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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Travel Annals: Would You Do This to Your Kid (and to Your Community)?

A local softball coach had a plan, one borne of frustration and disappointment from years gone by. He had dedicated some of his free time to the local athletic association, running a division of a recreational softball league for several years. He typically found himself in the championship game of a relatively small league (about 6 teams), and the observers noted that somehow he figured out who the best players were in the rec league and got more than his fair share of them. Perhaps the softball gods didn't like this, for his record in championship games is about 2-5. So, perhaps, in the rec league world, he's an Earl Weaver (very much relatively speaking). We'll call him Haman for purposes of this story.

About five years ago Haman coached a travel team with another fellow, one of the lords in the local world of travel softball. That experience didn't go well. The two didn't get along, and Haman's older daughter quit. She's now in high school, and she hasn't played softball for a while. But Haman continued to coach in the rec league, and his younger daughter continued to play. The younger daughter liked softball so much, though, that she opted to pursue soccer for her travel sport. Despite some whispering (which I took to be fawning) about the athleticism of the younger daughter, she ended up playing on a "C" travel soccer team. Translated, the "C" teams are typically put out there by the travel organizations if there's enough interest to have a team, but not because there's an abundance of talent in the organization (they sometimes are put out there to mollify local parents, who otherwise might be (rightly) miffed about their town's organization dedicating resources to out-of-town kids. In the fierce world of travel soccer, where organizations even recruit kids from elsewhere, "C" teams can tend to be opiates for the local masses). Writing has its harsh aspects to it, and this is one of them. It's great if the kids love the game, but if travel turns out to be for the parents because they have delusions about their kids' talents or ability to draw a college admission or even an admission and financial aid, well, then their priorities can be warped, especially if the child really has a better future in library science than in smacking softballs thrown at sixty miles an hour.

Anyway, Haman's daughter played pretty well in the rec league last year, but before you draw any conclusions that the rec league has ace fastpitch softball pitchers, think again. This daughter's good play was akin, perhaps, to being one of the top five hockey players in Ecuador. Again, the harshness of writing, because this girl, from what I can gather, is a good kid. So what does her dad, the coach Haman, do? Put on your seatbelt, because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

You have to understand that the world of travel softball involves traveling -- for practices. Local organizations for the most part don't have local kids on their teams (I do not condone this and believe it's ridiculous at a number of levels). Oh, they might have a few, but parents drive around with their kids to tryouts in mid-to-late August (and get private workouts before that), all with a view of finding the right spot for their kid -- a place where the player can start (although most teams carry only 11 players, so all kids get playing time), a place where the team has good pitching (because in fastpitch if your team doesn't have good pitching, you'll lose, perhaps almost every game, and get mercy-ruled somewhat frequently), a place with good facilities and, hopefully, a place where there aren't too many coaches for the team and where those coaches are realistic about their daughters' abilities so that the best players play the most important positions, get the best positions in the batting order, and, yes, play. Because of old grudges, politics, perceptions about organizations, facilities, recent track records and many other factors, rosters can change dramatically from year to year. Great players can pick their teams, and sometimes they band together to pick an organization to give a team a solid, critical mass going into a season. Of course, the coaches who take that type of critical mass have to deal with Type A parents, stage parents of sorts, and expectations about playing time, positions in the batting order and what not. Think LeBron going to Miami, but on a much smaller scale. As for putting local kids on local teams on locally paid for fields? Well, so long as the coaches have an "in" with the organization, they could care less about that. They just want to win (some of their posts on the message boards where they recruit and on their teams' websites talk about all the good they'll do for the girls, but those posts can be nothing more than attractive bait for ever-too-eager parents who want nothing more than to position their kids for the next level and, ultimately, a college scholarship -- other kids and the local organization be darned).

So our local travel organization has room for two 14 and under teams. One was a no-brainer, although not without some concern. The organization was going to let a 12U coach (we'll call him LaRussa) elevate his team to 14U. The criticism for LaRussa was that he was going to elevate an entire team, thereby promoting some kids who just weren't that good and denying chances to other local kids who deserved a spot. While LaRussa has his detractors (again, remember, if you are going to place your kid on a team, get to know the coaches very well, because the kids will be spending more time with them than with any teacher and, perhaps, with a parent), he was acting consistently with past practice. That said, LaRussa did somewhat unceremoniously jettison his entire outfield because they weren't good enough, even if they had been with him for two years and chanted his mantra. While there are players who will move yearly to find the best spot for them, coaches will shed players quickly, too, because town loyalty and developing kids come second to winning. As it turned out, LaRussa shed three local kids from his outfield in exchange for three kids who don't live in the town. LaRussa had his team set, a team that he might fancy to be an "A" team, but a team that really has about 1 or 2 "A" players, some B+ players and then a bunch of B players. And, basically, the local organization lets LaRussa do what he wants -- he isn't accountable to anyone (and, then again, the local organization really isn't accountable to anyone either).

