Say it Ain’t So, Chicago

My first year--still dreaming of glory.

My first year–still dreaming of glory.

After my seventh grade season was over, my coach came up to me and said, “Scotty, what are you doing this summer?”  Well, I did the same thing every summer; jetting up to New York to be with my father.  Coach pursed his lips and said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  I was going to name you to the All-Star team, but I can only name two players and you need to be available the whole summer.  Why don’t you talk to your Mom about it.”

The All-Star team.

The words reverberated through my very soul.  I had heard about it for years.  A couple of past coaches had said that I had been among their top choices because I always hustled and was good defensively, but there always seemed to be a slugger and pitcher ahead of my curve.

Being a painfully shy, introverted kid, I was not one to even consider rocking the boat.  My parents were divorced and summer was my one big chunk of time with my Dad.  The mere notion of not going to New York in the summer—missing out on my trips to Shea Stadium or being stuffed until overflowing with edible love by my grandparents—those just seemed out of the question.  And so I turned down the offer—as it turns out my only offer—to play summer travel baseball.

baseball-little-league-world-series-west-region-vs-great-lakes-region-850x560I bring up this story because of the difference between what happened to me back then, and what is happening now in the system that produced the summer triumph and winter pain of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League World Series team.

When the accusations came down about Jackie Robinson West coaches conspiring with state and regional Little League officials to knowingly falsify the borders of their league so that they could bring in those few extra players to help get them “over the top,”, Rex Huppke, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, said what many people were feeling:

There’s a sickness in youth sports in America, lurking just under the surface.  It’s a pathetic need among some adults to live vicariously through the success of children, and that need gets fed no matter what the cost.

The problem with that reaction, one I shared at first blush, is that it speaks to the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself.

Eight_men_bannedIndeed, it is akin to another Chicago baseball scandal of some renown.  For while Major League Baseball immediately addressed the surface issue of gambling and baseball, suspending the 1919 White Sox involved despite their escaping criminal conviction, it would take the game another half century to address the fundamental inequity of the Reserve Clause that gave owners almost slave-like control of their players fates.  It was this that allowed owner Charles Comiskey to treat his players like chattel; creating desperation and resentment that led Joe Jackson and his seven co-conspirators into the arms of the mob.

And, much like the suspending of those eight “Black Sox” was a Band-Aid to address the immediate offense, so too is Little League’s decision to punish the immediate wrongdoing—in this case creating collateral damage in the young men who did nothing but play their hearts out and represent the game of baseball in a way that paid tribute to the legendary name that their league adopted.

If you look more closely, however, youth baseball has a Reserve Clause-like issue of our own.  Huppke’s oversimplification of the problem with youth sports being “those grown-ups” actually does a disservice to a needed discussion, as it implies an, “It will always be this way…sigh.” kind of resignation.

I believe the more fundamental issue here is not jerk parents or jerk coaches.  Instead, it is the structure of youth baseball itself.

When spring rolls around and your local league opens its doors, the expectations are very different from what we are seeing with the Jackie Robinson West saga. Why?  Because everyone who signs up gets a chance to play ball.  That is what youth baseball is supposed to be all about—allowing kids a chance to start a lifelong relationship with our game.

What this often means as a practical matter is that players who might still close their eyes before they swing the bat are paired with kids that will one day play high school, college, or even pro ball.  Indeed, both leagues where I live, Arlington Babe Ruth and Arlington Little League, are constantly looking to tweak their systems to find the right blend between allowing kids to play with their buddies, and making sure that the teams are as competitively balanced as possible.

Many of these kids aren't playing baseball anymore, but I don't know one of them who is not still a fan.  THAT is youth baseball at its best.

Many of these kids aren’t playing baseball anymore, but I don’t know one of them who is not still a fan. THAT is youth baseball at its best.

This creates a special dynamic for youth baseball.  Unlike from what I have seen from youth basketball, soccer, football, or hockey, it is very difficult for a single player to simply “take over” a game.  The star player can’t bat every time to the plate; he or she usually gets up once out of every 11 or 12 times.  Most local leagues place strict innings limits so the star pitcher can’t be on the mound for maybe half of a game, if that.  Mandatory innings played rules ensure that no matter what skill level, players don’t sit the bench for more than one inning at a time.

The result is something that makes youth baseball an incredible experience.  Kids at every skill level learn that they must depend on each other.  They can see right before them that denigrating the weaker players on their team has a negative result that impacts them directly.  At its best, youth baseball teaches empathy, and the value of contributing to the best of your abilities.  It is teambuilding in the very best sense of the word.

