They had to talk me down from the ledge when some teacher explained that entire bodily systems—heart, digestion, even blinking—worked without me thinking about it. They’re background programs. I knew these things took place, but never considered just how, exactly.

When it was emphasized to me that if we’d actually have to think about circulating our blood, inhaling oxygen, and focusing our eyes on fine print, we’d probably cease to exist in fairly quick order, I panicked. What if these processes came under manual control at some point? I couldn’t competently glue one piece of construction paper to another. How was I supposed to also handle the direction of each individual white blood cell?

If these ordinary bodily procedures suddenly required daily maintenance, I suppose we’d struggle mightily individually, but produce a far more livable society. There will be little time or concern for Instagram influencer posts when you suddenly realize you haven’t produced any enzymes lately.

This is why professional athletes make more money than grocery store cart corallers. The ballplayers got an extra automatic system. They throw the ball harder and higher, hit with greater power. There’s a great deal of practice and refining that feeds these activities, of course, but I could run set-and-throw drills for months at a time and still heave the ball no further than the distance of your average bathroom stall, let alone across an entire baseball diamond. These people are different. They just are.

I wonder when they know they’re different. Sooner these days rather than later, I’d wager, given that tee ball league organizations now exist for embryos. Gotta get a jump on the pre-schoolers to make the 5U select travelling team.

It’s not a matter of pushing children too much too soon; success, skill development, and determination are good things, and those of us who will never ever get the volleyball over the net from the serving position tend to wash out fairly early. The girls in my grade school who ran the fastest were regulars on the parish soccer team front line positions by second grade. They all became track athletes. Of course they did. They covered ground and they knew it. The coaches knew it. Extra speed without even thinking about the matter.

As I grow more and more disillusioned with pro sports, even preparing to turn my face away from the Olympics—once a tremendous viewing ritual—I need to come to terms with the concept that I am perhaps asking too much of the NCAA, Team USA, the NFL, the MLB. If talent scouts are hanging around fourth graders, why are we surprised when sometimes that fourth grader becomes a basket case of an adult with inadequate critical thinking skills, family drama, money issues, drug abuse problems, and geriatric knees as a college sophomore?

There’s no pure sport because there are no pure viewers. You might just want to watch a ballgame because it’s fun to see refined athletes working at superhuman levels and these are Your Guys, but the person next to you wants a community experience with all major political opinions and ethical considerations aligned and validated on the field of play, and these political opinions and ethical considerations are the opposite of the person sitting next to her. All of your tickets cost the same. All of you have valid, and utterly incompatible, requests.

Whose requirements are the for-profit entities running these shows going to meet? Because it can’t be everybody’s. And, as many fans trade niche podcasts for sports reports and crowdfunded media services for giant satellite trucks, that’s becoming increasingly acceptable for everyone involved.

Maybe baseball becomes a matter of choice rather than an involuntary injection of local culture, and for that, it shrinks even more than it already has. And that is to our detriment, for the heart works best when it’s fed automatically, when we’re not even thinking about it.

21 Responses

  1. Mark Moore

    You had me at embryonic T-ball and the 5U travel team …

    I get that some of these kids do have talent. The lady who cuts my hair has a 16-year-old son who meets that criteria. She spent time (and money) this weekend in tournament games where the promised scouts (who blog for the collegiate and other scouts to see) never showed up. When the boys learned that, they basically mailed in their final game. And a fraction of them will get a college deal while a tinier fraction get some kind of shot at “pro” ball.

    I want a simpler life these days. I’m glad I never went through the travel league thing. It’s a choice, but so many must feel like it’s a forced one.

    • TServo

      Travel teams are killing youth sports.

      My oldest was a pretty fair softball player. Most of the girls she played with in the summer leagues went to the same school as her so she got to spend time playing ball with her friends. It was one of the few things I could get her to do and actually push her to always put in maximum effort. Also, I got to spend time with her as a proud dad.

      Then came the age where the “all-stars” from the summer leagues got invited to traveling team tryouts. My daughter never went because she just liked playing with her friends and having fun. Additionally, my work schedule made reserving weekends in the summer for travel essentially impossible. Plus, if I’m being honest, there was a bit of a cult surrounding the city-sponsored travel team; you (the parents) had to know people to realistically have a shot of your kid getting on the team and I didn’t see how that really mattered if I wasn’t actually doing the playing.

