Just happy they chose soccer…
While I was recently interviewed in Arlington Magazine for an article on the ups-and-downs of travel sports, my feeling is that some of the greatest lessons for kids of any talent level can come from being a part of a house team.
Indeed, it is why I find it a shame when parents of elite-level youth players tap their fingers and roll their eyes during the house ball season, impatiently awaiting the end of league play so their child can go play “real baseball.” Some go a step farther, pulling their kids out of league ball and shelling out the big bucks to go exclusively with club teams all year long.
What the “club kids” miss out on is truly precious. For in hockey, basketball, soccer, and even football, one star can dominate the show. But particularly due to the pitching restrictions put on teams in league ball, the big fish is still small compared to the whole pond.
There is no “rover” or “center” that can patrol the whole field. There is no opportunity to take the shot every time. It’s the kid with the runny nose and thick glasses—the kid who dreams just like the jock of someday feeling the soft rustle of major league grass underfoot—that may have the ball hit to him (or her) in that crucial moment.
“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.” — From Arlington Magazine. Couldn’t have said it any better myself. Oh, wait…
Indeed, in what was unquestionably my Aces’—the “B” travel team I coach—best game of the season, I had the opportunity to actually show some strategic smarts (not my specialty area, admittedly) and prove that very thing.
Two years ago, my big fella’s B Team, the Arlington Cardinals, headed to a great little tournament up in Frederick and upset the host team in the first round. We were probably about evenly matched, save the coach’s son, who was an absolute monster. That was a huge day for my own fella, as he both started, and much to the protest of the players on Frederick, came back in the game to get his own save. I remember it well because my wife almost had a heart attack when we brought him back in.
My big fella is still jealous about the B-team uniform and logo upgrades
Flash forward to this summer, and my Aces are playing a Frederick team much the same, this time with a kid we called “Fish” because his last name was some type of gilled animal, though precisely which one now eludes me. This young man looked like he could swallow my skinny fella whole, and yet was faster than anyone on my team. I was told by one of my players that he was a friendly sort, coming up to our dugout during our 2nd round game and saying, “Hi, I’m [Fish]. I’m the best player on my team.”
And, of course, the most humble.
Come the semi-final, we were locked in a 1-1 game in the 3rd, and my pitcher who was dealing but clearly running out of steam had just induced a groundout with runners at 1st and 2nd got get that second out. Now, with two runners in scoring position, the big Fish swam to the plate, his shadow encompassing the entirety of the left-handed batter’s box.
I looked out to my guy, a wiry young thing named Tony, and you could see the look in his eye. I call him “La Tigre” not just for the Frosted Flakes connotation, but because he’s a kid who loves a challenge. But you could tell that he was running on fumes, and Fish was ready to reel him in.
I sat there on my bucket, wondering what pitch to call that might do the least damage, then something in the recesses of my brain crammed somewhere between Tickle Monster Base Races and Fuzzy Flies from Outer Space decided to spark.
“Tony, step off!” I yelled to my hurler. He looked at me blankly, finally complying on my third request. I called time, and jogged to the edge of the backstop where the tournament officials were scoring the game, and huddled with them and the umpire.
“What are the rules on intentional walks?” I asked. “Do I need to throw four balls, or can I just put him on?”
The tournament orchestrator seemed taken aback a bit by the question. “Well, uh, whatever the rules say…”
“I believe we’re playing by Cal Ripken rules,” I quickly interjected, given that was something I actually knew. “At this level, I can just put him on.”
“He’s right,” the umpire said. “That’s the standard 46/60 rule.”
“Allright then, do what you want,” said the official with a courtesy masking just a hint of frustration.
“Okay big fella, head on over to first,” I said, giving the umpire the point of the finger. “That’s my tip of the cap to you.”
We were all grinning after the big win.
The grin on La Tigre’s face stretched like the Cheshire Cat. He nodded, and it was like I had gone to the mound and given him a B-12 shot. Fish was on first just long enough to watch Tony strike the next batter out on 3 pitches. We ended up winning that game 3-2 in 8 crazy innings (inclusive of the boys spontaneously starting to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in our 7th inning huddle, an amazing memory in itself). It was perhaps the best youth game I’ve ever been a part of, win or lose.
And that’s it. No matter how good you are, baseball is designed to be a truly team game, by being a definitively individual one. That’s what makes it such a great teaching tool.
That, “It’s not always about you” life lesson, and the feeling of self-enlightened empathy is even more heightened in house baseball, when you have travel-quality players mixed with those who struggle just to put the ball in play.
For while the “Fish” moment was fantastic, to me, and even more cinema-worthy scene came in our final spring house league game, a consolation affair after a tough, rain-shortened playoff loss.
My Blue Wahoos were locked in a good battle with the Hot Rods, one of the better teams in the league who also got upset in the first round. We had lost to them earlier in the season in a game where we were defeated before we played, as the chatter of “they have five travel players on their team!” got squarely into my kids’ heads.
In the rematch, we were playing our game, and we were winning. A tight contest was coming down to the Hot Rods final at bat. And the game would come down to a kid we called, “Mr. Clutch.”
Yep, felt just like that.
This little second-sacker, younger than most, smaller than most, loves baseball with an undying passion. He earned his moniker by being able to tap the occasional grounder at the big moment and running it out for a hit, and I got all Mr. Miyagi-like when earlier in the season he lined one up the middle off a pitcher on the 9u “A” travel team. “You just got a hit off a Storm pitcher!” I said after the inning. “How does that feel?” I asked as he beamed.
On the defensive side, M.C. worked his keester off to make himself a solid defensive player. But popups were still his bug-a-boo. Indeed his Dad told me during the season that Clutch would demand they go into the yard and do nothing but practice popups, dropping them time-and-time again.
In that moment—two outs and the tying run on base—a high pop fly floated over his head. No one else had even a remote shot at the ball—it was his or it wasn’t. And in that moment, every Wahoo was invested in him and him alone; knowing that the smallest guy on the team was the only one who could come up big.
Mr. Clutch, now a seasoned veteran, on the mound for his fall house team. His Dad says even in a different uniform, he’s still doing things the “Wahoo Way.”
Had anyone else made that play, it would have been sweet, but the explosion of joy that erupted from the entire team when that ball rattled and stuck in Mr. Clutch’s glove turned that memory into something so much more than that both for him, and for us. Indeed, both the Hot Rods and Wahoos among my Aces, and they still talk about that catch.
Now I do understand the pull of high-level competitive youth baseball. Talented players should have the opportunity of playing with and against other talented players to help them learn to play at a higher level. My concern is, however, that Club Teams are the pricey siren song that allows talented players to shed core experiences that make baseball something bigger than the game itself.
So if you have a talented kid who is simply just better than the rest, think twice before pulling the plug on house ball. I’ll also add that it’s equally important to disabuse those kids of the notion that house league play is just practice until “real” baseball starts in the summer. Kids who do this disrespect the importance and efforts of those kids whose only season is the house season might are missing out on what the game is really all about.
So to all you are-or-would-be travel parents, do remember that your young star isn’t likely on a path to the big leagues. It is the memories he makes and the lessons she takes from “Mr. Clutch” moments may well be more important in the long run than anything that happens in that summer travel tournament.