There’s a feeling of in-between-ness around the A. house these days. The kids are in-between school years, no longer third and sixth graders, not yet fourth and seventh graders. Both boys are between sports seasons; for Thomas, swim is over and soccer hasn’t started. Henry is between baseball teams; his old team disbanded, and a new team has yet to rise up from the red clay. Upstairs in their new Greg Brady attic suite, the almost-tween and the almost-teen toggle between needing me and needing me to keep a safe distance from their “personal space.”
From what I can tell, though, this summer limbo rather suits them. When August washes the kids ashore on the island of in-between, they simply head for the pool and slip into the water to join the schools of brightly colored mer-children. Oblivious to time (and the worries of land-dwellers), they fin or float—suspended—until the lifeguard blows his whistle. Reluctantly, they hoist themselves out of the water and rummage through the pool bag for quarters to buy Tootsie Roll pops, which they jam in both cheeks like a pair of skinny walrus pups. Lounging on the island of in-between is to not even notice they are in-between. They just are. Summer just is. Occasionally, a boy will ask what day is it today?
I wish I could say that I’ve lived in their same blissful, sugary now for these last weeks. Unlike the boys, though, I’ve been all too focused on the fact that this string of days in late summer will end, the start of school looms, and now is the best (maybe the only) time to help Henry find a new baseball team for the upcoming year. And baseball is, he reminds me, his “main” sport.
A year has passed since I began this column, and we’re back where we started. It’s silly season again in the terribly serious land of kid travel baseball. The family calendar is checkered with important-looking red squares; Google alerts ring at worrying intervals. It’s time to pull the younger kid from the pool, pretend to wrap him in a towel but really hug him tight, and send him out onto the diamond to audition for the coaches clutching clipboards.
For help explaining my impressions of our second go at the tryout season, I’m leaning on the Georgia Department of Education. If you haven’t spent hours pouring over the GDOE website, if you don’t have a third-grade graduate living in your attic, then let me introduce SS4E1, one of Georgia’s Performance Standards for fourth grade Social Studies. Let’s get a jump on what the kid will be learning next year with some real world illustrations. He’ll probably turn up his nose and try to scramble back into the pool, but I wouldn’t be doing my duty to competitive parenting if I didn’t insist on the kid doing a little summer work.
SS4E1. The student will use the basic economic concepts of trade, opportunity cost, specialization, voluntary exchange, productivity, and price incentives to illustrate historical events.
I know, kind of heavy stuff for fourth grade, right? The most memorable things about my own fourth grade curriculum were square dancing lessons and color-coded SRAs. So, in the sentence above, let’s bracket [historical events] and replace it with [travel baseball tryouts]. Now, we’re ready to move on to a couple of subsections of the standard.
a. Describe opportunity costs and their relationship to decision-making across time.
This one is easy. We’ve been invited to spend two weeks at the beach with the grandparents. Only one of us (the almost-teen) is spending two weeks at the beach with the grandparents. Why? My answer, before getting schooled in GDOE GPS SS, would have probably been because we’re idiots. But elementary economics tells me otherwise. It’s actually opportunity cost! You have to give up something to get something else. We’re giving up a vacation with the in-laws, but we’re getting to take Henry to a bunch of baseball tryouts. We’re giving up two weeks on a salty South Carolina island, but we’re getting a year of baseball. I’m okay with the exchange. But I’m also aware that it goes beyond a one-off beach trip. The opportunity costs associated with baseball will continue to be subtracted from the family balance sheet for the next twelve months, just as they were for the last twelve.
b. Explain how voluntary exchange helps both buyers and sellers (such as how specialization leads to the need to exchange to get wants and needs).
Parents would probably prefer a system where coaches are sellers and parents are buyers. But the reality for most families seems to be that you have to sell your kid (or watch helplessly as your kid sells himself on the mound, in the cage, or in a line of kids fielding grounders at shortstop, all of whom have a pretty solid product). So, from here, it looks like parents are sellers and coaches are buyers. The irony is that once parents have sold a coach on the potential of their kid, they’re the ones who end up paying. A lot.
Tryouts are basically a marketplace, an exchange of talent. Parents scroll through online message boards to figure out who’s buying (holding tryouts), so they can deliver the goods (suited up in the back seat of the SUV). We won’t take up SS53E, “how competition, markets, and prices influence people’s behavior,” until fifth grade, but suffice it to say everyone gets a little stressed out and moody. At one point, I quit talking to Will for two days. Henry may worry a bit about doing well at a tryout, but we’re not sharing with him that it’s possible he won’t make a team. Supply and demand, kid.
This marketplace is not as transparent as it looks. The not-so-secret secret of most tryouts is that coaches don’t need to buy a whole team. They don’t have to find eleven kids. A team might only need to add one or two because the roster is mostly in place from last season. Coaches can afford to be really picky and look for kids with desirable specialties (the lefty first baseman; the catcher with a scary-fast throw to second). Well-regarded, established teams may get both their “needs” and “wants” during tryouts.
