What I Think About Sports Dads (the Stage Moms of Little League)

Here’s the story I usually tell when someone brings up nutty sports parents.

At the first T-ball practice of the season, back when my son was 7, I introduced him to the coach. I told the man that Jake had begun playing only the year before, on a team named after a fine local flooring store. The words were apparently a trigger.

“I remember you guys!” The coach suddenly exclaimed, more animated than people usually are when discussing the marketing strategies of local flooring stores.

“We played you in the championship—you beat us 7-3! You had orange uniforms, right? And you had those little blond twins who were really good.” Here he turned to his own son, who ambled up behind him. “You remember, right?” The kid rattled off their names. This went on for a few minutes, and the whole time I stood there dumbly thinking, Wait, there was a championship?

I admit, I’m not what you would call a Sports Dad. It’s not because I don’t believe in competition or that I would prefer to issue participant trophies to all the world’s children. It’s more that I like sleeping in on Saturdays, don’t wish to burn my weekends driving to tournaments in neighboring states, and I’ll let my son skip a “big” game because we have tickets to see “Weird Al” Yankovic. In 30 years, Jake won’t remember whether his team beat the Brewers—should a T-ball team be named the Brewers, by the way?—but he will definitely remember singing along to “Like a Surgeon” and “Amish Paradise” for the rest of his life.

Truth be told, I wasn’t very good at sports myself; I was the kind of ballplayer to whom the coach would say, “Just try to get a walk,” code for: “Don’t mess things up—we’ve got a rally going.” And that was weird because the coach was usually my dad. My son’s T-ball coach, by contrast, could recall the score of a game played 12 months prior by children who, at the time, couldn’t be trusted to sleep through the night without peeing themselves.

This explains why Jake’s coach wanted little to do with my son. He overlooked him and focused on the other players. Jake—or Jake and I, more like it—didn’t take the game seriously enough. Jake’s the type of player who prefers to spend practices inspecting the outfield’s native flora. And that’s cool with me.

It’s not to say we don’t want the boy to have an experience that most adults remember fondly. After a few years off, we put Jake, now 11, back into sports. It’s good for him to have the exercise, exposure, socialization and, of course, the lingering hope that he’ll stumble into an activity that will one day allow him to buy us a house.

Frankly, though, Jake’s mom and I were hesitant to sign him up for baseball again because of the T-ball experience. One Saturday that year, we showed up for team photos, and the coach’s wife started shouting—actual across-the-field shouting—because the other team was taking ground balls on the infield while we were sitting in front of the camera. After one loss, the coach’s 70-year-old dad visited the postgame snacks-and-juice powwow shaking his head and saying, “Well, if that doesn’t make you want to start drinking, I don’t know what will.”

One morning all of the parents received this email from the league office: “As the season draws to a close and competition becomes elevated in tournament play, please take extra care on the way we act. Above all else, this is recreational baseball, and it is all about the children having a great time competing and learning. Let’s have fun, win or lose, and demonstrate a positive demeanor as good examples for our children.” They don’t send things like that unless a few people have already been charged with errors, so to speak.

It’s disappointing. It’s this thing that you swear you won’t do—get involved in leagues like that, with people like that—and then you wake up at 6 a.m. on some Saturday so you can get to the field and stake out a distant spot in the bleachers, a grown man self-exiled because he doesn’t want to hear the other parents complain about the inconsistent strike zone of a 14-year-old volunteer umpire. All parents—even the wackos—just want the best for their kids, what they feel is the best opportunity, because unlike baseball, you only get one swing at it. But when you’re cheering because an 8-year-old on the other team dropped a fly ball in center field, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of discomfort, right?

Maybe this puts me in the minority of our pleasantly suburban, Whole Foods- and Honda-happy enclave in Indiana: There are a lot of sports people here. Some of their kids have baseball practices or games five nights a week. Others travel the length of the state to participate in “championship tournaments.”

