Catching Hell

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The following is largely off-topic but plausibly a part of the ongoing Tales of ’73 series. Read it or don’t, your choice.

I’ve mentioned before how I associate certain songs with playing organized park-and-rec baseball in the summer, which I did between the ages of nine (or maybe it was eight) and 13. On a recent weekend trip, we got to watch one of our nephews play Little League, and as I sat there, I thought about how different his experience is from mine.

At our nephew’s game, the stands were full of parents and grandparents (and uncles and aunts) cheering their kids on. When I played, the stands were usually almost empty. A few mothers would be there to watch, including my own, if she didn’t have an hour’s worth of errands to run during the game. I am pretty sure Dad (who had been a decent ballplayer as a young man) never saw me play—on a sunny summer weekday good enough for baseball, he’d have farm work to do. (That didn’t bother me. It’s just the way it was.)

Our nephews play as part of the official Little League organization, with traveling all-star teams and the theoretical chance to play in the Little League World Series. Our Little League was just a name. In fact, when I was nine/eight/whatever, the league I played in was called Midget League. It may have been a coach-pitched league, although I can no longer remember. The teams had names like Mets and Cubs and Giants, and I played in it for a year, maybe two. At some later point, I aged up to Little League. There, the teams had actual sponsors—my team one year was Monroe Glass Company. It was no longer a coach-pitched league, but it remained pretty informal. There were no individual coaches for each team, as in my nephew’s league; a guy from the park-and-rec department helped our teams get their lineups together and then umpired the games from behind the pitcher’s mound. And he must have made sure that the scrubs got to play, because I did.

The entire league was run by essentially one guy, so if I’m recalling correctly, practices were pretty perfunctory. We watched demonstrations and did a lot of drills, but individual instruction was practically nil. In the games, you went to your position and did the best you could with whatever instinct or talent you’d been born with.

This was a problem for me, of course, because I had only enthusiasm and a bit of instinct, with even less talent. I would require plenty of coaching to be anything more than terrible. Not only that, I wanted to be a catcher—apart from pitcher, the most ridiculous position for somebody with no talent who gets no coaching. But instead of telling me I should choose a position more suited to my skills, the park-and-rec guy put me back there, and the results were predictable.

Playing was hell. I had no fking idea how to play catcher beyond what I’d seen Randy Hundley or Manny Sanguillen or Johnny Bench do on TV, and the only feedback I got was my own teammates yelling at me to stop being so terrible. (The pitchers tended to be the best athletes and socially prominent besides, which added to the impact of the misery they inflicted.) The concept of supporting your teammates, practically the first commandment in organized youth sports today, was a foreign one then. I have suspected in succeeding years that permitting the scornful dismissal of the halt and the lame by the other players may have been, if not a deliberate tactic by the park-and-rec department, a way of solving a problem by ignoring it: the poor players, no longer willing to be torn to shreds by their betters at every game and practice, would eventually weed themselves out. And after the summer of 1973, I did precisely that.

I am pretty selective about the grudges I choose to carry, and this isn’t worthy of one. But I do think about it sometimes. The way I, and kids such as I, were treated wasn’t fair. We wanted to play, the same as the other kids, and we were willing to try and learn to be better players, but we were humiliated for it.

It stung for a while, until I made peace with my limitations. I played Church League softball for a few years after that, and on radio station teams when that was a thing. By then, enthusiasm was enough.

3 responses

  1. I never played Little League, but I did have an experience not wholly out of the realm of yours. I guess when I was in 3rd and 4th grades, I realized that many of the boys I knew were involved in LL, and I must have expressed interest to my mother about participating. The following year, she somehow heard when and where there was to be an organizational meeting, and trundled me–and probably my sister–off to it. I think it was on a Saturday. My recollection (which is certainly fuzzy now) is that we sat in the old high school gym for a couple or so hours, along with lots of other kids/families. However, when we left, I had not been (and wouldn’t be) assigned to a team! I don’t know how that possibly happened, but I bet my mom was furious about it. Maybe I was wounded, but it wasn’t scarring. I would have been terrible at the game, though I do wish I’d had the opportunity to try.

    My son did play coach-pitch for two years (he wasn’t great, but was at least as good as I would have been at that age); he bailed after one fall season of kid-pitch. I just wanted him to have a chance that I never did. My sense is that the coach paid more attention to the more naturally-skilled players, but I think it was an okay experience for my son overall.

  2. I played Little League baseball (“hardball”) in the summers of my grade school years; varsity baseball in high school; and then bar league softball for many many years with teams put together for recreation at radio stations where I worked. I raised my kids on baseball.

    Your experience with your nephew’s LL team points out the many differences between LL ball today.

    I have a somewhat similar cautionary tale of baseball (softball) from the late 90’s, when my daughter attended tryouts for the Freshman softball team at her Madison High School (the one named after a famous Wisconsin politician).

    I sat with a handful of other parents and watched. One girl did not understand the concept of balls and strikes. She said “in my middle school you stood at bat until you got a hit.”

    Damned if I know how their games ever ended, but illustrative of the “success for all” crap that was going on in Madison schools at the time.

  3. I had very similar experiences in youth baseball. The coach/organizer only seemed interested in the kids who were athletic. I seldom played in a game, only playing in the last inning or when there was a lopsided score. One day, a guy in my class who was a decent athlete (he was the center on our basketball team), but wasn’t playing on a youth baseball team, showed up at the ballpark on his bike in the middle of a game. He didn’t have a glove or any equipment with him. Upon noticing him, the coach/organizer approached him and immediately put him in the game. He had one of the other kids who barely played give him his glove and jersey. He and the rest of us scrubs remained on the bench and never played. It was then I decided youth baseball was a waste of my time and gave it up. Now, I’m around youth baseball as a broadcaster and it seems it is much better organized and the kids seem to have a lot more fun.

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