June 2008

Youth Baseball in Red Sox Nation: The Tryouts

“Tonight, you need to take your son to his summer league baseball tryouts, OK?” my wife said to me on a recent Sunday morning. No problem, I replied.  I assumed that every child would be placed on a team appropriate for his level of skill, and that my baseball-loving son would simply be auditioning to show coaches which team he belonged on. What is it that they say about assumptions?

56 kids showed up for the tryout at a field with four diamonds. Each checked in at a table and received two stickers with a number — one for the front of the shirt, one for the back of the shirt. Then, they all found a partner and started to warm up their arms. What a sight: 28 pairs of 8 year-olds playing catch, each with visions in their heads of making a summer travel team, hitting .400, and eventually playing for the Boston Red Sox. Even the ones who can’t catch and can’t throw.

Parents toting thermoses set up their lawn chairs at one end of the field to watch. I struck up a conversation with a friendly looking dad, and it was then that I learned that only 26 of these children would make a team — that there would be an “American” team and a “National” team (each consisting of 13 players) and that 30 kids would be cut. Those 30 kids would have NO team to play on this summer. (“The spring league is for participation,” the other dad told me. “The summer league is for development and competition.”)

I was stunned. In my own baseball experience, I didn’t face do-or-die tryouts until sophomore year in high school (I still remember Coach Cohen reading my name at the end of that tryout, indicating I had barely made Brookline High’s JV team. In fact, the stick I picked up off the ground and held in my hands as he read my name sits on my dresser, the only good luck charm I’ve ever had.) Thinking from the point of view of an 8 year-old ballplayer, I was stunned at the harshness of it. And I was bewildered by the idea of 30 moms and dads consoling their third graders about not having a team to play on this summer. What would I say to my son if he were cut? Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to imagine that conversation. The kid lives for baseball. It would be devastating. I decided to cross that bridge if I came to it, and hope for the best.

The children were split into four groups of 14, and they cycled through four stations (hitting, ground balls, fly balls, and live infield situations) where they were evaluated by two to three coaches, each scribbling away on his clipboard after every play. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the skills my son had developed during those endless hours of wiffle ball in our backyard, and the thousands of ground balls and fly balls we had practiced in our front yard, and the two seasons of coach-pitch little league were being evaluated right now. It occurred to me that if I’d known the cut-throat nature of our town’s summer league tryouts, I’d have practiced a lot more with my son over the last year. Then it occurred to me that it was probably good that I didn’t know this, since it might have brought out the the “crazy over-coaching dad” that’s probably inside of me somewhere, which definitely would have killed my son’s passion for the game. His wiffle ball experience will have to carry him, I reasoned.

My heart sank every time he swung and missed. I wanted to bellow some encouragement to him, but with all the other parents silently rooting against my son, it didn’t feel right. Then he connected. I was surprised at my pride. Then a line drive, and another one. A couple of foul balls, a miss, then a weak grounder to third. “NEXT!” yelled the evaluator, and he was back in the field. Was that good enough? I asked myself.

He looked solid on the grounders – got in front of every ball, kept his butt down, used two hands, made some crisp throws to first base. For a moment, I deluded myself into believing I’d taught him his technique — the truth is, he was simply imitating his favorite player, Nomar Garciaparra.

At the end of the tryout, the coaches called the kids in and had them get down on one knee at home plate. Then one of the coaches brought over a gigantic trophy and explained to the youngsters that last year’s 8 year-old team from our town had gone undefeated and had won that trophy, and that the tryout group couldn’t touch it until they had won the right to have their own team’s name engraved on it. Nice. 30 of these kids are going to get bad news in a few days, and now that news will be even more painful to receive. I assure you, none of those 56 kids was in a state of mind to be inspired by the trophy – they just wanted to earn the chance to wear a town uniform!

Part II of the tryout continued one week later. The kids were obviously grouped by ability this time, and I was relieved to see that my son was in a group of somewhat capable players. I just wanted him to make a team — any team! I hadn’t begun to compose my “Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school JV team” speech, and I really didn’t want to. 30 of us parents were going to have to come up with something to ease their pain, though. I dreaded that, for all of us.

In the final twenty minutes, the coaches had the players line up at home plate and they timed them running from home to first, then again from home to second. As the kids crossed the base, the timer yelled out the results for all to hear, and another guy with a clipboard wrote down the times. I felt like I was at the NFL pre-draft combine. Then, the five fastest kids raced, then they narrowed it to two, and those two raced…. and we have a WINNER! And everyone cheered for the fastest boy. (The point of this, other than pure enjoyment for the adults running the tryout, completely eludes me.)

On the way home, my son spoke with total self-confidence. He was sure he had made one of the teams. I suspected all 56 of the young men felt the same way. “If you do make a team, do you care which team you’re on?” I asked. Nah, he said, I just want to play. I was about 43 times more nervous for him than he was for himself. So, this is what it’s like being the parent of an aspiring athlete, I thought. (Butterflies, and a total lack of control over the outcome.)

Then came the wait. 3 days, 4 days, 5 days, and no word from the league. “Did you get an email?” was the first thing my wife and I said to each other when we talked on the phone from work, or when we arrived home in the evening. “Nope, nothing.” Finally, an email came late one night. Based on the recommendation of our evaluators, we are pleased to offer your child a position on our Summer Eight Year Old National Team.

