Our 8-year-old son Ethan — whose dream is to be a Major League baseball player — was thrilled to play this year for a Hot Stove team. He was even more excited to be on a team that lost just one game all season, then went on to win the division championship on Sunday.
What we didn’t realize until after that final game was just how many maneuvers are made by some of the adults running this little boys’ league in an effort to secure a win. I am forever grateful to our coaches that they did not sink to their level.
We are new to this level of baseball. Our daughters played recreational softball, along with a number of different sports. Our older son played rec baseball, basketball, cross country, track. They didn’t zero in on a single sport, and we didn’t encourage them to do so. They were young, and we wanted them to try everything that interested them. Besides, we have been suspicious of year-round intensity in one sport: is that really good for their young bodies? We know a handful of friends whose children had knee surgery before they could drive. Will they be able even to walk without pain when they’re my age?
But Ethan is passionate about baseball. At every opportunity, he’s in the front yard, whacking a wiffle ball across the neighbors’ rooftops. If we parents were more athletically minded, we would be pitching a baseball to him in the fields at Greenwood when they’re not in use, but it’s one of those things that gets shoved to the back burner as a good idea while the rest of life sweeps us along.
We were blessed when our friend Tim asked us if Ethan might be interested in playing on a new Hot Stove team he was putting together. We knew he would get better coaching and more practice than he could get in Rec, and we weren’t sure how else to help him pursue his dream.
It turned out he wasn’t one of the best players, but he certainly was a contributor. A solid ballplayer in the making. Most of his friends on the team could throw longer and harder, some were better at fielding the ball, and he found it harder to hit the hardball than the plastic wiffle ball we tossed in the yard.
But he’s learning, and got better through the season. Sure, he was among the handful of kids on his team who took a turn on the bench, but he never spent more than two innings there. He played catcher or outfield most games, but got rotated in to the infield when we were significantly ahead.
In short, he got to play. His coaches were firm but always encouraging and they worked with him to get better. He had a great experience.
After Sunday’s win, we started hearing that some league officials would not have included a kid like Ethan on the team. Apparently a Medina baseball official advised our coach to only take nine players, and he would lend three of his players — from a team for which you must try out — to “help.” It didn’t seem right to bring in “ringers” so they could win, especially when those kids already play on another team. Our coach declined the offer.
We also noticed that the team we played in the championship had two boys who received medals as teammates who weren’t suited up to play. Were they were told to sit this game out — less-accomplished players who didn’t have to be rotated in to the game? That strategy nearly bit the coaches in the hind end when at least three times the game was stopped because their players got hurt. With no bench, what would they do if players couldn’t continue?
It struck us, then, how fortunate we were to play on a team with integrity. All of the boys played. They all got a chance to learn and grow — and have fun. None of them were told they weren’t good enough to play in the championship game.
What lessons are we teaching these boys when — at 8 years old — they are deemed inadequate after having worked hard all season? What lessons are we teaching those who are deemed “better” than those who had been considered part of the team? Or that you have to bring in ringers in order to win?
I assert those coaches set up a class system within their “team” that divides the boys and inappropriately leads to feelings of superiority and inadequacy.
It also frightens me that children who want to excel in a sport had better be good at it by the time they’re the ripe old age of 6 or 7 — or they’ll be closed out, passed over, and miss their chance to learn a skill among other kids their age.
The adults should be there to encourage and support the children — and if they win, then that’s great. These are real children with real feelings, not some fantasy team where you trade and bench fictional players.
It’s time for the adults in these leagues to quit playing games.