Playoff Week: Let The Drama Begin

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“I sit here so if I hear screaming and see that no one is on base, I know that I need to go over to that field,” the baseball director advised the assembled group of teenage umpires last night. “Please call me before you eject a coach.”

They have brought out the big gun umpires now, the recently graduated high school seniors, the tall, bearded, jaded guys back from college. Ladies and gentlemen (and I use those terms loosely), it is playoff week. Gone are the relaxing evening baseball games. Gone are the idyllic images of young boys engaging in America’s pastime on pristine diamonds. These parents are out for blood. Or at least, a trophy or a few braggy pictures they can throw up on Facebook to prove their parenting prowess (stifling a yawn).

My son, being fourteen, is no stranger to drama. He has umpired several games so far this season, but has been vaguely disappointed by the relative calm. I think he was really ready for coaches to question his calls, for parents to yell, for kids to stomp back to the bench in anger. Well, he is starting to get his wish now that there are championships on the line.

A kid ran for first last night and made a turn towards second and was tagged by the first baseman. “He’s OUT!” my son called confidently, smiling to himself, ignoring and secretly relishing the screaming sideline. Another kid barrelled towards second base but the second baseman did not apply the tag. “He’s SAFE! No tag.” Again more rumbling.

The college-aged plate umpire told him before the game, “They know I don’t take any shit.” Inspirational.

He’s behind the plate tonight in an elimination game.

Hey Blue

 

“This ish my final warnnning to all of yeeewww parents.” the umpire sneered at our sideline, swaying and visibly drunk. The parents were being typically irritating, especially so to a drunk. Screaming out commentary at every pitch and vocally questioning every single call. One mom, a pretty blonde and prominent local surgeon who is usually very mild-mannered jumped up and started to enter the field in protest. A few of us pulled her back as she screamed”HEYYYY! MY SON IS SAFE THERE ARE YOU FU%@#%**@%T# BLIND?” I am often fascinated by what baseball can do to the most reserved, classiest people among us. No, dear. He was not “technically” blind. He’s was just hammered and looking to earn a quick $50 bucks by umpiring a 10 year old baseball game. He was a brave, brave man indeed. What sane person would willingly enter the ego-soaked jungle of a youth baseball game? Perhaps the man had a point being drunk on arrival.

“NO NO NO NO NO!!! That is compleeeeeettttee bulllllshhhitttt.” the Dad coach implored to another home plate umpire who was all of fifteen years old. “It’s my call.” the kid said back simply and succinctly (I like that kid) but the Dad kept pleading and whining in the fading evening sunlight. Dude. Wrap it up. Its Wednesday night and the sun is setting on this meaningless game of eight year olds. Really.

“Well, I got thinking about it, and I think I need to change my call.” another hapless fool umpire said to a group of rabid baseball parents. Oh. Did someone mistakenly tell him you can show humanity and frailty in this very treacherous situation? “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU GOT THINKING ABOUT IT? THAT’S RIDICULOUSSSSSS!!!!” several of the parents screamed. It meant he got thinking about it. God forbid a man thinks and possibly admits… a mistake. Reminder – while everyone strives and rightly expects to follow the rules of the game to the letter, we are not affecting the stats of pro ball millionaires here. Most of these players are fourth graders missing teeth. (Come to think of it so are some of the the umpires, but I digress).

A few of them I really liked. Like the one who within ten minutes into the first inning tossed our (former, with good reason trust me) coach out of a tournament for mouthing off. “Out.” he said as the coach stalked away and stood within viewing distance of the field. “No. OUT of the facility.” that umpire said. Unlike me, that umpire knew to get rid of that guy as soon as possible.

And my personal favorite:

“Scorekeeper!” he’d call out professionally. “That’s me.” I said and walked over. “I will be confirming the count and the score  with you throughout the game and I will assume that you will confirm the same with the other team.” “Of course, sir.” I said back. “And what kind of tea are you drinking there?” he asked. “Chai,sir.” I replied. “I prefer Earl Grey.” he said smiling and walking behind home base to neatly brush off the plate and conduct a perfectly called youth game.

