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Baseball, where all kids can hit the fun zone even if they don't get into the majors

Baseball, where all kids can hit the fun zone even if they don't get into the majors
The boys of summer, in one of their more serious moments, at baseball camp in upstate New York. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

In our last episode, I had taken a baseball to the brain, a line drive that left me slack-jawed and unsure. "How can you tell?" was the general consensus after I complained about not being quite as keen as usual.

As part of my recovery, spiritual and otherwise, I'm now here in the purported birthplace of baseball itself. Each summer, our wound-up little town sends a team of 12-year-olds to upstate New York to play against drama troupes from around the nation.

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I say drama troupes because these teams, ostensibly representing all that is glorious about baseball, often devolve into cattiness and discontent. As this year's team manager, I've seen it firsthand: the Greek parliament has nothing on a group of suburban parents, each of whom is convinced his kid will be better than Bryce Harper.

It's not that the kids are spoiled; it's more that they are overly curated. They tote $400 Mako bats and travel across the country to attend these $1,200 baseball camps, and the parents, rather than turning them loose to play, hound them and their coaches, insisting on special treatment. With a crowbar, you could not do as much damage.

In a home run derby held at this camp, one lad from Texas pounded an amazing 19 homers. Another kid, fondly dubbed "the Big Nasty," crushed 11.

Odds are heavily against either of them playing much beyond high school. That leaves the rest of the kids, with their expensive tutors and pro coaches, in a whacked-out world where sportsmanship takes a backseat to winning, our national narcotic.

"I'm just glad it's over," one coach told me when his team was eliminated. "It's like a huge weight's been lifted from my shoulders."

Another day, I overheard a coach spend 30 minutes on the phone with an upset mom: "Look, it's not really my fault that Jeremy is one for seven," he said.

Yet, it is.

"For the past two months, my boss has wondered where I am," another coach told me, when describing the sacrifices he's made at work.

Where he was, boss, was dragging fields, arranging scrimmages, pitching batting practice. Many of these guys are volunteers, the best dads around. More and more, though, they are hired guns — pro coaches brought in to turn Jake and Hunter into prize college recruits.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong with that?

In any case, it was a memorable week — occasionally agonizing and once or twice transcendent. To watch a 12-year-old overfill a plate with starchy camp chow is still a fine and timeless summer tradition.

And, yes, moms, they did brush their clammy teeth. In fact, I left the bunkhouse one morning to find a boy brushing over a storm drain.

In short, the kids are great. OK, maybe 85% of them are great. The rest are either so entitled or just generally obnoxious that they can officially be described as "not great."

Then there were the games themselves, sometimes three a day, sometimes not ending till after midnight, a time I prefer to be sitting by the fireplace sipping absinthe.

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Look, I have been following baseball for 50 years, and I understand what a cursed and unfair endeavor it can be.

When grumbling over botched ground balls, most parents generally have no sense of how the ball came off the bat. Did it spin off hot, like a hubcap off a speeding car, or heavy as a wet snowball during a dewy early game?

Most parents have never stepped in front of a screaming hardball in their entire lives, especially one blasted by a 220-pound 12-year-old in size 14 cleats. All they know is that their kid muffed the play in front of the other parents. So embarrassing.

Collectively, we all need to take a breath when it comes to youth sports, to let the players play and the coaches coach. The chosen players will excel no matter what. The rest won't, no matter how many $100 pitching lessons you buy.

As Hall of Fame hurler John Smoltz warned recently: "Baseball's not a year-round sport ... [kids] are maxing out too hard, too early."

As for me, I've called a news conference to announce my retirement from coaching. ESPN and Budweiser are both sending trucks. Before a crowd of summer interns, I'll explain that, despite a lifetime record of 250 wins and 250 losses, the key metric for me was always how many players wanted to come back to play baseball again the next season.

And the smiles. Always the smiles.

Next week: A summer weekend in Manhattan.

Twitter: @erskinetimes

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