I was born during the era of the “Big Red Machine.” In 1975 the Cincinnati Reds had the “Great Eight”- Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez, Dave Concepción, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey, George Foster, and César Gerónimo; the Reds won 41 out of 50 games straight. I was born on October 22, 1975. And the first thing the nurse told my mom when she came to in recovery, was that the Reds had just clinched the World Series in game 7.
I grew up playing wiffle ball first with my cousins and neighborhood kids. Then baseball with the boys. And eventually on a summer rec softball team for a long time. I was given Reds tickets for the first time at age 9 for having good grades in school. We loaded up and made the trek to Riverfront Stadium. Our seats were terrible but it didn’t matter. We didn’t have a lot of extra money back then but dad had made a point to have extra cash on hand to make the day even more special.
I remember being wowed by the crowd. The smells of buttery popcorn. Kids everywhere with ball gloves hoping to catch a piece of baseball history. We bought the coney dog, popcorn, and peanuts from vendors making their way up and down the steps and yelling out their sales. The brilliant green field, that one guy three rows down who had a few too many beers, the classic accidental driving across the bridge into Kentucky, the thrill of being in the presence of real professional baseball players for the first time. The Reds beat the Mets 9 to 6. I would return to Riverfront Stadium, later to the renamed Cinergy Field, and eventually the Great American Ball Park many times over the next several years. I went back with my parents, uncles, cousins, eventually friends, boyfriends, and finally taking my own kids. There is really nothing like it.
I also clearly remember the first time I walked onto a field to play a night game under the lights. It was hot but there was a cool breeze picking up. Some of the girls on my softball team were already tired from swimming during the day and in the process of getting chewed out by the coaches because that was the most basic, simple rule…no swimming on game day. There was something magical about being on the field under the lights that made you feel like a pro. Parents and grandparents filled the stands and shouted orders to siblings from their lawn chairs. We rocked power braids for good luck and made a mad dash for the concession stand after the game. And there was always that one parent who got so fired up you were just waiting for that heart attack to hit.
The State of Baseball
There has been a lot of chatter across the web surrounding baseball for a few years now. What was once America’s favorite pastime has dropped significantly in overall interest. Participating in sports and other activities is good for kids period. But there is a special place in our collective memory and hearts for baseball. Today’s culture has changed. And while sometimes change is good, sometimes it’s not so good. It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and focus on what can be done.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, senior editor Marc Fisher points out that baseball’s business revenue continues to climb but an aging population of viewers coupled with a “two-decade-long decline” in the number of kids playing baseball paints a bit of a dimmer future for the sport. He notes that the game is still the second most popular among kids to play (second to basketball). But other numbers aren’t so promising:
- “50 percent of baseball viewers are 55 or older”
- “Young people are not getting into baseball as fans as they once did: For the first time, the ESPN Sports Poll’s annual survey of young Americans’ 30 favorite sports figures finds no baseball players on the list”
- “For many years, Little League detailed youth participation in baseball and softball, but as those numbers declined, from nearly 3 million in the 1990s to 2.4 million two years ago, the organization stopped releasing tallies”
Fisher goes on to discuss how even in some areas where the town picks up the fee, that little league participation is down. Across the country many small towns have pooled rec leagues together in attempt to keep their programs alive. While the MLB is trying to find ways to shorten the game to hold the attention of a faster-paced culture, others aren’t so sure that is going to make a difference, stating that American football games have a longer running time and are still more popular. Read more…
Darren Rovell wrote in a piece for ESPN that “a sport’s popularity varies greatly based on demographics….Those with an annual household income of more than $100,000 are more likely to be baseball fans, while African Americans are less likely to enjoy the sport, the poll reveals.” Read more….
In the Fisher article mentioned before he also discusses the idea that baseball finds itself in a unique social position. An increasingly fast paced society, a generation of parents that didn’t play, and the ongoing struggle of summer rec versus travel ball are all part of the complex equation.