As we prepared for Jake to re-enter baseball this year, I wasn’t sure what competition level was right for him. Or for me. So I asked advice from my friend Jon, a devoted fan and the opposite of me on the Sports Dad spectrum—he’s great at coaching and time management. (I’m not kidding when I say I had to sketch a little chart to keep track of it all.)

There’s our local branch of the Little League, the international organization that hosts the Little League World Series every year. But Little League is open to everyone, and the really good kids play on travel teams. In the town where Jon and his son live, some of the Little League parents didn’t think their kids were getting enough out of it. They wanted fiercer competition for the more talented players, so they created a traveling team; there are also showcase and all-star teams. Now Jon’s at baseball games four days out of every seven, including Sunday doubleheaders. At one tournament, they played five games over 48 hours, the last of which ended about 10 p.m. on a Sunday.

“It’s changed a lot, even since I was playing,” says Drew Storen, closing pitcher for the Washington Nationals, who, at the time of this writing, were the hottest team in the majors. Storen grew up playing Little League near my hometown. “There are a lot more travel teams now playing year-round, which I’m not really a fan of.”

Ernie Banks said, “Let’s play two,” but when it comes to Little League, my attitude is more like, Let’s just play one, because we’re going to your cousins’ this afternoon, and I still need to make a Home Depot run. So we settled on the basic Little League.

And we’ve been lucky: Our coaches are fantastic. They’ve created an amazing culture of support and kinship among kids who haven’t even had culture as a vocabulary word in social studies yet. If one kid strikes out, the others pat him on the helmet; if he gets a hit, everyone lets loose a burst of energy that leaves me tearing up with pride like it’s the end of Rudy.

And thank goodness, because I love baseball for its ability to teach Jake life lessons. It’s especially great, for instance, for teaching failure. If you’re a future Hall of Famer making a teacher’s annual salary for every at-bat, you’re still failing 70 percent of the time. Learning how to win is important. Learning how to lose is, too. We want Jake to learn how to represent himself. We want him to learn how to work at something that he might not automatically be good at and stick with it.

Storen got that lesson out of youth sports. “Baseball’s great for that,” he says. “You get some coaches who are able to help kids of all levels. On a rec league team, you’ll have a couple of kids who are all-stars, and some who aren’t. A coach who can work with all of them can teach so many good lessons that carry over to life.”

There’s one lesson Storen puts above all others, and it applies to the parents and coaches as much as the kids: “Make sure you have fun. There’s nothing I like better than coming to the ballpark and hanging out and working. If we’re able to hold onto that at the big-league level, there’s no reason a Little League team couldn’t.”

Late this season, my Jake was suddenly slated to pitch during a game. The coach arranged for all non-pitchers to take a turn on the mound during the final game of the season, which is a bit uncommon. Jeremy and Sam F. did pretty well. Big Joey got into a little trouble, but fought his way out of it, largely by being 18 inches taller than everyone else on the field.

Jake was anxious, and by anxious I mean that he paced the dugout for four innings chewing sunflower seeds and not talking to the other kids. I was anxious, too. You don’t want to see your kid suffer embarrassment, even if learning how to get over that embarrassment is sort of the point of this whole Little League endeavor.

You know what? Jake did great. He got two outs—gave up a few hits in the process and drilled one kid in the back, which I think was OK because it instilled a healthy fear in the whole Orioles dugout. (“Who is that pitcher?” I imagined them mumbling. “HE’S LIABLE TO DO ANYTHING!”)

The best part was the simple fact that he actually got himself to the mound. He overcame his fear, which is exactly what I want him to get out of baseball: the confidence to try new things.

I didn’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. and drive three hours across the state to help him attain that confidence. It was more like three minutes to the local field—a bit longer on the way home, considering the stop for ice cream. 

From Little Leaguers to the highest of pros, it takes an effective coach to succeed. Read about why (not crazy) coaches are the real reason athletes win. 

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Jeff Vrabel

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