My 10-year-old son has just finished a second summer of Travel Team baseball –an experience we are all still sorting out. I played endless baseball (basketball, touch football) games when I was his age, but none of it was organized. We all met in the park and played. In fact when I was growing up in Manhattan, Little League was this strange thing we heard about in sit-coms, it did not exist in the city. But we’ve been in the suburbs for 8 years now, so I’ve gotten used to how organized sports is. This year, though, was a whole new level. The kids played 23 games in 30 days, including back to back doubleheaders in the 90+ degree heat, and night games under the lights. Baseball took over our family’s life — every day’s schedule revolved around the upcoming game — getting Sasha ready, figuring out who would go, providing for his younger brother, etc. And, as we listened to other families, it was clear we were seeing only the half of it. While Sasha was going to baseball camp during the day, before playing at night, some other families were already locking in their fall and winter schedules, complete with position coaches and specialized batting instructors, so that their sons would be super ready for the following year — when the boys would reach the big age of 11.
In so many ways, the Travel Team felt wrong — too much — a game had become a kind of professionalized career track. And, indeed, it was clear that for some families this was not sport at all, it was a well-organized plan to build towards a sports scholarship either to a private high school or to college. That simply is not what we had in mind for our son — a kid who likes to play ball, and is pretty good, though not great, at it. And yet, there were two great moments which made me think, perhaps — different, stressful, in ways even abusive as this structure is, it also has unique value. The first came when Sasha counseled me about an important decision — he said that I should focus on making the best of the opportunity, not on its imperfections. I asked him how he had developed such a mature psychological approach. He said it is because he has been having a tough summer, not being able to catch up to the high fastballs, and striking out a lot. He had to find a way to talk to himself, not to get down, to build towards the next at bat.
And that leads to the last game. The team had made the playoffs and won the first game. But they were in a tough battle against the best team in the semifinals. Down 8-3, Sasha came in to pitch. While he only gave up a walk, a ground single, and a bloop, the bases were loaded and it looked like the other team could blow the game open. The coach came to the mound and carefully, slowly, explained why he needed to take Sasha out and put in the kid who everyone knows is the best pitcher. Sasha had a lump in his throat, he wanted to cry, but he understood — he tried to “take it like a man” — to show his coach, the new pitcher, his team, that he understood. Marina and I could see his struggle. He got through the inning, but on the bench he was fighting back sobs. Then when he got up to bat, he was hit, hard, by a fastball, right on his very skinny thigh. He went down in a heap, and now could officially and with reason (physical pain of course being more acceptable than emotional pain) cry. He limped around the bench with an ice-pack, sure his night was over. He was aching in every way — feeling so lost, useless, out of it. But slowly he began to recover. The fine coach asked if he wanted to go back in to play defense, and Sasha (who was sure he could not play again) brightened up. Then in the last inning, when it was pretty clear we would lose, he came up to bat — facing the other team’s best fastballer. On the second pitch he hit the high fastball he had been missing all season, a clean sharp single. When he reached first base, he was beaming — on his worst night he had redeemed himself, fulfilled the journey of the season.
So what to think of this season — which asks too much of kids and families, which is not sports anymore, but economics and expectations, and yet, offers these amazing lessons — this chance for Sasha to go through a complete emotional/psychological/physical arc in a season, and, again, in one night.
Sasha’s coach sent me this link, a good article on the same theme: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703724104575379011786110460.html