I spent the afternoon at my older son’s first soccer game, so when I arrive at the ballpark for my younger son’s first practice with his new travel ball team, the head coach already has the boys lined up on the right field foul line, and he’s giving them a little speech. Here’s the bit I catch:
“This is not rec ball.”
“This is not all-star ball.”
(In a booming voice) “Welcome. To. TRAVEL. Ball.”
(Peers portentously into each boy’s shadowed face.)
“This is BIG BOY ball.” (They’re eight and nine years old.)
“Your parents are paying a lot of money1 for you to be out here. You need to listen up, do what I tell you to do, give 110 percent to this team, and HUSTLE.”
At his words, the boys briefly stop fidgeting, and a few look up, probably not as sure of the distinctions he’s making as their parents, who have signed a pretty detailed “commitment contract” and have dutifully read over the article, “What is Travel Ball?” which the coach attached to his introductory email. A few sentences will serve as an executive summary (author unknown):
Little Johnny is no longer sheltered from the possibility of failure or lack of participation! One of the lessons parents learn when they’re first exposed to this competitive baseball concept, is that there’s a chance that their baby’s ego may be crushed… How so?… he’s never had to be evaluated against his own peers before, or even compete for something at such a young age… until now! The Reality: All of us as parents want what’s best for our children. We don’t ever want to see our children fail or experience disappointment! Baseball… as we all know, is supposed to be a fun sport!
All those exclamation points! The author seems almost giddy about the impending blow to little Johnny’s ego. On the existential question of the purpose of sport, he comes down firmly on the “crush ‘em” side. Thanks mostly to coaches and parents of a similar mind, travel ball has an exaggerated seriousness of purpose. From my perspective, travel ball can feel at times like a high-pressure job for an underaged, undersized laborer. And the question stays with me: shouldn’t baseball still be fun? Shouldn’t the boys enjoy being out there?
If I’m being honest, I’ll say Henry doesn’t play ball because it’s a-play-laser-tag-with-his-buddies-or-a-sneak-and watch-television-while-Mom’s-reading-her-New Yorker kind of fun. He’s out there, driven by some need from within to win, to be first, to do something better than the kid next to him. It’s a need that I used to think I didn’t identify with at all. But I surprise myself sometimes by how loudly I scream “RUN!” when Henry gets even a dubious base hit. The words come out of me unbidden, with the same explosive force of his red cleats clamoring down the baseline. His drive to round first and slide into second a half second before the tag is, at times, a proxy for my own competitiveness, which doesn’t get the same amount of exercise. Never has.
There’s no doubt this new coach is intense, but I’m taken by his dramatic timing; either he’s watched a lot of war movies or he paid attention when his high school English class read Henry V. He’s rallying his eleven little soldiers. From a rhetorical perspective, he deploys the emotional appeal quite skillfully to this band of brothers. Even the round, giggly, Falstaff-ian outfielder has his game face on. I think they’re all going to fight for him. Hell, I’m about to enlist too. And I’ve already read this play. I know that victory at Agincourt (or on some ball field in a shady corner of the county) comes with considerable losses.
The new coach is confident, clad in Under Armor, and a current of competitiveness hums just below his exterior affability. It could serve this team well, or, I fear, it could turn scary if the boys start losing. Despite my raised-eyebrow appraisal of his personal style, I like him immediately. And, here’s an important part, he was clearly a good ballplayer once. And, from the boys’ perspective, he still is. The energy with which he springs and pivots on the field is a welcome change from beer-bellied coaches who idle, relying mainly on overly loud voices and embellished memories of high school athleticism.
When we were considering the offer to join the Spark Plugs, my husband called around to ask some other dads what they knew about the coach—travel ball is, like most things in the South, a small world within a small world. One of Henry’s former coaches had said diplomatically that he’d heard people either love him or hate him. Honestly, Will and I were ready to chance it either way; the politics of baseball get ugly at most parks and parents always find reasons to lose the love, end the affair, break up with a coach amid mutterings of unfairness or dirty dealing. We did. I ask Henry, a squinty-eyed judge of character, what he thinks about his new coach. “He’s cool—I like him. He reminds me of Chipper Jones.” Chipper is a heroic figure, a bright, untouchable star in the baseball firmament. I predict his double will prove all too human.
When they take the field to begin practice, I watch Coach Larry work with the boys on how to lead off first and beat the pickoff throw back to the base. Get as far from first base as you are tall, he tells them. At that, Henry drops to the ground, stretches out from the bag, and draws a line above his head in the red clay. He’s eight going on nine, and he’s going to get this lead-off thing right. It’s the first time he gets to do it. The Spark Plugs have a lot to learn over the next few months, and fall baseball is usually used to prepare for the more intense spring season. Although Henry has played kid pitch for a year already, the rules for eight year olds, which he played by last year, don’t allow lead offs. This year, at nine, he’ll get to test his speed and reflexes (and the arm and accuracy of the opposing pitcher). Most of the boys on the team have never even batted off another kid; they’re coming from coach pitch baseball—slower, fatter pitches lobbed right over the plate. They’ve never pitched to a batter, never stolen a base, never run on a dropped third strike, never taken a fastball in the ribs.
