal with authority better, they are less afraid in social settings than I'll ever be. And I include my girls in this, too, at least to an extent -- even though neither played baseball for more than a few years.

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