Strike out: Feel-good little league misses the point
When I was a boy, I lived for baseball. I liked everything about it – the smell of the grass, the dust of the infield, the hardness of the baseball and the bat, the other boys gathered ’round in a huddle listening to the coach. Most of all, I liked our Carbondale rec league coach, a tall, rawboned man with a constant chaw of Red Man in his cheek named Cliff Hendricks. We all called him Coach Hambone. Coach Hambone was a fundamentalist like a revival preacher. He knew the rules of the game and insisted that we all learn them too. We learned how to “turn two,” “hit the cutoff man!” “throw to home” and how to hold the ball, check the runner on third, and then throw to first for the out.He was stern and he was tough. Coach Hambone was a master with a fungo, and I remember the time I was playing shortstop with braces and glasses, and, afraid of catching one in the mush, I ducked away from a sharp grounder. Coach Hambone became infuriated at my fear and drilled me grounders until, crying, I cleanly fielded 25 in a row. If I missed one, he started over.I loved it. I rode my bike to baseball practice every day, two-plus miles away, with my glove that I bought from lawn-mowing money speared on the handlebars. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the time Coach Hambone was short a player for his 11- and 12-years-old team, and asked me to join the older boys for a game against Aspen.As a 10-year-old, I was honored, and I repaid his confidence in the classic scenario – down three runs at the bottom of the last inning, I hit a grand slam home run to win the game.So, of course, with memories like these, I wanted my boys to have the same experience.It’s not that easy. There are not many “Coach Hambones” in the world. When we lived in New Castle, we enrolled our boys in the New Castle Recreation Department baseball program. It was mayhem. One woman took on the duty of coaching the team, and obviously her style didn’t match Coach Hambone’s. Instead of orderly lines of kids warming up, kids were scattered everywhere. Instead of a sequence of fundamentals taught in an orderly fashion, including proper throwing, catching and batting techniques, it was a chaos of swinging bats, fumbled balls, shrieking parents and kids, and more than a few tears.One of the main exercises was base-running. In this exercise, “feeling good” was the most important goal, and every child had to score. Nobody ever got “put out,” because that would make the child cry. I’m not kidding – one time I saw a kid make a double play in a game, and all the parents and the coaches agreed to keep the two runners on base, negating the two outs, so that the two base runners wouldn’t have to feel the pain of being put out, and could go on to score and therefore feel good about themselves.After we moved back up to Marble, we again enrolled our boys in summer baseball, this time through the Carbondale Rec League. To my disgust, it was more of the same. The order of the day seems to be chaotic coaching, a disregard for fundamentals, a lax attitude about the rules of the game, and above all, relentless positive encouragement. No kid ever does anything wrong or “bad.”Imagine this scenario: a mother in a brand-new $40,000 SUV drops off a 10-year-old kid, 35 pounds overweight, and by his complete lack of skills, it’s obvious that no one has ever thrown a ball to him. He seems completely unmotivated. His reactions are so slow that I’m afraid he’ll catch a ball in the face by not moving his hand fast enough to catch it. Regardless of his incredibly feeble efforts, his mother shrieks relentless positive encouragement for every little thing he does. He feebly waves the bat three times and strikes out. “Good job, Timmy, gooood joooob!” she shrieks.I got in trouble at one game by shouting to an outfielder, “Hit the cutoff man! Hit the cutoff man!” The team’s coach turned to me and snarled, “Would you shut up? He doesn’t even know what a cutoff man is!” I shut up.The whole experience was so nauseating that I held my kids out of baseball for summer 2004, and instead played with them in the horse pasture in Marble.So this spring I was encouraged when I heard about the Little League program in the valley. I was assured that this was “real baseball,” and the fundamentals would be taught and played. The teams would be playing to win, and the best players would be put on the field. It would be sharp, crisp baseball as I had known as a boy.During sign-ups and tryouts, I was asked to coach on four different occasions. Knowing that I couldn’t make each practice, I deferred, but offered to help when I could. My offer was accepted. I’ve coached pee-wee wrestling for five years, high school and junior high wrestling for a year each, and I’ve taught a couple thousand people to fly-fish. My wife and I have hosted about 6,000 people in our outfitting business, and have taught countless kids how to ride a horse, in situations such as crossing a rushing river and on rocky mountain trails, so I feel I have a little background in teaching and running a good recreational program.I helped the head coach run the practice, and at one point, we gathered the boys around and gave them an idea of what the upcoming season would be like. At ages 9 through 12, it’s pretty well time for a kid to know how to throw and catch a baseball and how to stand at the plate, right?No, wrong.Several of the boys had very poor fundamentals, flailing the ball like a seal hitting a beach ball with its flippers. I told them they had learned some bad habits, and they would have to correct these habits with good technique if they were to be successful in the game. I showed them correct throwing technique, and told them to go home and practice with their dads, the boy next door, a neighbor down the street.That night the phone system in Carbondale almost burned up as seven parents called the president of the Carbondale Little League to complain about my coaching. No doubt it was the first time these kids had ever heard anything but relentless positive encouragement, and I was the bad guy.I was asked to resign as a coach.Just so you know, I don’t boost my ego by saying mean things to little boys. I make a point of encouraging a child for what he or she has done well, but I also feel like we owe them the honesty of pointing out when a child has done something poorly, so that they can learn and grow. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Or should we just keep telling them they’re great when they’re not?Self-esteem comes from doing well in a way that we can prove, like the final score of a baseball game. It comes from turning a double play or laying down a beautiful bunt. It comes from knowing and practicing the fundamentals of baseball, playing a game, and winning. Humility, the partner of self-esteem, comes from learning how to lose, and lose gracefully. Otherwise, we’re raising a generation of know-nothing, self-important losers.Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he writes for magazines and shoots photographs for stock agencies. He and his wife, Doris, own Clinetop Press (www.clinetop.com), publishers of books on Labrador retrievers and fly-fishing.
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