Then there's the story of the other 14U travel team. Logic had it that the organization would elevate its other 12U travel team, and there would be spots for newcomers, because only 5 of the 12 kids on the 12U team had to move up to 14U. Everyone thought that the coach of this 12U team -- we'll call him Zimmer -- would coach the other 14U team. To make it more logical, Zimmer is best friends with the commissioner of the league. Sounded like a logical conclusion.

The thing is, Haman lobbied the organization to form his own travel team -- and got it. Zimmer -- fed up with his parents and somewhat overmatched, especially as a teacher of fundamentals -- didn't want to be a head coach. Most, if not all, of the parents of the 5 kids on the 12U team who would have to move up to 14U, knew Haman, and most, if not all, thought that their kids would make his 14U team, especially if it would include Haman's daughter, who had never played travel ball before. Moreover, these five kids consisted of the #1 through 5 hitters, and these were the #1 and #2 pitchers, the starting catcher, the starting first baseman and the starting third baseman. But instead of elevating those kids and basing a team on town kids, Haman got permission to recruit an A+ team. So, he didn't look at four of the five players for his elite team. The one he kept? Oh, she's Zimmer's daughter, as Zimmer became one of his assistants. Zimmer's daughter was a defensive wildcard (sometimes her fielding was precise; other times it wasn't), had difficulty hitting midway through the season and tended to get on her teammates when they made errors. But she was Zimmer's kid, Zimmer was connected to the commissioner, and, as Kurtis Blow once rapped, "these are the breaks." The other four players -- they didn't really get a look and were told -- by both 14U teams -- "sorry."

By e-mail. Not in person. It was as if all of the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, 7 a.m. warm-ups, long drives, cold or very hot days, and their hard work, didn't matter. Yes, they were not "A" players, but neither were Haman's and Zimmer's daughters, either.

So Haman posted on the websites, and he recruited far and wide. He showed up at all sorts of games all spring, and he recruited families. Yes, he was out there recruiting families of 13 and 14 year-old girls. He held tryouts a week before everyone else did, and his daughter didn't show up for any of them. Zimmer's daughter did -- she fared so well that in one tryout she missed about 20 pitches from the pitching machine. And, when all was said and done, the team has 12 kids on it, only 9 from the town, and one coming from as far as 2 hours away. All for a kid's game. As for Haman's daughter, well, she was so enthused about this whole endeavor that she told a friend of hers that she didn't want to play, that she'd be overmatched and the worst kid on the team. From what I've heard, she's been out with injuries, and the person who informed me of that suggested that they were psychosomatic.

So Haman and Zimmer got their kids spots on the elite team, four players -- core members of the forgotten 12U roster -- figured out one of life's ugly lessons that politics can reign supreme and people can act harshly in their own interests -- and Haman recruited from other towns and organizations the local 14U softball version of the New York Yankees -- three #1 starting pitchers, a catcher who is a female version of Joe Maurer, a third baseman who hits more homers than A-Rod, speedy vacuum cleaners at short and in center. They're winning many of their games, and the two top coaches' kids are riding the bench or barely getting into games, and, when they do, they're at the bottom of the lineup.

But meanwhile, the town is paying for the fields, the local organization isn't doing anything to develop local kids, the local kids aren't getting a shot, and the coaches' kids are on a team they don't deserve to be on and one of them is miserable. The non-residents on the team love the facilities -- they're some of the best around. But what is this team, really? It's one thing if they are going to be together from year to year, but they're not, as they'll migrate elsewhere for a better opportunity on a heartbeat, because, most likely, some coach will recruit some of them hard for his 16U team the way Haman recruited them for his 14U team. The town will be just another sticker on their well-traveled equipment bags, unless Haman hijacks a 16U team and does with it what he wants. What is this team? It's an amalgamation of outstanding players (or, at least say 8 of the 12 are outstanding) that cares not for the town or the organization, just for themselves. And, seemingly, the coaches are the same way.