      When it came time to try out for the high school team, my daughter tried for three years; all against the same girls she’d played with since tee-ball and never came close to getting onto the team. The coaches would give us excuses like “well, she just doesn’t run well enough to be competitive.” Now, my daughter was/is a big girl (now over 6 foot in heels) and no Billy Hamilton but was strong as an ox. She could catch, throw, and hit better than most of the other girls who made the team and had demonstrated that during the summer city leagues. In fact, during one tryout, the “starting pitchers” who were established upperclasswomen, refused to pitch to her because they were afraid of getting hurt by her line drives back through the box.

      I will never forget the look on her face after being cut for the last time. She flopped down in the car and started to cry. I asked her if she was okay and she just quietly said “I can’t help it that I’m not fast; isn’t everything else I do good enough?” In that moment, I imagined I saw the spark of joy that she had playing a game and having fun with her friends as a kid get snuffed out. She hasn’t touched a glove or bat since then.

      All because she didn’t have “travel ball” stink on her. In the end, all but two of the girls that made the high school team (which was coached by one of the assistant coaches of the city-sponsored travel team) were from the travel team – including one girl that showed up to the tryouts in a full-length leg brace to stabilize her “fractured femur” (quotes because I can’t use italics for sarcastic/incredulous emphasis).

      It makes me wonder how many kids have to face that same kind of situation – one where you realize that your dreams will never be attainable through no fault of your own – way too early in life. Giving up on dreams is the stuff of mid-life crises and born-again epiphanies, not some random Saturday when you are 13. How many potential Mike Trouts or Ken Griffey Jrs. or Jenny Finches or Crystal Bustoses will never again step foot on a diamond because mom or dad couldn’t afford the monetary or time costs of giving up summer weekends due to adulting pressures that kids don’t understand? As a father, that was the hardest part for me.

      For the kids that are just “built different” that MBE references I get that travel teams are great and I don’t begrudge them the opportunities my daughter couldn’t have because of my circumstances. Some of our friends have kids involved in them and there is no doubt that the kids are blossoming under the tutelage of swing/pitching/defense coaches. Still, I wish there was some way to penetrate the mystique of the almighty “Quad-County Travelling 16U All-Stars” veneer so that the kids that have the same talent as the 1% but wear plain cotton t-shirt jerseys sponsored by “Bob’s Neighborhood Gas&Go” and hand-me down cleats get noticed as well.

      • Scott in Texas

        Tserv0, thank you for this. It struck a nerve with me, as I’m sure it did with many others who have engaged their children in youth sports.

      • Mark Moore

        +1,000 for the response and to your DD (from another Dad of girls). It’s ridiculous and too often the result is what Kevin Costner portrayed in “Field of Dreams” where his character quit as a teen to spite his father.

        And another +100 for your handle. Love MST3K (the original).

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Oh my gosh, Servo, that’s heartbreaking. You describe your thoughts and what happened here so well… I hope your daughter does have fond memories despite the weird obsessive politics of “the cult.” Sheesh.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I wonder how many kids would actually play if we left it entirely up to them. If they truly love it, that’s one thing, but otherwise…

      • TServo

        MB – I agree. I’ve seen a lot of really talented kids play for years, but then just hang it up. Sometimes it is because they just lose interest but often it is due to them being tired of mom or dad wanting them to continue even if they don’t want to.

  2. RojoB

    On some level, as Jiminy Cricket would say to MLB,

    “You’ve buttered your bread—now sleep in it!”

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Do you think this is mostly a commissioner issue, or something cultural?

      • lost11found

        It’s a “We’ll do anything to be popular!” thing rather than a “let’s put a good baseball team on the field!” thing. So they end up looking like a dog endlessly chasing its tail.

  3. Votto4life

    Great article. I read an article by an economist who said that when a high school
    Graduate decides to pursue a professional baseball career he will likely fall way behind his non-athletic peers in terms of life time earning potential. Even college graduates who pursue a baseball career don’t fare much better.

    While the athlete is pursuing a professional baseball career, his peers are furthering their education and/or starting to climb the corporate ladder. By the time the athlete realizes he will never it to the show, say mid to late twenties, he is far behind his non-athletic peers.

    Thank you for the article. I enjoyed
    It !

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      thanks for reading 🙂 One of the best developments to come out of the last ten years is a return of respect for the vocational arts. Athletes who don’t quite make it in the pros, or who are working their way in, can make quite a good living even part-time by learning to become welders, contractors, etc.

  4. Rednat

    I wonder as cincinnati sports fans are we more disillusioned with pro sports because our teams have been so bad for so long.? i mean, this century is nearly 1/4 of the way over and we have had 2 playoff road wins between our 2 pro teams. i wonder if fans in ” winning cities”, ny or boston or LA feel as disenfranchised with sports as we do?