I woke up my wife to tell her. We both felt the relief sweep over us, like we had just dodged a cannonball. And our son? When we told him the next morning, he was actually a little bit disappointed. Turns out he had his heart set on the American team, which he perceived to be the more prestigious of the two. Did I mention he’s got a lot of self- confidence?

I couldn’t help but wonder about the other 30 kids who’d been cut, all of whom wanted to play baseball this summer. And what about their parents? At the same moment my wife and I were feeling a rush of relief, they were all preparing their consolation speeches. What could they say? “Michael Jordan was cut from his high school JV basketball team” is a good start, but then what? Perhaps towns should give all parents a “handbook on talking with your child about tryouts” when they arrive on that first day. I know I could have used something like this had my son not been so fortunate….

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No East Coast Kids Saw This

There
are two minutes left in game four, and the Celtics are up by 4. The
Celtics have just overcome a 24-point deficit, on the road, for one of
the greatest comebacks in NBA Finals history. My 9 year-old son would
have loved to have seen this. Too bad the game started an hour after
his bedtime (though we let him stay up, and he made it through the
first quarter before passing out on the couch). A whole generation of
future Celtics fans is missing the creation of new Celtics legends —
even if they want to see it live. They’ll have to settle for the highlights on Sports Center
tomorrow. I know it’s a business. I know that’s why the games start so
late (9:00pm) and end so late (11:45pm). I get it. That doesn’t mean it’s not a real shame, though.

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Celtics Pride Remembered and Revived

As
I sit here watching the Celtics and Lakers compete in game two of the
NBA Finals, I’m experiencing flashbacks. I was a senior at Brookline
High School during the Celtics’ awesome 1985-1986 season, and I
remember that every Celtics game was truly an EVENT. “Let’s watch the
Celtics game — your house or mine?” You simply didn’t miss a game on
TV. Even as 17 year-olds, my friends and I were aware that we
were watching an historic team. My father, a basketball player himself
who, in 1954, was the center on the first college team ever coached by
Al McGuire, told me and my siblings all the time, “You will tell your
children about Larry Bird. He is one of the best ever. Why? Because he
makes his teammates better.” It was such a joy to watch that ’86 team
pass, shoot, and play as a TEAM. And do you recall? NO ONE beat the
Celtics at the Garden (well, they actually did lose a single game at
home that season, going 40-1). We were invincible at home.

I remember that my Brookline High School graduation took place
DURING GAME SIX of that year’s Finals, a game in which the Celtics beat
the Rockets to take the World Championship. The graduation speaker was
Kitty Dukakis (wife of the then-Massachusetts governor, and a Brookline
High graduate), but I didn’t hear a word she said, because the kid
sitting in front of me had a Sony Watchman (a rare possession at that
time) and we were glued to his black and white mini-tube. Everytime the
Celtics or Rockets scored, the new score would be passed through the
student body through lightning-quick whispers.

And
I also remember that Jim Craig (the goalie for the 1984 U.S.A. Olympic
ice hockey team) attended our graduation, and when I saw him there, I
ran home, got the Globe and Herald I had saved from the
day after the Miracle on Ice, brought them back to B.H.S. and asked
Craig to sign them, which he did. (What do you think these would fetch
on eBay?) I was much more excited about the Celtics’ victory over
Sampson and Olajuwon and about meeting Jim Craig than I was about my
graduation. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t remember anything at all about
that day were it not for the WAY I watched the clinching Finals game
and my encounter with gold medalist Jim Craig.

What will I remember 22 years from now about the 2008 NBA Finals?
Those two consecutive monster dunks I just saw by Leon Powe? Probably
not. Paul Pierce leaving the court in a wheelchair, then returning to
drain shot after shot? Perhaps. Kevin Garnett? Definitely. What a force
of nature he is. But often, what we remember about a championship is
related to where we were when the final game was clinched, who we were
with, or what circumstances were present in our lives on that day.

First, let’s win….. the memories will take care of themselves.

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What Have You Done 500 Times?

So
Manny finally connected for his 500th career home run (and then his
501st, 502nd, and 503rd). Only 24 people in major league history have
achieved this milestone. That’s one of the marvelous things about
baseball — performance is so quantifiable. We KNOW that Manny Ramirez
is one of the greatest 24 home run hitters of all-time. It’s simply not
debatable.

So this got me thinking — what’s the equivalent of hitting 500 home
runs in non-athletes’ careers? What’s a high level of accomplishment in
your field that only 24 people in history have ever reached?

I was a teacher for eight years. Perhaps the equivalent to 500 home
runs in teaching is having 500 former students credit YOU with having
taught them an invaluable life lesson.

For a pediatrician, how about accurately diagnosing 500
difficult-to-diagnose cases, keeping the patient and parents calm, and
prescribing proper follow-up care?

For a minister, priest, or rabbi, the equivalent might be delivering 500 truly superior sermons.

For a parent of five (like me), I’d say showing up for 500 little
league games, soccer games, swim meets, karate tests, dance recitals,
school plays, class art shows, teacher conferences, and graduations —
without missing one — would be the equivalent of hitting 500 home runs.

Probably during the season of 2011 or 2012, Manny will hit his 600th
home run. I don’t even want to think about what it would require to be
a 600-homer parent…..

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