Teamwork? Loyalty? Values? What's being taught? Perhaps winning at all costs, in an "I had better get mine" sort of way.

Is all this what we want to teach our kids? Where are the association's leaders, you may ask? Well, the commissioner got his kid on the 12U team, and the head of softball did the same. So they, their buddy Zimmer, and Haman all got their kids on the teams. And what happened to the core four of last year's 12U team, the kids who were left on the side of the road? Two have parents who are willing to drive them 1/2 hour each way 4 days a week for practice and home games for an organization in another town. Two were left without a team, because for them the local teams were the only ones that their parents could afford from a time standpoint.

So, if you're a travel parent, beware. Those who run the league and coach the teams will get what they want out of it. If you're kid is not yet a star, or even if she is one, be very careful. Because those who run the organization and those who coach will get theirs -- even if it's at the expense of your kids. The core four who were left behind? Well, three of them have an upside (one because of her bat, one because of her pitching ability, and the other because of leadership and guts), while the fourth is a budding star pitcher (which goes to show you that the powers that be even will leave good players behind if it suits them). But, to their now former organization, they were just cannon fodder, chess pieces to be used in a rigged game that had no one advocating for them, taken advantage, to a degree, by those posing as leaders and mentors but who, in reality, did not care about their futures, at least not the way they should have.

So, if you're a travel parent, look out for your own kid and look out for your own kid hard. If you don't do it, no one else will, and the coaches aren't usually what they try to sell themselves to be.

Even if you win, because winning doesn't cure everything, winning isn't everything, and winning in this case might mean different things to different people.

So, if you're a town resident, look out for your own wallets and your own kids.

Because if you don't, someone will pick your pockets and then pick off your kids at the expense of someone else's -- someone else's who aren't grateful for your tax dollars and who have no conscience about your kids.


Blogger Roy said...

Travel parents are in a state of temporary insanity. In a few years, the kids are in high school and then in college surprisingly soon after and then the parents regain sanity. The actions of these parents are mostly irrelevant in the long run; the kids with the talent will advance to the next level. What your missive makes clear is tht kids mostly know the score. It's mostly the parents that are crazy. So ... relax! :)

As for your town facilities being dominated by out-of-towners, that's a more serious complaint.

BTW I'm a loyal reader via google reader. I enjoy your blog (both the pro and family sports stuff) a lot.

11:03 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments and kind words, Roy.

You're right about the talent, that's for sure. It's tough to watch the parents' involvement, though. Their passion for softball in certain ways reminds me of those who bought into sub-prime lending (that is, "the bank wouldn't lend me the money if they didn't think that I could repay it."). So, they jump aboard, even though deep down they have to think that there's a catch, but since "everyone's doing it", it must be okay. Yikes!

12:30 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments and kind words, Roy.

You're right about the talent, that's for sure. It's tough to watch the parents' involvement, though. Their passion for softball in certain ways reminds me of those who bought into sub-prime lending (that is, "the bank wouldn't lend me the money if they didn't think that I could repay it."). So, they jump aboard, even though deep down they have to think that there's a catch, but since "everyone's doing it", it must be okay. Yikes!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

Your post reminds me a lot of conversations my wife and I would have back when we had two kids playing travel soccer. I suspect your posts on this subject are a form of therapy, much like our old conversations.

My sense is that the justification for parents is less that everybody is doing it and more that this might be a missed opportunity. My anecdotal observation is that this harmless; ten years later, I don't any kids (now in their mid 20's) or parents who seem scarred by the experience.

Also, I can't recall anyone in my town who was more crazy about real estate than travel soccer/basketball/baseball. Either this means my town is surprisingly rational about real estate or completely crazy about youth sports.

So, will someone in your town read your blog and take the field allocation issue to the town council?

12:10 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Actually, the town council opposes additional fields for three reasons. First, the economy is not in great shape, so this is a luxury item. Second, there's too much emphasis on pediatric recreation over adult recreation, especially given the age of the population. Third, they're well aware of the imbalance on travel teams between town residents and non-residents, and a majority are annoyed about it (one of the members of the council once headed up one of the youth sports organizations, and he's especially annoyed). So, any proposed expansion seems dead. Ironically, while the leaders of these organizations gather groups to attend town council meetings to ask for more fields, those involved in politics check the voting records, and these "proponents" hardly ever vote in local elections.

You're right about the therapy part. I suppose I just feel disrespected, but I'm quickly getting over it.

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8:49 AM  

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