Is that always how it happens in practice?  Of course not.  But that is the expectation.  A coach or a parent or a player has to work to make the experience ugly.  It certainly happens—I’d guess anyone who has played or had a child play a youth sport has seen it happen—but that really does tend to be the exception rather than the rule.  In many respects, this part of youth baseball remains very much unchanged from when I was a skinny little kid getting his one all-star invite some three decades (or maybe a bit more) ago.

In the spring, all the kids on that Jackie Robinson West squad played on a local league team, too—you have to in order to be eligible to play in Williamsport.  But when the local season ends, the baseball travel season begins.  And that is an entirely different animal.

Travel baseball flips the whole youth sports paradigm on its head.  No more “everyone can play.”  Instead the concept is that you are taking the best players in an area (or, as in the case of Jackie Robinson West, maybe a little more than an area…) and pitting them against other areas’ best kids. This concept creates an inherently different vibe.  For while the attentive coaches and parents can work to keep the focus on player development, teamwork, and friendly competition, the fundamental premise of travel sports elevates winning to a primary level.

Without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen more poor behavior among coaches and parents in one season of coaching travel ball as I have in all my seasons in local leagues combined.  Coaches that kick their 10-year-old kid off the pitching mound for crying (really, that happened).  Parents threatening to “go get their gun” when an umpire misses a call (really, that actually happened).  Coaches using a typo in our team’s lineup card to take a big hit away from one of our kids, and strutting off the field like they are some modern day John McGraw (I still can’t believe that one happened).

But the issues with travel baseball run deeper than just swinging open the door for hyper-competitive behavior among parents, coaches, and players.  I have also seen what travel baseball has done to undermine the value of local leagues.

When I was growing up, each local league coach selected the two top players on their team for the league all-star team.  This put real value on not only your skill, but impressing your coach enough to make him want to choose you.  This reinforced that “team first” attitude no matter what your skill level, as a talented but selfish ballplayer could get passed-over (and I saw that a couple of times when I was playing).

Last year, when I was put in charge of organizing the “B” summer travel team for my local league, I was told that I needed to have a tryout because everyone who expressed interest needed to have the opportunity, and we had almost 50 kids who were interested and we were taking only 15.  So I tried a hybrid approach in which we evaluated the kids and came up with a preliminary pool, but then consulted with the kids’ coaches to get some honest feedback.  That did make a difference, as several kids who were on the cusp of making the team were left off because of coach feedback about their hustle and sportsmanship.  It was a difficult, sometimes acrimonious process, but in all I thought it was a good one.

That, however, is not the process that my league is using this year.  Why?  Because all the other travel teams in the area were selecting their players for the summer team that previous fall.  This gives these teams a chance to play fall ball together, train over the winter, practice in the spring, and feel like a fully solidified team in the fall.

Finish Strong (and silly)!

Finish Strong (and silly)!

There is no doubt that such a system gives a group of kids a competitive advantage.  My Arlington Aces ended up on a big winning streak at the end of our summer season, and were the first B Team to make the finals of our local tournament.  But it took us the first 2/3 of the season for the coaches to really get familiar with the team, and for the team to feel like they were a team.

So now, both the A and B teams for our league are trying out in the fall as we don’t want to lose the “arms race” to the other league travel teams, not to mention the “club teams” that are independent of any league sensibilities.  For more on that point let me recommend Andrew McCutchen’s brilliant piece Left Out. Once we’ve selected these kids, we of course want to give them every advantage the other teams are getting.  That’s nice for the kids who make it, but by doing this it makes the house league seem like a superfluous requirement that the better players just have to do.

Indeed, I have heard a number of our travel players over the years scoff at the house games as “just practice.”  Having to play for the non-travel coaches and with non-travel players becomes an annoyance, and the best of what local league baseball can give to all players is diminished in the process.  At the end of the day, the players most likely to carry the lessons that house ball beyond the youth level are now, due to the structure of the game, least likely to truly inculcate them.

What those who led Jackie Robinson West did was a symptom of the larger disease that is the increasing “professionalization” of youth travel baseball.  And as one involved in that very phenomenon, this incident has caused me to take pause of what I am doing, how I will be coaching, and how my league approaches travel baseball.  For while I’m very proud that my son “made the team,” I have made sure that he knows that his pals on our Blue Wahoos team are counting on him just as much as his travel team is.

I’m not sure there is any simple solution, but perhaps by understanding the problem a bit better, we can seek paths that better enable the game of baseball to work for our kids, rather than the other way around.

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