Ouch, A Few Hits on Travel/ Elite Ball
So anyone with kids in baseball right now, who has had kids in baseball in the past, or has played in the past 20 years knows a little bit about the summer rec baseball versus travel baseball phenomenon. There are some feisty arguments out there on both sides. Yes, unfortunately there are sides. When I was a kid everyone played summer rec until approaching high school age. That’s when the split went down. You either continued to play on a summer rec team for a local organization or you tried out for a handful of travel/elite ball teams. The travel teams were few and far between compared to today.
Back in August of 2011, ESPN Senior Writer Tim Keown dropped an article that stirred the pot a bit. OK, a lot. First of all there is no doubt that Keown’s scathing review of the climate of youth ball is driven by a passion for the sport and frustration with some of what he has seen. Keown essentially goes off “This is the age of the special child. This is the age of the parent who believes his or her kid playing Little League for the neighborhood team is beneath them both” and “Parents say, “Oh, he plays travel ball,” as a means of separating their kids from the riffraff who don’t see fit to spend thousands of dollars to travel all over the place with their 9-year-olds.” While Keown clearly went after parents (and generalized) a bit in the piece, he was focusing on the system as a whole as well, which is something a lot of commenters somewhat overlooked.
So yeah I couldn’t wait to dig into the comments on that piece. And it was a bit of a storm.
And the parents…
Then there was this little article that popped up on a friend’s page awhile back. In a Guest Voices piece for Nuvo: Indy’s alternative voice, ER doc Louis M. Profeta, MD, delivered what could be called a wake up call for some parents. Profeta poses the question “When does this pursuit of athletic stardom become something just shy of a gambling habit?” and here’s a hint he’s not talking about the kids.
Profeta goes so far as to bet his pension that your kids not playing for the pros, that it isn’t going to happen. But his main point that he is trying to drive home is that his ER experiences have given him some up close and personal views of overdriven parents. To capture a few:
- When a parent’s first question regarding a torn ACL is how long until he or she can play
- When he tells a parent their kid has mono and could risk death if the spleen takes a hit and the parent asks about extra padding
You get the idea. It’s a good piece. And the comments are fiery and informative read more…
So about this saving baseball business?
Ok so right now you might be wondering how this all comes together. Let me tell you the truth…I freaking love baseball. I love softball too. I spent my entire high school career being a non-athlete in the spring high school season just so I could do the books for the boys baseball team and I could ride the bus to every game. As a parent of athletes who have played with both recreational and travel teams I’ve witnessed a lot of things that kind of fall on both sides of the arguments surrounding travel and rec teams.
I’ve met and worked with coaches who are complete jerks. And coaches who have had a profound and positive impact on the lives of kids. I’ve watched women get into hair pulling fist fights at summer rec softball games during a 9U slow pitch game. I’ve seen a dad put a coach into a chokehold at 12U baseball game in a select tournament. I’ve seen a college scholarship recipient blow his shoulder out in the first college game and listened to the dad lament all the money he spent on private pitching lessons for what appeared to be a never ending period of depression. I’ve heard 14 year olds cry and beg their parents to play on a summer rec team on top of playing for a select team so they could “have fun with their friends” and “get more play time.” I’ve watched 13 year olds get out of their parent’s car at a rec game and throw tantrums because they don’t want to play, and heard the same parents talking about putting junior on a “elite” travel team next season. Really?
So here’s my humble take on what I’ve read and what I have experienced…
- Yeah there is a really good chance that your kid isn’t going to make it to the pros. But that reality shouldn’t be forced onto your kids. We should allow our children to have big dreams and think big when they are little. Maybe the reason that we see so many drafts for the MLB outside of the U.S. (26% in 2014) is because one of the biggest problems in this country is that we have become so cynical in our efforts to get by and push forward that we have forgotten how to dream. And in the process we have forgotten how to let, encourage and lead our children to have big dreams.
