Letting the kids bat themselves

June 25, 2000|By Louise Branson

VIENNA, Va. -- The muscled male baritone on my voice mail had a vaguely menacing edge. "Your son," it said, "did not show up for baseball tryouts. If he does not attend the make-up session this Saturday, he will be excluded from Little League baseball. There are no exceptions."

It was my first hint of things to come.

Thomas, 10, joined a long line of his peers, waiting to go through their paces -- pitching, batting and catching -- as coaches on the sidelines either salivated with the hope of netting the best or averted their eyes from a dud.

A native Briton, I was new to the world of Little League beyond neighborhood T-ball and Single A. I joined other parents nervously pacing the parking lot waiting for our sons to emerge.

"What do you think?" one father asked me. Would Thomas get the glory of the Majors, the still-honorable Triple A, the Double A or -- oh, the indignity -- remain in Single A?

It was all the same to me, I said. I just wanted my son to go out there and learn the game and have some fun. You know, be American. Wasn't that what it was all about? From the look on his face, it was clear I didn't get it. I soon did.

The season has been a crash course in the realities of Little League. I have learned about the big egos. The competition. The drama. The tears.

Of the kids? Oh, no. Of the parents.

After the tryouts, I received a call from the father of Thomas' friend.

"What level did Thomas get into?" he asked. When I revealed that he had reached the respectable Triple A, there was a sucking-in of breath. Some mistake had been made, he said -- his son was only in Double A. Another social contact gone. We won't, I guess, be having summertime barbecues in his back yard again.

Then the coach called, anxiously asking about Thomas' past performance. Who was his previous coach? What was his batting average? He announced a grueling practice schedule.

At the first game, fathers shouted instructions to their children, cheered loudly at every good play -- and got testy at the umpire's calls against their team. I suggested to one father in the testosterone-charged atmosphere that there seemed to be a lot of competitiveness in Little League. "Well, that's how we win wars," he said, without a trace of irony.

The mother of one player sidled over and began blasting me with stories of unfair coaches who had not given her son a chance. "Of course," she said bitterly, "it's only the coaches' sons who get into the Majors -- unless there's a shortage. Then they're forced to actually take some good players."

The bleachers seethed with complaints of bad calls, of unfair coaches on other teams, even vows of revenge. Things got worse. Arguments erupted over split seconds when deciding whether the clock had run out. "E.R." or "Law and Order" will never again seem dramatic in comparison.

Not that all Little League parents or coaches are suffused with this fierce competitiveness. The sheer dedication and patience and decency of many, if not most, is awesome. It's just that they seem to be drowned out. I couldn't help but wonder: what is going on here?

I consulted 50-something friends, a professor at Georgetown University and his wife who were considered model parents in their day. "I can't understand it," he said. "We left our boys at their games and picked them up at the end. It was the kids who were playing, not the parents."

Britain and America are indeed, I thought, two countries divided by the same language. The Little League parents' behavior seemed to underscore why many Europeans these days see the United States as too big and powerful, flexing its muscles with little thought for others.

Such raw competitiveness would certainly, I sniffed to myself, be considered bad form in my native land, where one is expected to lavishly praise competitors and play down one's own skills and achievements. The British expression about anything unfair or impolite is, after all, "it's not cricket."

But then I remembered the notorious British soccer hooligans who wreak havoc wherever they go. So perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps bad sports behavior is increasing internationally. And nowhere more so than where the self-indulgent baby boomer generation, as in Little League, dominates the coaching and sets the tone.

There may, however, be a glimmer of hope, at least in Little League.

I have heard of parents, outraged by the excessive behavior, working on ways to return the sports to the children. Suggestions have included having parents record their child's plays on special charts. The idea is to keep them so busy that they leave the games to the children.

America's chances in future Kosovos may then, of course, be put at severe risk. But it would be for an admirable cause: good old-fashioned sportsmanship.

Louise Branson is a British-born writer and journalist living in the Washington area.

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