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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Rec League

It was a hot night last night, and my daughter's softball team played in the first round of the playoffs.

It was a game featuring the following:

1. The umpire giving the other team's pitcher the size of a regulation door and her team's pitchers a strike zone the size of a window.

2. Fielders seeing routine balls go under their gloves, throwing to the wrong base, getting picked off base.

3. A fielder, after having two frustrating plays in a row, storming off the field and throwing herself down into the ground, crying.

4. A batter throwing down her helmet and bat after striking out (and not being held accountable by her coaches).

5. Base coaches staring into space and not sending runners on obvious "move up" situations, such as wild pitches.

6. A coach yelling at his team to get more energy and cheer for teammates and to pay better attention, only to miss sending a runner because he was talking to a parent while his team was batting.

7. A coach showing up with a shirt quoting the bible with a cross on it -- and showing up with alcohol on his breath. (Two dads with significant knowledge of the game offered to help at the season's outset, only to be told "we've got it covered.").

8. The body language of many of the girls suggested that they wanted to be elsewhere.

9. A girl getting called out on strikes on a ball that bounced in front of the plate (strike two bounced before the plate and was outside). She swung at neither.

10. Everyone bats, which is fine (the rosters have about 15 girls on them), but one team batted its best four hitters fourth, seventh, eighth and tenth.

Was this "The Bad News Bears?" Was Morris Buttermaker coaching one of the teams?


This was a middle school/high school rec league playoff game.



Look, I don't have the highest expectations for rec leagues, but I do for any municipal athletic association that runs one. Ours, regrettably, is so focused on its travel organization that the travel teams hog the fields (and have "invitational tournaments" where they use township fields to raise money to support their travel habit, without, I'm sure, paying any significant user fees because the township elders believe that the kids are from the township, when only about 25% of the girls in the organization are). I also expect coaches to be responsible, organized, communicative, enthusiastic and didactic, and, yes, I expect them to play to win.

The league's commissioner is a saint, ever committed to the rec league cause by trying to create a decent experience, accounting for the strengths and weaknesses of people. He's doing great work while getting little support from a corrupt organization. Why corrupt? Because the guy who heads up the softball program seemingly does it so that his daughter can have a spot on an elite "A" travel team that she has no business being on because she cannot hit (nice kid, by the way, but either you can hit or you cannot). That dad is one of that team's coaches, and that team only has 4 kids (of 12) from our town on it (two come from 30 miles away), and one of the locals -- a great kid -- apparently quit because of playing time issues. Unfortunately, there are too many stories of people taking leadership roles to help assure that their kids will get their spots.

So, what's the solution? While this particular rec league ambles along, I am not sure we're doing adolescent girls a good deed (particularly the 13 and 14 year-olds) by putting them into situations where they cannot learn good skills and teamwork and achieve excellence. A few of the coaches are terrific, the commissioner among them. But why this doesn't happen is because the town has created a caste system. The local girls that do play travel walk around with an air of confidence (and some should, they are fantastic players) because they are fortunate enough that the local township and athletic association have agreed to give the travel organizations a stranglehold on the resources -- they get priority for fields and practice time. And that's just wrong.

What should happen, instead, is that the townships should have much more inclusive programs that help develop the girls -- holding clinics, situational practices, and then give the best players the chance to play a modified travel schedule that puts them in some tournaments and perhaps the Babe Ruth championship. Interestingly, some townships that have a lower average income than ours do just that, if for no other reason than the families cannot fork over the $1000 or so it takes to join a travel team (not counting a bat, glove, gasoline, tolls, sunscreen, food and whatever other ancillary costs are involved). I would submit that while those organizations might not win an ASA or PONY national title, they might have more fun (so long as they have good enough pitching, which is important for fastpitch) because the girls are from the same town, know each other and get to bond, as opposed to being gypsy mercenaries who can rove from team to team each year because their parents are looking for a better spot for them to showcase their talents and perhaps, ultimately, get them a look from some college that might be willing to give them some money. I ask the mathematicians out there to tell me what the odds of that happening are versus winning a $200 million Powerball lottery.

Oh, and by the way, the odds of an elite travel organization from a non-warm weather place winning an ASA or PONY national title can't be that big, either,

At the end of the day, we're all looking for fun and rewarding experiences for our daughters. My daughter happens to be a pretty good player who could play travel had various circumstances (too many very early weekend wakeup calls, conflicts with other commitments, behavior of certain parents and coaching lapses) not combined to tell us that perhaps living a more balanced life for everyone in the family was a better idea. True, the softball isn't as good, and we didn't expect that. But what we do expect, and what every citizen should demand, is that a local athletic association donate a significant amount of resources for rec league experiences for girls of all ages.

There's a place for the travel and the rec league, and both can co-exist. But don't let selfish parents hijack the travel organization for their own purposes, and don't let your local athletic assocation support that behavior or turn a blind eye to it.

And love your kid, no matter what, and tell them that there can be all sorts of experiences, good and bad, but, at the end of the day, they should pursue excellence in everything they do and not settle for less, that they should set the bar high for themselves regardless of the circumstances.

Make the good throw, chase the runner back to a base, know what to do with the ball before you get it, take aggressive leads, and play hard.

Regardless of whether your local organization's leadership really cares, and regardless of whether your coaches have a clue.


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