How to Save Your Child from Little League Baseball


Its pointless to say this to a 21-month-old, but when I see a 4-foot-8-inch superstar taunting his opponents from under an oversized batting helmet, I want to tell my kid that if he ever pulls that kind of crap, hell be grounded until 2020 U.S. Amateur qualifying.
Except to practice, of course.
Anyone who loves sports has athletic dreams for his or her kids. Those who deny it are kidding themselves. And its fine to want your kids to enjoy sports and competition as much as you did ' or hoped to. But things can get out of hand.
For Exhibit 1, let us turn to Williamsport, Pa., a quiet mountain hamlet for about 50 weeks per year ' and a madhouse of over-intense competition in a boys game for the other two. As one TV sports reporter said Friday morning, If you dont love the Little League World Series, justget out!
Well, I dont love it, and Im not going anywhere. And Im glad golf hasnt contracted Williamsport Syndrome yet.
The idea of the Little League World Series is great: A national stage for the best young ball players in the world. But the execution is flawed ' not fatally, but enough to make me uncomfortable with the whole thing.
If its not a birth certificate scandal, we have people checking addresses, and Little League baseball officials sweeping that under the rug to avoid another fracas. By that time, who cares if the kids live in Harlem or the Bronx, or whether a rule was actually broken? The taint is there like a cabernet stain on white carpet.
And just watch these games. The Little part is mostly ceremonial. Some of these 12-year-olds are bigger than I am at 41. What do they do, work for movers in the off-season?
More troubling than that, though, are the game faces you can see on the TV coverage. Focus is admirable, a good habit to get into for adult competition. But I wonder how many of these kids are having fun. I suspect an informal survey would get a lot of positive responses on the fun side ' but a little more digging would reveal that for some of the players, the Just win, baby attitude that got them to Williamsport has sucked a lot of the joy our of the game. I suspect that at least some of the kids who claim a good time do so to avoid parental retribution.
Junior golf has been mercifully free of such parent-generated, media-driven problems ' but not completely free. We hear far fewer stories about meddling parents, compelled by the complex psychological need to revive dreams of athletic glory vicariously through their progeny, essentially ruining life for the kids and anyone who comes with 500 yards. But theyre out there.
In my travels as a parent and an industry guy, I see the full range of parental emotion that we see in any other sport, said Wally Uihlein, chief executive of the Acushnet Co., which owns Titleist and other brands, and father of Peter, a successful player on the International Junior Golf Tour. Uihlein Senior has also coached inner-city basketball and (voila) Little League baseball.
Golf offers more opportunities than ever before, Uihlein says: Kids who grow up in the game can aspire to be touring pros, club pros, industry executives, or simply to use golf as a tool in a successful business career. And more people see in Tiger Woods the kind of over-the-top achievement any parent would want for his or her kid.
Everyone has to get mentally prepared as the demographic of the game changes and we bring in last years Little Leaguers, basketball players, and Pop Warner football veterans, said one junior golf parent. Bigger, stronger, more intense.
But even with golfs increasing popularity among sports-minded juniors, we rarely hear about bad behavior by junior golfers. Sure, its not front-page stuff. But even those of us who cover the game every day hardly ever run into a bad actor.
That may be because of the nature of the game, says junior golfs answer to Tim Finchem.
People say golf is the last bastion of civility in sports, and I think thats appropriate, said Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the American Junior Golf Association. To Americas 10 million-plus junior players, the AJGA is junior golfs PGA Tour.
Golf is such a humbling game. You cant hide behind a teammate or a coach, Hamblin said. And, he notes, golf has good role models throughout its ranks. The majority of players, from children to senior pros, behave well.
But just to make sure, the AJGA has a code of conduct for its tournaments, and every player has to sign off on it. Toss a club, take a penalty stroke. Use foul language, add strokes. You get the idea.
But its golfs nature that keeps most participants in line, both kids and parents, Hamblin said. And to be fair, he says, its not right to blame the media attention for the antics of the kid who taunted his opponents from second base in Williamsport.
It wasnt TV, Hamblin said. Likely thats a behavior that was tolerated before, and thats why he was doing it again. Hmm. Which is worse?
Whats wanted is balance, and junior golf, despite some episodes of bad behavior that any junior golf parent can recount, seems on an even keel so far. Winning is great, fun is great, balance is better.
I dont think junior golf is just about fun, said one parent. That would be nave. As soon as you put humans in a competitive environment, its competitive.
But ' and the same parent said this ' Sometimes you learn more when you lose than when you win.
Right. So bite your lip, tap in the miss, take your medicine and go on. And when you get the next 30-footer to fall, smile, but downplay the end-zone theatrics.
Believe me, Ive seen Williamsport, and golf doesnt want to go there.