*BEST of mamazine.com* Why My Kids Play Baseball
by Chip Powell

Last week, my two sons attended a baseball hitting clinic at Sacramento City College. For three hours a day, for two days, they did nothing but hit baseballs. Seriously, hitting only. No catching, throwing, fielding, pitching, or base running, just hitting. This was more my idea than theirs, and, admittedly, Henry didn't really want to go. At six, he was among the youngest age group even accepted at this clinic. In the end, they both had a good time, learned a lot, had fun, and hopefully improved their hitting skills in anticipation of the upcoming recreational youth baseball season. (I would say little league season, but apparently Little League is a brand name, like Funyuns or Preparation H. My kids play in the Cal Ripken Division of "Babe Ruth Baseball" in River Park. "Little League" is played over in East Sac.)

I also lobbied to get on the board of directors for the baseball league. I get to sit in the private room of a local brewpub once a month and argue with other dads – and moms too, thankfully – about how best to run the league in our area. The kids and I are out there on the weekends and every chance we get hitting, throwing, catching, running, and fielding. They like it; but trust me, they'd usually rather be home playing computer games.

I realize that I seem like a typical American, suburban, sports-dad. But I'll tell you from experience, among the hundreds of parents I've known from my kids' baseball and soccer teams over the years, the typical sports-dad is just a guy like anyone else who wants his kids to have fun and do something positive with their time. It is the great exception who will yell at his kid, the umpire, the coaches, and act like an all-around prick. Vincent will turn 11 this year, and this will be his sixth baseball team. Henry will turn seven, and this is his third team. Josie will start T-ball next year (I'm convinced she's the best athlete of the bunch).

Why am I so into this sports thing? Well, I think some parents will tell you the answer for themselves is no more complex than the fact that "this is what I did as a kid too." For me, I never played baseball, soccer, or any kind of organized sports. It may not be fair to my parents, or even true, but I consider this my downfall. My folks divorced when I was five, and my mom moved us down to Los Angeles at eight. My friends, both in Sacramento and L.A., all seemed to be on baseball and soccer teams, but not me. Did I ask to be? Did I beg and plead and whine to be allowed to don a little orange and white cap and play on the Alpha-Beta Supermarket Astros? I did not. I was shy, and not a joiner. The mindset for many upper-middle class white liberals in the 1970s was moving more away from organized sports than toward it, as Franklin Foer points out in the last chapter of his book, How Soccer Explains The World. My parents didn't explicitly say "you may not play organized sports," but they didn't encourage it, and I didn't ask.

The funny thing is though, I loved sports at that age. I played pickup football, basketball, and baseball at school or in the neighborhood with my friends whenever possible. I could name all the starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and hundreds of players in Major League Baseball. I was only an average athlete for my age and size, but I was crazy about sports.

Then my life took a bad turn in the sixth grade, as I started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. By seventh, I was a full-blown pothead; by eighth, you'd have to say I was a serious alcoholic and drug addict. My life spiraled downward, as I went from an honors student to someone who got kicked out of school after school. Life was about weed, cocaine, LSD, alcohol, speed, and of course heavy metal music (although I don't hold this against Iron Maiden and Judas Priest…in fact I thank them for making my days livable). Fortunately, and this is really a story for another time, I was able to turn things around before I finished high school. A drug overdose was the punch in the face my parents needed to get me some help, and I wound up spending six weeks in a locked-down drug rehabilitation center for teens. After intensive therapy, they spit me out and told me to go to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. I did, and it worked. It's 20 years later, and I haven't had a joint, a line, or a drink in all that time. That overdose was the best thing that ever happened to me, but by finding recovery I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, or both.

It may be this was my genetic destiny, regardless of whether my parents divorced or whatever quality of child rearing I felt they employed. But it scares me to death about my own kids. I got pretty fucked up, pretty young. If my kids go down this road, they may not be lucky or blessed enough to kick it, or simply grow out of it; they have my DNA in them after all. So even though this may not be fair, or even right, of all the things my parents could have done differently, I focus on this: lack of organized activities, and nothing to do after school.

So this is the reason my kids go to baseball clinics, where they can keep their skills up and hopefully participate in something fun. This is why I'm on the board of directors for the league, to make sure it remains a positive thing for kids, and not an avenue for neighborhood fathers to compete with each other. This is why we're out there getting our shoes muddy fielding balls in the winter. I want my kids to be on that team, to learn to get along with people, to meet lots of different kids, to wear those little caps with pride, and maybe every so often publicly achieve something that makes them feel good.

Last year, Vincent played third base for his team. Third can be a tricky spot because it's hard for little kids to make a good throw all the way to first. It's a long way, and eight-year-old first basemen will never come off the bag to stop a bad throw. They'll watch it sail by, foot glued to the bag, while the runner tears off toward second. Vincent did a fair job of playing this position, but one particular play stands out in my memory. His coach is a guy I still see around, and Bobby said to me the other day, "I'll never forget that play Vincent made in that game against the Angels last year. He scooped up that screaming line drive and whipped it straight over to first. A perfect throw to tag the runner out! He just looked over at me beaming, you couldn't wipe that smile off his face. He was so proud of himself!" It was Vincent's feeling, not the play, that Bobby remembered. Plays of this caliber were the exception for Vincent, not the norm.

I'll never forget it either. The spectators and his teammates were cheering like crazy, "Did you see that throw? That was a great play! Way to go Vincent!" It was the coach Vincent beamed at, not me…and that's the way it should be. I'm glad his ego isn't wrapped up in trying to please me; he knows I love him and am proud of him regardless. This one was for the coach and the team. He had stars in his eyes, he was so proud of himself. This is why my kids play baseball. Watching my little guys be a part of something bigger than themselves, and occasionally doing something really cool that people remember, something they can succeed at, something that occupies their time and gets them out into the sunshine. And maybe, just maybe, keeps them on the straight and narrow a little bit longer.

feature added on 2006-01-15 :: ::

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