- This summer rec versus travel ball thing needs to stop. Parent’s perpetuate the attitude that one is better than the other. Coaches perpetuate the attitude. Kid’s don’t just dream up this in their heads. There are a lot of reasons why individual kids and families make these choices. And to be quite honest I’ve seen the exact same problems with rec teams that I have witnessed with travel teams.
- The fact that summer rec programs are declining around the country can’t be ignored it is real. It also can’t be disputed that the rise in travel teams is one reason for that. Other reasons include overall decline in community engagement and economic status in certain parts of the country. Parents are often struggling to make ends meet. This leads to less time to volunteer. And the fact is that a lot of times parents who do volunteer unfortunately lack some of the skills needed for coaching, but they also lack the skills to keep a non-profit organization successful and out of the red. This is an important point. If parents within a given community are seriously committed to getting a summer rec program back up and running, then maybe they can take a look at the success of some travel ball organizations and learn from what they are doing. A successful rec program needs the help of willing and able community members. Volunteers burn out over time, it’s a natural process. We can bring our home ballparks back.
- Parents who coach need to keep themselves in check. Period. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a self-serving coach, be it rec or travel ball, begin pigeon-holing players into a position at the ripe old age of 10 years old just because they are convinced their child needs to be the star, I would be a very wealthy person. Youth baseball and softball teams can take a lesson from the college level and pro players. Major league teams are not successful on the back of one pitcher. And a good pitcher is worthless when a team can’t field the ball. Every position counts.
- Grown ups somewhat have the power to kill the sport. If a team of 9 year olds has one awesome pitcher and that pitcher is always on the mound and no one else on the field is getting any play, then hell yes they are going to be bored. I’m sorry but this is a coaching problem where the desire to win overpowers the desire to build skill levels.
- Parents need to play with their kids. MomsTeam Institute is a pretty cool resource I stumbled across recently for parents of athletes. And one piece really hit home. Harold Theurer, author of a children’s book Hey Dad! Let’s Have a Catch writes, “It became painfully obvious to me that as parents we have become facilitators, the person who guides people through a process but isn’t necessarily an expert. Facilitators don’t get to know their group members. They just know how to get them from one part of the session to the next. We are taking our children to places in which other adults look them in the eye, provide coaching, guidance and encouragement. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing?” Read more Maybe the reason some of our kids burn out and walk away from playing baseball and softball is because we build them up by taking them out in the yard during the t-ball years and then somewhere along the way it becomes another place we drop them off.
- Take your kids to minor and major league games every once in awhile. It’s fun.
- It’s not fair to judge parents or demonize parents who do put their kids on travel or elite teams because their kids really enjoy it just because they are able to do so. I meet a lot of parents who do this because they are trying to step away from consumerism and material things. They are operating from a point of view that says hey I want to give my kids more opportunities than things.
- But slow down. Be real about your schedule. Make sure your plan is focused on what your kids want, what you want your family life to look like, and that you aren’t pushing for something beyond your means. There is nothing worse than a kid having to deal with a stressed out pissed off parent for months because you made a bad choice in saying yes when you should have said no.
- Focus on your child’s overall health first. Keep balance in mind. Nutrition, sleep, rest, play, open communication, random bouts of silliness, real food, expression, learning, all of these things are important to keeping the fun as well as building the work ethic into athletic performance.
Baseball doesn’t need to change. People do. Honestly, chances are your kid isn’t going to remember the time he struck out in the bottom of the ninth and “cost” the team the game. But he will remember it if you berate him on the way to the car. He may not remember his third or fourth home run during his sophomore year on the varsity high school team. But he will remember playing ball with you in the yard and getting caught in a sudden summer storm.
I can’t remember the scores of my own summer rec softball games, my good plays or bad plays. But I do remember another girl’s dad yelling mean things at me because I struck out once in a tournament game and how hard it was to fight back the tears, my own father’s voice telling me to “ignore the assholes” just to make me laugh because he never cursed, and him taking me and my friends out for pizza after the game. Not because we won. But because he was a good dad.
Maybe that’s why I love baseball.