There’s a kid in the back seat of my station wagon sloppily dipping chicken nuggets in honey mustard sauce. I’m nagging him to finish because across the parking lot, out on a baseball field, a group of men huddle with clipboards, ready to time his running speed from home to first and tally the number of fly balls he can save from a collision with the grassy outfield. He’s already been to one tryout today, and he’s cranky about doing another one. I’m thinking chicken nuggets, work your magic. When Henry is hungry or grumpy, balls roll between his legs; he scowls, turns sluggish, and his cleats grow roots that plant him in just the wrong spot to snag a ball and make the play that will get him noticed. He wants to make a team, but, here’s the thing, I worry that I want him to make a team even more.
It’s late July, the time parents call “silly season” in travel ball. Worn out teams dissolve, and the demigods in charge of baseball mold new ones from the red Georgia clay. Cobb County, just north of Atlanta, is known for good baseball. Families move here so their sons can play on high school teams; local travel teams regularly place in national tournaments. Summer tryout season is the best chance to join up with a group of winners or doom your kid and your family to all kinds of misery. So, just as Major League Baseball approaches the July trading deadline, the parents of the younger boys of summer anxiously engage in their own delicate negotiations with prospective teams. What’s your policy on Fall football? Will we play AAA or Major? How much will this team reduce my planned IRA contributions for 2012? Okay, maybe not that last one out loud. But it’s a concern for parents who are looking at laying out thousands of dollars (and hours) for their sons to travel around Georgia playing baseball.
This is the first year I’ve witnessed silly season up close, and I’ve been a bit muddied by the red clay flying everywhere. Stressed-out parents drive themselves crazy shuttling their sons to tryouts in all corners of this big, blocky county. Kids rack up plenty of rejections as established teams, especially at the older ages, look for a “unicorn,” that elusive left-handed pitcher who also plays short and hits for power. Henry is young, and teams at his age just want a kid who can throw strikes. Still, he has a handful of rejections already, and each one stings. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night just to get in a little more time to worry about where he’ll play baseball for the coming year. And, yes, I feel pretty silly doing that. Henry will soon turn nine, and if he wants to move up and play travel ball at the 9U level instead of going back to rec park ball, he has to join the tryout circuit, powered by an overly competitive nature, a pair of muscular legs, and Wild Berry smoothies. Those men with clipboards may have a rather influential role in his life and in our family’s life for the next year. So I shoo him onto the field for baseball’s version of nine-year-old speed dating. I want the right men with clipboards. And I want him to win a bit more this year.
It never really gets too cold to play baseball in Georgia, and most of the boys out today, including Henry, play ball year round. He started last August with his old team—his first experience with travel ball and kid pitch—had a month off for winter holidays, began tournaments again in the very early spring and went straight on through the ridiculously hot summer to finish in July at a “World Series” for eight year olds. He played more than 100 games and averaged six hours a week at practices. The time and stats shock me a bit, but as I watch him lazily throw a ball 75 feet straight into a coach’s glove, I think he’s making it look easy. So here I am in the stands, another over-eager parent trying to line up a team for my son, talking politely to a mom wearing last season’s spiritwear. She can’t take her eyes off her own kid. The dads here tend to pace around or drape their bodies on the chain-link outfield fence, straining against it like a cage they want to get into. It’s killing some of them, trying to keep quiet, and, honestly, I have a hard time not shouting “LOOK ALIVE” when a dribbler rolls to a stop at Henry’s feet. Why isn’t he charging the ball? It’s bad form to coach your kid at a tryout, and I hear coaches will pass over players with obnoxious parents. Given travel ball’s cost, commitment, and competitiveness, parents do get a little silly. In my head, I write the picture postcard advertisement for our travel ball experience this past year. Spend more time with these people than you do with your own family! Give up weekends in the mountains! Visit real places named after fake places in Gone With the Wind! Surround yourself with people who cheer too loud, drink too much, tattoo their ankles, and craft!
In the bleachers, I find myself wondering whether that quick run through McDonald’s has restored Henry’s energy, turned his scowl to confidence that he can fire strikes over the plate or throw a kid out stealing. And, when it’s his turn at bat, I tense up, my shoulders twisting as he swings. The overplayed news footage of the parents of the Olympic gymnast swaying together, doing her routine side by side in the stands, is dismayingly familiar to me. It’s hard not to dance along; the investment in the child as athlete goes to this twitchy, physical place, way beneath the brain’s cerebral cortex. Henry hits every pitch, but balls go foul and only one hit sails past an alert infield, planted with boys eager to shine at short or second. I do my own scouting as each boy steps to the plate and gets his five pitches. I count hits like a card shark and mentally sort the competition, as boy after boy swings and misses, jumps out of the box, or, occasionally, hits a monster to the outfield fence. Then I worry about the kid I brought with me, the serious-looking one with a smear of honey mustard on the sleeve of his white jersey. Earlier this morning, in the back seat of my Volvo, he was joyously singing along to Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” but on the field he’s a cipher. Does he stand out, look strong, have a shot at making one of the four open spots on this team? Does he really want to be here? I text these anxious questions to my husband, who just arrived and is watching from the outfield.
He texts back: calm down.
So, why don’t parents just swing by the county recreation department, slap down a check for $125, and bring the boy to a still-sweltering ball field for the first September practice? He’s guaranteed a spot on a team, the T-shirt uniform is included, and all the kid really wants to do is horse around with other kids, swing a stick at a moving ball, and blissfully chug large quantities of Gatorade with immunity from Mom’s reproachful, watch-the-sugar look. In rec ball, kids of all skill levels play on the same team. Rec leagues have drafts and distribute talent, but parents still stomp around and complain when First misses the ball Short threw right at him, when Centerfield loses a read on an easy pop fly. At the end of the season, the better players might be picked to be “all-stars” and play tournaments against other teams of better players. But even putting the kids into an all-star sorting hat is not enough for some parents; they want sport that’s more “elite” (a word so worn out in travel ball that it’s practically meaningless). So the upper tier of baseball has become travel ball. There’s no rec department, no casual practices; travel ball is weekend tournament ball only. A whole industry has grown up to nourish it, nowhere more seriously than in Georgia. When ego, ambition, tradition, and kids’ sports intersect, you can bet it gets expensive—dollar after dollar floats out of Mom’s tan and gold Coach wallet and toward tournament fees, uniforms, spirit wear, private batting lessons, and tanks and tanks of unleaded gasoline.
“Money.” That’s what Henry’s private batting coach says when an elegant hit zings off his bat and finds the exact spot it’s supposed to. Sometimes he’ll offer higher praise, saying, with a rueful shake of the head, “that’s money in the bank.” Um, his bank actually. Parents who spend ridiculous amounts of cash on a kid’s recreational activity can tick off a whole host of reasons for doing it. I know some of them by heart, and I’m often tempted by their rationalizations. I’ve written a $250 dollar check for six sessions with a batting coach. More than once. You only get real competition when the best players play each other. My kid can’t develop if he can’t throw a ball to a kid who can catch it. He’ll never learn the fundamentals from coaches who don’t know the game. I’m generally uncomfortable unpacking the reasons why my son’s sporting life matters enough to me to get silly about it, so for now I’m happy when the mom wearing her son’s number in blue glitter points to Henry and says, “that kid throws hard.”
A few hours after the tryout, the coach calls my husband (no surprise that these transactions take place between men). He wants Henry on the team. We are the first call. When I find out, I feel a rush of gratitude to him. He saw something in my kid, saw beyond his futile dive at a pop up that netted only grass stains, the weak grounder he hit to short. He saw how his fastball came right down the middle and not a kid could hit it. Not today anyway.