Monday, July 10, 2017

The little boy's game

Good Monday morning, everyone.  Hot here in central Kentucky these last few days.  And, yes, it's not just the heat, but the humidity!

I have something on my mind this morning regarding the great game of baseball, which most regular visitors to this space know is near and dear to my heart.  I've been a lover of the game since I was a kid, and was lucky enough to pass this love on to my son, who has, in turn, given the gift of baseball to HIS son, my younger grandson.  Baseball is nothing if not dynastic, I've come to understand, so seeing how much my grandson loves the game really touches me.

This grandson has been playing tee ball for a couple of years and this summer, at the conclusion of the regular season (a season in which his team won the league championship tournament, by the way) he began playing on a league all-star team.  This team has traveled to nearby communities for tournaments on three of the last four weekends, so the team and their families all head to these points out of town, as do other teams.

And the results have been good, as this team placed second in their first such tournament and won them each of the last two weekends.  But I'm more than a little disappointed in some of what I've seen in these weekend tournaments.

The first and perhaps greatest issue facing these kids is that many are playing for coaches that were unfamiliar to them.  There are practice sessions scheduled each week, but it seems that weather has prevented many such practices from taking place.  So the kids who are playing for several coaches who formerly coached their opponents are now taking direction from new coaches.  And there is a head coach, but there are also four other "official" coaches and several others helping, including my son.

That's a lot of voices to listen to.

One of the biggest dampers we noticed early on in our grandson's baseball "career" is that some coaches challenge umpires, argue with them and their opposing coaches and set a generally bad conduct example for these kids, who are all somewhere between 5 and 7 years old (our little guy just turned 6 in May).  With these tournament games having a somehow greater value, the least little thing triggers descent by these "official" coaches on already beleaguered and overworked umpires, and these protestations are generally long-lasting and in my estimation set the wrong tone for children trying to learn fair play and sportsmanship above all else.

Parent (and grandparents, including myself) often don't help, as we, too, want to see these kids play well and win, but I've been trying awfully hard to keep my comments in the "encouragement" column.  But more than once I've pleaded (loudly) for our first and third base coaches to "take care of our baserunners."  Kids get on base and they get too much information or too little, and mistakes happen.  One of our grandson's teammates has a father who is hypercritical of his son to the point of it being funny, telling his son to "back up" and accusing him of "dogging it" and saying to no one in particular that he will make him run after the game to see if he keeps doing this then and so forth.  His son is probably six or seven and is one of the better players on the team, and clearly performs better when his dad either keeps quiet or at least waits until a later time to provide instruction and criticism.

This happened yesterday and struck very close to home, as in the course of winning the tournament yesterday my grandson was on first as the result of a base hit.  His base coach (who is one of the "unofficial" coaches, it's worth noting) said something to him, and the next batter popped the ball up. I believe someone shouted the word "go" and my grandson began to run to second, realized the ball was going to be caught, and tried to get back to first but was too late and was out.  His head went down, he knew he'd made a mistake and shuffled back to the dugout, which was on the first base side.

Making matters worse, the head coach, whom my wife and I already disliked because of his penchant for pacing in front of the dugout during each game, bellowed at him about running on a popup.  The same coach who bellows at nearly every kid on the team not to look at the ball.  How's a kid supposed to see that the ball is caught when he's also being told not to look at the ball?

Not a big surprise what happened next, and the coach apparently felt bad about yelling at him and was much more conciliatory next time our grandson was on base.  Our son recognized how furious this made me and tried to assuage my anger,  I'm sure to prevent me from confronting this man during or after the game.  I wanted to but didn't, our grandson's emotions returned to their normal state soon enough and team won the game and the tournament.

Here's the rub.  These kids are playing a GAME.  That's what it is and how it should be treated.  If they win, great.  If they don't, we'll still love them and tell them that we'll get 'em next time.  Those of us who have lived longer know that life is this way, too.

I take sports too seriously, too.  And let's remember, I write this from Kentucky, a state where some of its citizens actually made death threats against a basketball referee who made some questionable calls against the University of Kentucky basketball team in last year's NCAA tournament.  Great to be a fan, as I should well know.

But these are little kids.  They need to learn and to grow and come to understand and love this game, not be afraid that each little mistake is going to cause Mount Vesuvius to erupt each time something happens, whether that volcano is in the bleachers or in the dugout.  And not be reminded of their failures or shortcomings, but be helped to recall the positive contributions that have helped their team.

To me, this is the greatest irony:  at the park complex where the tournaments were played on the last two weekends, a placard is on display in several places.  Here's what it says, better than I can:

He is Just A Little Boy

By Unknown

He stands at the plate,
with his heart pounding fast.
The bases are loaded,
the die has been cast.
Mom and Dad cannot help him,
he stands all alone.
A hit at this moment,
would send the team home.
The ball meets the plate,
he swings and he misses.
There's a groan from the crowd,
with some boos and some hisses.
A thoughtless voice cries,
strike out the bum.
Tears fill his eyes,
the game's no longer fun.
So open your heart
and give him a break.
For it's moments like this,
a man you can make.
Please keep this in mind,
when you hear someone forget.
He is just a little boy,
and not a man yet.


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