Hard Ball

True confessions of a travel baseball dad.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

My oldest son can throw a baseball 95 miles an hour. I love saying that. I will guide any conversation or column—regardless of original topic—toward that number (this column was supposed to be about turtles). Waiting in the checkout line at Costco recently I was saying, “My oldest son throws 95 miles an hour” to a guy within 30 seconds of meeting him, according to my embarrassed wife. The conversation began with “I love taquitos, too.”

I throw my age, which is 49. Although I’ve coached my three boys on and off for 18 years, I still can’t throw a strike in batting practice. Last year I hit a kid in the crotch and he had to sit out the game with stomach cramps. I passed it off as a “cup check.” Hey kid: Welcome to manhood, and a mediocre Greater Loudoun Babe Ruth League assistant coach. (This paragraph is off-the-record.)

Through years of self-analysis augmented by occasional criticism from losers, I’ve come to the conclusion that, at various times in my life, I have embodied almost everything that’s wrong with youth baseball today.

I have wanted my boys to play on travel ball teams because I like telling people my kids play on travel ball teams. I have lived vicariously through my sons’ successes and blamed their failures on everything from bad coaching and bad officiating to undercooked hamburgers sold by the opposing team’s booster parents. I taught my oldest boy how to throw a curveball when he was 11. For five years I wore a Super Series National Champions hat one of my boys was given because he served as a pinch runner for the tournament’s winning team for two games. Bryce Harper played on that team, so I tell people my kid played on the same team as Bryce Harper. I still wear my 2005 Arizona Little League State Champion hat with “Coach Nelson” emblazoned on the side. It smells like stink bait, but I’m used to it because it never leaves my head on weekends.

Nine million youths between the ages of 7 and 17 played baseball in the U.S. in 2002. By 2013, according to a study by the National Sporting Goods Association, that number had dropped to 5.3 million. The numbers are nearly identical in youth softball.

Could the decline be in part due to parents like me, parents who sometimes let their own egos get in the way of their childrens’ best interests?

I still coach in our local Babe Ruth League, which has struggled in recent years to get the number of kids we need to field a league of just six teams. I coached in a Little League in Omaha, Nebraska, several years ago that folded the following year because of dwindling numbers. 

Then again, I coached in a Little League in Arizona that grew so much in the five years we lived there it had to be split into two leagues. The trends are disheartening, but the news is not all bad.

According to state and national statistics, other sports, particularly lacrosse and hockey, are pulling kids away from what long reigned as our “National Pastime.” Fine. Awesome sports. But another significant drag on community baseball leagues—and I think on the sport in general—is the exponential growth in the number of travel and club teams. Why? Because when community youth leagues die because kids are drawn off by club teams—teams often run by for-profit baseball facilities—communities suffer. The evening matchups among friends at the town parks disappear. All of sudden, youngsters who haven’t played the sport year-round since they were four, haven’t been getting lessons from professionals throughout the off-season and who may not yet be the fastest or the strongest, get left out. 

All three of my boys have played both community and club ball. While my oldest son, now 23, has lived for baseball, playing in college and aspiring to a shot at the pros, my youngest son, who I now coach, enjoys baseball as just a thing he does for a while in the spring and early summer. His teammates now are town kids from the Purcellville area with wildly varying skill levels. Some are wizards who will soon play high school ball, others are guys just out to play a fun game with buddies. 

Out of all my years of being a coach and a baseball parent at every level of play, last year was my favorite. Our small-town community league team in Loudoun County started 1-5, but ended on a 4-game winning streak. We worked on fundamentals, came together as a team, and by the end of the season, we were a fired-up band of brothers charging upward toward inspired mediocrity. I’d like to think we taught some life lessons and also had a great time. We had a rollicking pizza party at the end of the season, and that was that. 

I’d like to think these guys became better people and players without having to travel hundreds of miles with parents spending on training, equipment, hotels and tournament admission fees. I’d like to think they just had a good time while being cheered on by—get this—parents from both teams (we all have to see each other at school functions, after all).

And I’d like to imagine that at nearly 50 years old, I may finally be growing up a bit. 

So, from an old amateur to you younger parents: Your kids may naturally gravitate toward the club-ball rigors, but don’t let your ego be the gravity. And don’t pooh-pooh the community leagues. They need you, your community needs them, and you and your children may just have some of the best times of your lives by keeping it simple and staying close to home.

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