Now that my son is fourteen he is eligible for the umpire training program in our league. “Mom, I really want to be an umpire.” he said yesterday.

Well that ought to provide some good material this spring…

Participation Trophies – The Kids Don’t Want Them Either

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Last month Pittsburg Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison took to Twitter to reignite the now overplayed debate about the practice of awarding “participation” trophies in youth sports.

He wrote:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

Most of the parents chimed in with the cliché, chest-pumping phrases: “Kids need to learn that you don’t get something for nothing.” “Here’s just one more example of the puss#%*@% of America,” and on and on, proud of themselves for their toughness.

I don’t know about you, but in ten years of youth baseball I have never once seen a kid “cry and whine” until someone gives them one of these cheesy pieces of junk. Kids aren’t dumb. Even at very young ages they recognize authentic success. Ultimately, any trophy, whether earned or unearned, will really not serve to encourage or discourage them. That motivation will always come from within.

Like any kid who plays, my son has a collection of baseball trophies. Some of them represent long-ago epic tournament battles where hundreds of other teams were sent home empty-handed. Some recognize now irrelevant skills (like the one that says “Pitching Champion” for a 45 mile an hour fastball). Upper Chesapeake Baseball Festival Finalist. 8U Runners Up. 9-10 Tournament Champions. 11-12 Tournament Champions. That’s nothing to say of those with USSA Baseball and Little League and Ripken championship trophies. Frankly, they are all collecting dust. They represent a past achievement and anyone who knows anything about baseball will agree – past achievements mean nothing in today’s game.

Some of the trophies in my son’s collection were – gasp! – for just participating. They came from mostly when he was very young back in those simple days where the coach pitched and they had to call time so the umpire could go out to tie the second baseman’s shoe. I guess that at the time when these were presented I did not mind. I think there are much larger threats to our children’s drive and motivation in sports than these pieces of plastic. Hyper-competitive parents. Overuse. Over-specialization – to name a few. Did receiving these trophies make the kids entitled? No. Those that are can thank their parents for that. Did it squash their drive to want to do better? No way. Ten years later they are still out here battling on a much bigger field, with much higher stakes without a single thought for any trophy.

Grateful for Baseball

He  arrives at nearly every game my son’s team is playing – on a late Sunday night, or a very early Saturday morning, coffee cup in hand calmly surveying the crowd, studying the mechanics of the kid on the mound. On most Spring and Summer evenings, he is on a tractor, speeding across the eleven (11!) pristine outfields that he personally cultivates. He is unassuming, Zen-like and humble, quick with a smile and a hello, unpretentious and somehow glowing with a pure love and reverence for the game of baseball.  In the annual baseball program booklet, he wrote –

“Our goal here..is to slow your life down before its gone, to make it memorable and worthwhile. You can make your short time on Earth count by getting involved with others, giving of yourself, giving to your kids, and creating those memories that do last a lifetime….”

He speaks softly but is not to be underestimated or intimidated.  He stands as a vigorous defender of the policies that have upheld the integrity of this community baseball program for fifty years. Travel players are required to play on rec teams and are expected to serve as leaders and mentors there. Any travel players not meeting their rec requirements are ineligible to play in travel games regardless of their talent or circumstances. In a time where recreation leagues are dying at the hands of “elite” club and “showcase” teams, he is a staunch defender of community-based baseball for all.

Coaches that have pushed the boundaries of poor conduct or sportsmanship have been quietly removed and not invited back. “Well, I don’t always agree with Chris”, I have heard some say and I always want to reply “He doesn’t care if you agree with him or not.”  No matter who it is or whatever the circumstances, those who disagree with him almost always concede, “he does run a great program here.” Indeed he does.

He was standing next to us last night during the first night of the in-house tournament. He was relaxed and smiling and as always, I felt uplifted just by his steady presence. “Wow, you can really feel the electricity here tonight.” he said. “Its quiet every other night until that tournament starts then it gets very exciting!” he said with nearly the same level of excitement as the young men out on the field. There are some people that cross your path in life for whom you are truly grateful.