HOW MUCH IS TOO LITTLE?
HOW MUCH IS TOO LITTLE?
The game is over, the dugout is empty, and the field has been dragged. One team is headed to the snack bar or the parking lot. And the other team is jumping into a dogpile in the outfield. The jubilation of a come-from-behind victory? Possibly the sweet relief of a hard-fought tournament championship? Nope, the end result of a 10-run, 4-inning mercy at the hands of a considerably stronger opponent.
In some circles, that dogpile would be players throwing haymakers at each other; blaming one player or another for not tagging up, or failing to cover a base, or over-throwing a cut-off man. But, in this particular dogpile, you had a bunch of players who had processed the loss and moved on. Quickly. Too quickly for some. Much too quickly for me.
Here is the rub: For the past few years, I have had the honor of coaching a travel baseball team. Now, I realize that many of you immediately recoil at the thought of travel ball (although, if you are reading this blog, probably not), and all that it entails. Trust me when I tell you that everything you have heard is exaggerated and yet totally on point. But I digress.
Coaching this group of kids has been one of my greatest pleasures. However, my biggest frustration with this team has not been the strike outs, or the dropped pop flys, or the sometimes circus-like throws about the field. No, my biggest frustration has been what appears to be a lack of caring. Now, I am not a psychologist, but I certainly play one in the dugout. And to my knowing eyes, our boys care more about what’s for lunch than they do who’s on first. That said, I could be wrong, and this could just be the loosest group of athletes ever assembled.
But I often ask myself (and others): How much better would we be if the boys cared more? If they had that fire in the belly, would the outcomes to our games be different? I see other teams where winning is the only thing. They seem to do well. But, I don’t live with them, and I certainly don’t coach them, so I cannot say with any certainty that that is accurate. And, even if it is, to what end? They are, of course, “only 12” (or 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11).
Would it be better – for the team, for the coach, for the player – if every strikeout resulted in a chucked helmet or a slammed bat? Would tears on the mound result in more batters struck out? Or would tears in the batter’s box mean less slow walks back to the dugout?
Can a group of young players care too much? Can they care too little?
A few weeks back, I and a bunch of coaches, players, and fans were treated to a spectacle not often witnessed on a Little League diamond. We got to see a young man slam his bat onto home plate with such ferocity that the dish nearly came loose (this, before a pitch was even thrown). We then saw outrage (genuine, eye-rolling, jaw-dropping, foot stomping outrage) when the umpire deigned to call a strike. When this young gentleman’s team lost, he threw his hat; chucked his glove; and went Paul O’Neill to the dugout. And, for the final indignity, the player tore out the outfield grass as his coach attempted post-game condolences. It was performance art at its most absurd. Suffice it to say, this young Sam Kinison cared a little too much.
Is there a happy medium? Can we get our kids to channel their desire for excellence into actual excellence, without the end result being tantrums and self-flagellation?
Or is this just hard-wired, and we cannot change the spots on our pre-teen leopards?
Or is it situational? In certain circumstances, kids will feel the weight of the world and squeeze the sawdust out of the bat (metaphorically speaking, of course); while in other situations they stroll back to the dugout after looking at strike three without a care in the world.
I tell the kids all the time that they have chosen a vicious sport, a sport predicated on failure. You all know the adage: Fail 7 times out of 10 and you an All-Star; only fail 6 times out of 10 and you are a Hall of Famer. Over the past 6 years, there has been an average of nearly 1.5 errors per MLB game. And that just counts the physical errors. Hell, Mike Trout (everyone’s All American) struck out looking 53 times in 2013 (and was 2nd in MVP voting). Julio Teheran picked off 8 baserunners in 2013; 5 more in 2014; and has already picked off 3 this season. If that isn’t mental failure on the part of baserunners (at this point they should know he is pretty good), I don’t what is.
So, with that much failure at hand, how much caring is enough? How much is too little? How do we – on behalf of our kids – attempt to regulate this. Should we be pleased when a player comes back to the dugout and slams his helmet but then, five minutes later, gathers himself and struts right back out to play defense? Or is that too much emotion? Should we be pissed when he allows a ball to go through his legs or overthrows his first base, and just laughs it off? Or is that a healthy reaction to a game predicated on failure? I wish I knew the answer(s).
Maybe the lesson here is that we, as coaches and parents, need to care less. Maybe we let them fail and/or succeed in their own way, provided they are not harming themselves, their teammates, or their team. If they do cross that line, then we pull them from the game (hard to do as a parent sitting in the stands; harder still when you are coaching your own kid).
All I know is that baseball is sheer joy. It is frustrating as hell; it can be humiliating and maddening; it can bring outright happiness and downright despair. But it is a beautiful thing. There is a reason that the vast majority of the readers of this blog get a little tingle when Vin Scully intones: “It’s time for Dodger baseball”. There is a reason we leave the office early to sit in the stands or on a bucket for 2½ hours a few times a week for months on end. There is a reason we plan our long weekends around baseball tournaments.
And what we should want, more than anything else, more than winning or losing, more than success or failure, what we should want is for our kids – 30 years (or more) down the road – to have this same love of baseball. We don’t want them to burn out or learn to hate the sport (as too often happens). So, whatever mechanism they need to get there – tears on the mound, batting gloves torn from hands, giggles on the walk from the batter’s box, or dogpiles after getting their asses handed to them – we should support wholeheartedly. Because, in the end, it is all: