Am I right in the head? Is any parent of a travel baseball player?
Summer after summer, I spent thousands of dollars so my son Jonathan could play baseball in dusty little towns like Monroe, Georgia, and Shelbyville, Tennessee, places where the humidity made me sweat like a pig — though the mosquitoes took to it like an aphrodisiac. Parents who formed cliques that any high school mean girl would envy, and coaches devised “systems” that always promised to propel my boy to the Next Level — and yet somehow, knowing all of this, at the end of each season I’d sign him up again for the next year.
If you thought, “Yep, wacky,” then let me try to explain.
It started when Jonathan was in grade school. I thought it was way too early to worry about getting him to the Next Level. Well, think again. “Ya know, Mr. Scott, all those other kids are getting a head start … ”
Sold. We were sucked into the vortex of travel baseball. And we weren’t alone. Youth sports as a whole is a $15 billion dollar industry, and baseball accounts for a big chunk of it. Of the 3.5 million kids who play in baseball and softball tournaments organized by the United States Specialty Sports Association — just one of several companies that runs youth sports tournaments — more than half play baseball.
So there Jonathan was, all seven years of him, playing in his first tournament. And it wasn’t just any tournament; it was an “invitational” (which meant it was only for teams that signed up and paid the fee). But whether we were invited or “invited,” Jonathan and his fellow Spartans looked sharp: white uniforms, black piping, Carolina blue hats, vests, and knee socks … we said yes to the dress.
Two moments from that tournament are particularly illustrative of the world of travel sports.
There was a team from Mississippi on an adjacent field wearing uniforms with the name of their sponsor, a missionary Baptist church. They were seven-year-olds just like Jonathan, and every kid on this team wore a gigantic fielding glove. From a distance I wondered, “What the hell is hanging from their elbows?” I had the disturbing misapprehension that these kids must have laid hands on some unfortunate leper during a mission trip gone horribly wrong.
But the glove was sure to catch anything that came its way, be it a ground ball or a microwave oven. Truly, the Lord helps those who help themselves.
The other moment occurred in our first game, when we learned that the parents of the opposing team hired a professional coach to manage their team of seven-year-olds. What the … ? I’d never heard of such a thing. Did the man have an agent? Was there a “tell all” book in the works with sordid stories from the road? Maybe a lurid anecdote about the shortstop stealing the second baseman’s coloring book …
At this level of baseball, the coach pitches to his own team, so it was Mr. Professional who faithfully threw meatballs to his little sluggers — until his team was batting with a one-run lead, two outs, and only two minutes left in the game (time limits allowed the tournament to cram the maximum number of games into the weekend). Since his team was the home team, he knew that if his next batter got out in less than two minutes, we’d get to bat and maybe, well, win.
At first I didn’t think anything of it, but when the batter stepped up to the plate, Mr. Professional had a slight smile on his face, one that Mark Twain would have recognized as the “calm confidence of the Christian with four aces.”
He prepared to pitch, sort of. He slowly shuffled his feet, rubbed the baseball, straightened up a suddenly arthritic back, reshuffled his feet, bent his knees, and then seemed to stare down his own player. Then he told his batter, “Step out!”
With the clock ticking down, Junior started dancing to his own precise choreography; he stepped out of the batter’s box and adjusted his helmet and jock (they learn early). I wouldn’t say he adjusted his gloves and belt, because that would imply a simple maneuver; it would be more accurate to say that he fine-tuned them and brought them into harmony with each other. He looked down at the batter’s box like it was a minefield but summoned the courage to take that first step, choosing just the right spot to gently … place … each … foot.
And then, finally … blessedly …
And the diamond became a dance floor again.
Mr. Professional ran out the clock. The SOB ran out the clock, in a baseball game for seven-year-olds.
Sure, there’s no crying in baseball, but there isn’t supposed to be a clock, either. One of baseball’s charms is that it’s a team sport that kids can play unconscious of time, at least until the sun sets. That’s how it’s played in sandlots and back yards, if not in tournaments and their overachieving neighbors, the Invitationals.
I called strike one on travel ball.
We didn’t advance very far in that first tournament, and for all I know the Baptist Big Gloves played the Professional Stallers in the championship. But before the tournament ended, we played a team with different priorities. Throughout the game, their parents were cheering, coaching, laughing. They were all African American, and they had the sense not to spend a lot of money on uniforms with stylish accents. But several of the parents made their own fashion statement; they wore t-shirts with words made of gold sequins saying, “We All We Got.” They didn’t pay a coach to manage the clock.