The mental and athletic leap players must make in baseball from age eight to age nine is huge. It used to be that kids didn’t start playing travel ball until they were ten or eleven and had learned the game by playing in the more forgiving world of rec league ball. Now kid pitch travel teams start as early as seven (Henry’s eight year old team almost lost to a team of seven year olds—who could pitch with startling effectiveness). Most of this “start ’em pitching earlier” is driven by parents, who are always looking for ways to give their kids an advantage. Henry played kid pitch a full year before most of his peers—and it definitely helped him win a place on this team.
Moving up to kid pitch and entering the hyper-competitive world of travel ball in a single year will probably be frustrating for many of the boys (maybe more so for their parents who are used to batting averages that can easily go above .500). Coach Larry is slow and meticulous in his instruction and he doesn’t assume the boys should know everything already. When the next kid who practices the lead off points out that Jason Heyward goes a lot further than one body length from first, Coach laughs but shuts him down with a when you get paid to play baseball, THEN you can tell me how to do it. The kid drops to the ground and measures one body length. I’m optimistic (it’s early in the season) that maybe this coach can fix some of Henry’s bad habits and adjust his attitude, which tends toward (euphemism alert!) confidence.
Coach Larry sums up the game of baseball they will play from now on: “It’s Major League rules now, boys. Major. League. Rules.” Henry grins. At this moment, he’s right where he wants to be. His expression, as I read it, says, this is fun.
I think back to my older son Thomas’ soccer game just a few hours earlier. He goes to a small school in an arty downtown Atlanta neighborhood. There’s an urban goat farm next door and a foodtruck park up the street. Cars in carpool line are tagged with Obama 2012 stickers, and the kids do school service projects like pack up used books to ship to Africa. The summer reading assignment was a novel about a community garden in Cleveland. It’s the kind of school I envisioned my kids attending before I had kids and before we bought a house in Cobb County because in-town real estate was too expensive. Thomas doesn’t care much for competitive sports, but he loves the social part—being with other kids and just hucking it up on the field, on the bus, on the bench. This fall he wanted to play on the middle school soccer team, which is, no surprise, co-ed and has a no-cut policy the athletic director uses as a selling point for parents (very different parents from the ones at the Spark Plug practice, eyes hawkishly trained on every swing or throw). This soccer team is coached by the art teacher and the music teacher, a pair of hipsters who eschew athletic gear (even cleats!) and pace the sidelines in cool eyewear, khakis, and Wallabies.
It was the first soccer game of the season and the team lost—not a humiliating loss, but a solid 4-2 loss, with two goals off penalty kicks. When the game was over, the victorious Lutherans took to the field for some organized stretching led by their uniformed coach. The two referees walked past me, headed toward the parking lot. “Well, at least one team out there was coached,” said the first ref. “I think the other guys were just trying to encourage their players, pump them up a little,” said the other, somewhat more generously. I smiled to myself.
I’d like to think each boy is getting what he needs when he tosses a clay-stained baseball or dribbles a soccer ball. Henry isn’t happy unless he’s thick in competition, whether it’s finishing his math homework first or a speed round of dishwasher-emptying. Thomas avoids competition and lives for connection. It seems likely that their needs were determined some time, some place before nurture began to do its work. The first real word Thomas said was a garbled version of ‘Ella,’ our dog’s name. From his crib he’d call her and call her, until she’d wander in and lick the fat fingers he’d stick between the slats. Henry’s first word was “ball” (really!). He spent the first three years of his life with one clutched in his little fist. He’s still that kid who is always tossing something up, that kid who turns any object into a thing to be thrown. He walks through life forever testing gravity (and the patience of those around him), throwing things up for no other reason than to catch them again when they fall.
The first Spark Plug practice ends with the Team Mom arranging the boys and coaches into neat rows for the team’s first picture out on the field. They put on solemn faces or fake smiles. It’s Coach Larry who brings out real grins when he bellows, at the end of the photo session, “Now let’s get a thug shot!” In seconds the boys have turned their hats sideways, crossed their arms, and thrown out hand signs that they—in their sheltered little middle-class lives—know as cool.
For the record and because, now, I’m forever filing numbers away in my head (hits, runs, pitches, goals, dollars), Thomas’ soccer team went on to back-to-back victories over the Episcopalians and the Jews. He didn’t care much about the wins, but he made an effort to remember the final scores because he knew that Henry would ask. And Henry did.
1 So much that I can’t bring myself to disclose it yet. My father-in-law, who helps out with our retirement planning, may be reading.
2 No specific reason given, no verification of the rumor either.