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that. Winning sure does cure a lot of ills– so I’ve been told.

  5. NorMichRed

    Sport once upon a time gave us all, regardless of sociopolitical philosophy or any other metric now used to divide us, a chance to escape all of that and be entertained by the “superior freaks of nature” athletes with some kind of a common bond as fans. Now we continue to get harangued by those who use sport to promote their brand(s) of engineering, rather than just let us enjoy the event. Terribly now the case in NBA and NFL, which have lost me as a fan and customer. Baseball less so, until the recent All-Star game locale fiasco and some other forgettable events of late. For the most part, the NHL still lets me watch and enjoy without overdoing the preaching, so I remain a customer. But even though our partial escape to post-Covid normalcy has increased the urge to return to crowd gathers, I just haven’t had the desire to go to a pro sport event. And I’m not sure if that’s ever coming back. (I still will watch the Reds and select NHL games on the dish with interest, but not at the previous level.) Sport league owners and commissioners may be on the final pathway to completely killing the golden goose. Cutting the cord has become a much easier alternative in the past couple years, the pains of societal isolation during the pandemic notwithstanding. (But the dialogue on this site remains one of my regular breaths of fresh air, thanks to Doug’s good work and all of you out there who enjoy the pureness of sport and the chance to still be true fans.) Always a well-done and compelling read, MBE!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for the kind words… if I understand the position of your opposition correctly, baseball and other sports have a responsibility to speak out about what they regard as human rights– that bringing matters such as BLM protests and Pride Month into the arena of sports is not a matter of partisan divide, but is no different from, say, the integration of baseball.
      So, since we don’t even agree on the definition of “politics” and “rights,” we get… well, where we are now, basically. Really mad at each other 🙁

  6. Scott C

    Unfortunately, all too true. When I came up we played simply for the love of the game, whether it was little league or the pickup games we played at the park by the railroad tracks or the 15 minute games we played during recess. Baseball truly was life, I am afraid there is no going back to what many of us look at as the good old days. There, now I am officially old, I referred to the good old days.

    • RedsMonk65

      LOL. I’m right there with you. Appreciate MBE’s article and all the comments above. I played a little organized ball when I was in grade school, junior high, and freshman year in high school. But what I mostly recall (with fondness) are those long summer days (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) out in the back yard with all the neighborhood kids where we would play God-knows-how-many-games of baseball just for the love of it. Mom and Dad would chide us, “All you guys do is argue all the time,” but that was part of it. We loved every minute of it. And we did it every day if the sun was shining. Play ball.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      No matter the era, there was always some kind of problem with baseball– no perfect time. But yeah, maybe the only pure form of the sport is at recess, which, ironically, I hated at the time.

  7. lost11found

    Nice Article Mary-Beth.

    I can echo many of the concerns and experiences noted above by others. My twin sons have played youth ball for several years now but have not participated in the travel/all-star aspect of it. They did try-out for it one year, but did not make the team. Many of their friends do and sadly some have been driven away from baseball despite being quite talented and good at it. I could even see one of their teammates this summer putting the first few footsteps down this path.

    I think it’s part of a larger problem where we are encouraging kids to specialize or ‘pick a lane’ earlier and earlier in many aspects of their life (recreational, social, educational), rather than let them be kids and let them find fun in a variety of activities and subjects.

    My sons are not world-beaters in baseball, but they are likely better players than I was at their age, but they also enjoy hiking, fishing, camping, building/launching model rockets, reading, and martial arts among other things. If we did the summer ball camps, private hitting/pitching coaches, and the like all in an effort to make the travel team, all those other things they enjoy go out the window.

    Losing all of that would be a net negative for them. They can learn to work for and gain success, not just from striking out or getting a hit off a kid 2 y older than them, but also from learning a new move in Tae kwan do or learning something new from a book they’ve digested, catching their first fish, or the joy of recovering a three-stage rocket launch.

    I think they have as much if not more fun on their team this summer than some of their teammates who have gone all-in on it. The team had acouple of gut-punch losses to get knocked out of the EOS tourney, but it taught them how to manage disappointment and take pride in the good and learn from the bad.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks so much for your perspective. This topic has really struck a chord with some people who see their children’s love of the game seep away due to outside pressure. Sports can teach us a lot, but so can the rest of life! It sounds like you have a terrific approach to raising happy, healthy, well-balanced kiddos.