Some good news about tryout season this year is that the marketplace is expanding; there are even more teams for ten year olds than there were for nine year olds. We choose Henry’s tryouts (eight of them; I know, right.) based on teams and coaches we’ve heard good things about, knowing full well that several are long shots. In some cases twenty-five or thirty kids show up at a tryout for a team with two open roster spots. Henry does not come off as an “offensive difference-maker” as one coach put it us in a very nice no thank you email. Admittedly, my eyes are untrained when it comes to scouting talent. I see skills in all the boys, but the ones who hit cracking, arcing balls to the fence again and again definitely interest more buyers. When Will and Henry get home I ask the same question: how’d he do? And Will offers the same answer, always a little tensely. He was good. All the boys were good. It’s impossible to stand out at these things.
c. Describe how specialization improves standards of living
I see what he means when I take Henry to a couple of the tryouts. The talent is impressive; a lot of these boys have specialized in baseball. Most play year round, and, for some, it’s their only sport. I hear one dad talking into his cell phone—probably to his wife—and their conversation echoes ours: Wow. All these kids are good. Just wow. Look closely at the baseball marketplace and it’s not hard to see why so many kids in such a relatively small geographic area are so good at baseball. It’s pretty easy to turn up good ballplayers in Cobb County, many of whom are passing along their knowledge to starry-eyed kids in Braves jerseys. There are former major leaguers giving lessons and running tryouts, first round draft picks staffing camps and clinics; heck, Henry’s P.E. teacher at school has a son who’s an outfielder for the Colorado Rockies.1 This place has given baseball a significant role in its ethos and its economy.
If you’re a former ballplayer or a kid who loves to play, Cobb County isn’t a bad place to live. The baseball sector offers steady work and continuous play. It can be tempting to get cynical about the way the travel ball marketplace works, about the things we go through (and the money we spend) so our kids can take the field. But it’s also just a game. A beautiful game. And, after six years of being that mom in the stands, I can say that the people who play it and teach it and coach it and watch it really do love it. Baseball may not improve this family’s standard of living or bank balance, but it adds something immeasurable to our lives.
It’s a truism in kid sports that parents think their kids are better than they are. Sometimes I wonder, though, if writing this column hasn’t made me more aware of Henry’s flaws, made me worry too much about whether a tryout will ever show his strengths. Henry spent the last year on a rather notorious team with a losing record (16-38-1, if you’re curious), so other teams weren’t exactly lining up to recruit him. He has two, maybe three hours on the field at a tryout to attract a coach’s attention. And therein lies some of Will’s frustration at the process. What can you tell about a kid in two hours? For many coaches, the answer is enough. He gets a handful of rejections pretty quickly.
Here’s what you can’t tell about Henry. An anecdote: Thomas is away at the beach with his grandparents and Henry and I are still home, working our way through five separate tryouts in a four days. Late one afternoon we go to the pool, which is nearly empty. Partly to pass the time and partly to get some exercise, I ask if he wants to have a treading water contest. Magic words. It’s on, he says. For the record, I’m pretty sure I could tread water for hours if I had to, but Henry really has to work at it. His arms pump; his legs pedal. After ten minutes, I goad him a bit. Do you want to rest? Just put your arm on the ladder for a second. He shakes his head furiously and splashes me in the face. Ten more minutes pass and he has his eyes on the clock. Adult swim (I’ll have to get out then, Mom) is still twenty minutes away. Go ahead, I say. Rest for a minute.
He looks me dead in the eyes and says, without even a hint of a smile, I will drown before I let you win.
That’s enough for me. I grab the edge.
This competitiveness, this desire to win has always been in him, but it isn’t always visible and it isn’t always good. It’s something he brings to the game that a coach can’t necessarily record on a clipboard. When a tryout is more like a practice, his enthusiasm flags quickly, like the whole business seems to barely interest him. But when there are winners and losers, when a tryout is more like a competition, he comes alive.
A day later, Will texts me from over in East Cobb: Henry pitched a scrimmage game. Struck out 5 of 8 batters faced. He may look flat as he goes through the motions of fielding two-dozen grounders at short, but he comes alive when there’s something at stake, when there’s someone to meet his stare. He gets a callback.
We chose a team for Henry (or the team chose us) with a coach who’s taking a long view of the baseball marketplace. He’s making a long-term investment instead of cashing out after a year. He plans to keep the team together for three years and, when the boys are twelve, take them to Cooperstown Dreams Park, the holiest of tournaments in kid baseball. So maybe, just maybe, we’ll skip this circus next year. Maybe the coach will channel Henry’s drive, as well as teach him to value practice—repetition without competition—and the way it’s connected to performance (that’s “winning” to you, Henry). We’ll see. I’m thinking he may never be a star shortstop, but he might make a pretty good closer.
1 And there’s also the occasional glimpse of baseball’s less wholesome side, like the unpleasantness playing out a few miles away in Cobb Superior Court. Anna Benson, reality show personality and estranged wife of former Mets pitcher Kris Benson (who, as a kid, played baseball at the same park where Henry played), is being held for allegedly breaking into the marital residence wearing a bulletproof vest and ammunition belt, wielding a revolver, and demanding $30,000 from her husband.