As that first season went on, there were some moments that made some of the nonsense worth it — like the July 4 weekend when Jonathan hit the ball just out of the shortstop’s reach into the outfield. It was a thrill to watch, a seeing eye-line drive that split the gap so perfectly it seemed foreordained to be something special. As it rolled all the way to the fence, my somewhat tall, slightly lanky son was rounding the bases like a gazelle (well, more like a giraffe) with one goal in mind. He was heading home when the shortstop, who was beaten by the ball on its way out, caught the relay and threw a strike to the catcher just as Jonathan was sliding.
The dirty uniform proving his grit, the umpire making the dramatic call, the teammates springing out of the dugout — and the father yelling, “Slide! Slide!” — none of that would’ve happened in a sandlot.
Fast forward six years to when Jonathan was 13 and we both learned a lesson in theology.
I should start by saying that I don’t believe in the Greek gods because none of them inspired anyone to invent baseball. It would seem natural for deities that relish treating mortals like playthings; they’d decide which blooper would fall, which line drive would get caught, and which steroid user would get caught (and which agent would get to write the press release saying his client “thought he was drinking fruit punch, honest!”). There’s something about the game that screams at mortal man, “You’re not in control!”
We learned our lesson early in the season. As a 12-year-old, Jonathan had the best batting average on the team, but when he turned 13 it was pure hubris that made him want to swing a big bat, one befitting the slugger he thought he was. He fell into an awful slump. No doubt Nemesis was working his magic. I told him the bat was too heavy, but he wouldn’t listen. In fact, he’d planned to swing the heavy lumber at the following weekend’s “wood bat” tournament. Great.
But whaddya know, the heavy wood bat went missing. Jonathan would have to borrow a bat from one of his teammates, and thankfully they were all mortals.
We were pulling out of the driveway to go to the tournament where I was sure that Jonathan would break out of his slump when … ping! … his sister texted that she’d found the bat. When the game started and Jonathan stepped up to the plate like a caveman dragging his club, I folded my arms and thought, “The hardest lessons are learned by yourself. This will teach him to listen to his dad.”
Jonathan smacked a double. Then he got another hit. And another.
And Nemesis was just getting started. In fact, he ate my lunch.
In his first 11 at bats that weekend, the little bastard got 11 hits. He finished the tournament 11 for 12. As Jonathan likes to put it, “We learned a very valuable lesson that weekend, didn’t we?”
It was emblematic of another feature of travel ball: the strange role reversal that takes place between boys and men. One time, a teammate’s dad saw the local high school baseball coach across the field. I struggle to describe the look on his face when he saw the man who could make all of his dreams for his son come true. (If I was a 19th-century Romantic novelist I would say he had “swimming eyes,” but I’ll use restraint and simply say that he swooned).
And then there were the parents who believed in a fairy tale. Instead of, “Once upon a time … ,” it always began with, “There’s this kid,” as in, “There’s this kid, he’s 14 years old and throws the ball 95 miles an hour! And he can mash, too — hit one 405 feet with a wood bat!”
They believed in This Kid, and they desperately wanted their kids to be This Kid. The problem was, none of the parents who talked about him ever saw him. This Kid haunted travel baseball, even though nobody knew where he lived or played. I bet he came from the Next Level.
And the Next Level? Watch out for the coaches with “systems” to “get” your kid there. Instead, find a coach like one of Jonathan’s, one who will take the time after a game to teach your son how to throw a curveball and work with him until the field lights go out and you call it a day.
Or find a guy who simply loves baseball and kids, someone who will see him playing years afterward, hold up two fingers to his eyes, and say, “I’m watching you!” It’ll always draw a smile.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a coach like Jonathan had when he was 12 and 13 … he and Jonathan were, simply, simpatico.
You know what I don’t remember? I don’t remember the umpires’ bad calls or who won and lost all of those games. And I definitely don’t remember anything about the work I left behind in the office because I had to go to all those “meetings.”
It grips you, watching your child play the sport you love. Kobe Bryant died just this week in a terrible accident. There was so much about his life that was alien to me. His wealth and celebrity, flying to a game in a Sikorsky helicopter (not to mention the prodigious talent and relentless pursuit of excellence). “There but for the grace of God go I?” No. But when I heard that he was taking his daughter to a basketball game, all the trappings of his stardom melted away, and I thought about a father who simply wanted to support his daughter as she played ball. Maybe she would have created a special moment for him that night. I felt like I understood Kobe the man, the father.
Jonathan and I spent a lot of time together. There weren’t a lot of words. Travel ball was our version of a fishing or hunting trip; it was father and son, and a lot of quiet time waiting for the special moments. Now, whenever I fly somewhere, I look down from the sky and I see a few football fields (and the soccer fields where my liberal friends insist they play “futbol”). But baseball fields are everywhere. You see different-sized fields clustered together in a suburban park, the oddly shaped diamond standing out amid square city blocks, a solitary field surrounded by farms.
And I wonder, “Is there a coach dancing down there, or a boy rounding the bases for his first home run? Or maybe there’s This Kid … ”?