For the first time in eight years, neither of my boys will play baseball in the spring. This fact leaves me feeling some regret, but mostly relief.
You see, we are a baseball family. We love baseball. We cheer for our team in good times and in bad (and because we’re Yankees fans, it is mostly good times). We even travel to see our team play in other cities.
Naturally, we signed our boys up for the youth baseball program in town as soon as they were old enough to play. At age five, baseball (t-ball at first) is fun, and funny. Most kids are just learning the sport. Some are more coordinated than others, some cry, and some chase butterflies. It’s cute.
My older son was a natural. He had a knack for hitting, catching and throwing. He loved to pitch and was good at it. He was a coachable kid and he was a pleaser. It wasn’t long before coaches were recruiting him for travel baseball.
Travel? Why would we do that? The entire notion of traveling to other towns to play ball seemed ridiculous for an eight-year-old. It was easy to say no. However, by fifth grade he was asking us if he could try out for the travel team. He wanted a chance to prove himself at a higher level of competition, so we said yes. He was so happy when he was invited to play on one of the two travel teams.
We then learned the hard truth about youth baseball. Before most kids have learned to swing a bat, overzealous dads have already decided which children will become the next high school superstars, the “A” team of travel ball. Never mind that some kids grow faster than others, are more coordinated or simply have early birthdays that make them bigger than their peers.
Sure, now that my son was ready to play travel, there was a spot for him on the “B” team. The more competitive, elite “A” team had already been selected a long time ago.
We didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, so when our second son showed athletic ability on the diamond, we decided to pimp him out to travel early. He was bigger than a lot of his teammates and had a good arm. He liked baseball. We figured, get him on the travel team and the rest will come naturally, right? Never mind that he had no clue or interest in what we were pushing him into.
Big mistake. We underestimated the behavior of coaches who used their power to prop up their favorite kids and dismiss those they didn’t “get.” At age eight, my son was not a pleaser nor was he a good communicator (he’s been in speech therapy since he was three). He didn’t like to high-five the coach. He wasn’t interested in showing off his baseball knowledge like some of his peers. When he hit the ball, it went far, but his coaches didn’t hold practices to make players with his potential better. They didn’t care as long as their own kids were happy — and so, mine was not. Game after game, my son sat the bench or played outfield, while his teammates made mistakes and were rewarded by playing their favorite positions.
Meanwhile on the sidelines, parents complained about the unfairness of the tryouts, the coaching and the politics of the organization. We pretended to be on the same page, while simultaneously these same parents were hard at work brokering more playing time for their sons. There was secrecy, deceit and dishonesty. It was starting to feel a little cut-throat for a team of eight and nine-year-olds.
My son doesn’t get upset easily, but at the end of his last summer travel baseball game, he cried. He wasn’t upset because his team lost. He cried because he played only two of six innings, and in positions where he never touched the ball. He cried because he wasn’t given the chance to help his team win. Worse yet, no one from the team–not a teammate, parent or coach–ever asked why he left the field in tears or why he wasn’t at the after-game party. Where was that sportsmanship that youth sports organizations tout as a key reason to play in the first place?
My boys are good ballplayers, but their experiences in travel baseball soured them–and us–on the sport. They needed a break from youth baseball.
We love baseball, but my sons don’t need to play baseball to be fans of the sport. There is nothing fun about watching parents tolerate coaches who shouldn’t coach and fret over what elite training programs their elementary-school-aged sons need to get an edge.
Goodbye youth baseball. You won’t be missed.