Lessons in Little League

If you have athletically-inclined children who, for one reason or another, enjoy running and spitting and adjusting their cups, often at the same time, then you probably understand my fear and trepidation. Youth sports are anxiety-inducing torture sessions with parents who make The Great Santini seem supportive.

Yet, if our children want to play and even promise to take out the trash twice a week without complaint, what can we do?

Jacob and Zachary were never interested in chess or book clubs.

I tried.

So every spring and fall, for about seven years, in a row, I hauled my happy ass to Little League, stood in line, paid the deposit, and hoped for the best.

My nightmare begins

Shit broke down like this.

After two weeks of practice and a few rain delays, game day finally arrives. The sun is playing peek-a-boo behind just a few clouds in an otherwise clear and bright blue sky. A breeze doesn’t lower the temperature too much, still in the high 80s, but I sit in the shade and feel comfortable. Never a big sports fan, I’m now transformed by my children’s enthusiasm.

Marc and I are ready to see them kick some ass and have a good time.

Sports require skill and the kind of good hand-eye coordination I never got from drama and dance classes. Youth sports build spirit and self-esteem. Grades go up and the tendency to do drugs or get laid goes down.

That’s why I’m on board.

But sometimes there are problems.

Some coaches are insane. They scream at nine and ten-year old boys and call them names. I’ve watched a few take special pleasure in making the kids cry.

“Are those tears?” an assistant coach once asked his son while I stood there, incredulous. The kid stomped off the pitcher’s mound and headed straight for the dugout. Coach laughed. “Can I make anyone else cry today? This is great!”

Parents scream, too. Jacob and Zachary were once stuck on a team with a woman I called Crazy Mom, whose son was often the catcher. He sometimes made mistakes.

“You’re letting your whole team down,” she would chide from the stands. “When I get you home, I’m going to kill you! You’re an embarrassment!”

The anxiety was so strong, parents had to pace or stand off to the side. The pressure would get to the kids and they’d start crying while the rest of the team frowned and looked genuinely miserable.

“Isn’t this supposed to be fun?” I would ask.

Attending games at a local ball field feels like visiting a bizarre world where the most inappropriate behavior is not only accepted, it’s encouraged.

Kinda like Goldman Sachs.

Berating and degrading children, calling names, and humiliating them in front of their friends and neighbors is pervasive.

Every year it’s the same.

Dads with beer bellies as big as their egos, trying hard to recapture the glory of their youth as it slips further away, are a common sight. This is their life, all wrapped up in confronting umpires, screaming at kids, and starting fights with fellow coaches. For two or three hours every Saturday, they want to remember what it was like when they were kings, back when they had their whole lives ahead of them.

Now their best days are gone and their sons, goddamn it, are going to help them get those feelings back.

Lots of parents simply hate to lose. They glare at the All-Stars and criticize those parents who don’t seem to care as much, yet easily breed champions. It isn’t fair.

There are also many parents who are mortified by such behavior. Several complain, but when I suggest action, they walk away mumbling, “I hate confrontation.”

I hate it, too. But I won’t stand by while adults emotionally abuse their children. One Saturday, Crazy Mom screamed at her son to get out from behind the plate. “You are lazy or tired! Tell the coach to pull you out.”

Coach removed her son from the game and the boy took off his equipment, sobbing. I’d seen enough. I walked up to the stands and stood staring at the four or five parents who enjoyed insulting kids.

“What you all are doing to your children is insane,” I told them.

“Shut up,” Crazy Mom yelled at me. “Worry about your own sons! Get out of here if you don’t like it! I am sick of everyone telling me how to raise my son. I’m raising him to be a man.”

She continued to yell as I sat away from her and rolled my eyes. I didn’t say anything, because you can’t argue with crazy.

Her son proceeded to the dugout where he hyperventilated. Crazy Mom took him aside and tried to get him to drink some water. Finally, after attracting more than a few concerned onlookers, the poor kid had to be taken home. Crazy Mom insisted, as she escorted him, hysterical, to the parking lot, that he was simply “dehydrated.”

It isn’t okay to mimic and make fun of crying children. It isn’t okay to threaten them with physical violence if they don’t do well on the field. It isn’t okay to berate them for missing a fucking ball. One weekend, after a rousing post-game talk where the coaches told the kids they were embarrassed and called them “girl scouts,” Marc and I walked our boys to the parking lot.

“Are you okay after games like today?” I asked them.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I’m glad I have parents like you instead of them.”

I guess not all lessons on the ball field require good hand-eye coordination.