Showball Baseball sent a letter the other day addressed to my 13-year-old son. “Dear Squid,” it says, “Congratulations on your selection to The West Coast World Series Showcase Camp.” It also says, “You have been identified as a potential prospect for at least one of the 50 Colleges [sic] in attendance.”
Take a look:
I’m my kid’s biggest fan. No one’s seen him play more baseball than me. I threw him the first pitch he ever hit at age three, and I’ve thrown him more batting practice than anyone else since that fateful day. I caught his first curve ball (which he learned on his own somehow at age 8) and spent hours behind an imaginary plate catching those curves. I traveled quite a bit to watch him play with and against some of the best youth baseball players in the country, and I’ve dealt with the stress and absurdity of three solid years of travel ball.
If I’d posted that letter on Facebook along with a “look-at-me-er-I-mean-my-son” status update punctuated by a gaggy emoticon like “feeling proud” or “feeling blessed,” I’d’ve been rewarded with a polite sum of perfunctory “likes” and supportive comments.
Let me tell you this though: No one identified my son as a “potential prospect” for any college team. Did not happen. After a decade of watching my kid play ball, I can say without question that he was not selected in any manner like the word “select” is defined by Merriam-Webster to be scouted by any colleges. Showball Baseball purchased a mailing list, that’s it.
A visit to the Showball Baseball website reveals that the camp guarantees 50 college coaches on hand, and one of them will provide a performance evaluation for each kid that as far as I could tell includes only quantitative measures of sprinting and throwing. It’s not clear whether that coach would also give a qualitative assessment based on observations of gameplay that would provide an eager parent any indication that his or her kid had a chance for a scholarship.
I also found this piece of information: All Showball camps are open to any and all that would like to attend, limited only by age and total number of participants. That means anyone with $695 can register. But the letter tells my “select” kid that the camp “is that ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.”
You know what? Fuck that.
The Ego as Embarrassment
So my kid was identified and selected for a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend a camp. Not only that, Showball claims attendance at one of its camps will “[d]rastically increase your odds of playing college baseball” and position you for a baseball scholarship and to do so, “these coaches must see you in action.”
Clearly the letter wasn’t intended for the squid. It was meant for his parents. Most likely the father—me—the one tasked with ensuring that his son can properly hunt and ride a horse into battle. Except that for so many dads these days, the battlefield is the gridiron, court, and diamond, and the ultimate trophy is the athletic scholarship.
There it is. The dangling bone. My kid is special; he’s been invited to an exclusive “collegiate showcase camp” with “a very limited number of slots available.” If I don’t pay for this once in a lifetime opportunity, I’m a failure—I mean, I’m failing my kid. Kid’s gotta get a scholarship—some college teams only take scholarship players—and the letter says that a scholarship is possible but only if these coaches see my kid play. That’s what they’re banking on me thinking.
Well, Showball sent its bullshit to the wrong person.
The Boys of Bummer
Showcase events and the irrational quest for scholarships have long been identified as two factors rotting out the guts of youth sports. They exist in part because collegiate sports are a gigantic, highly rationalized money machine that generates a powerful downward profit pressure.
My kid has barely brushed up against puberty and isn’t in high school yet, much less made a high school team*. You’re telling me that a coach**can project my kid’s college-level performance now? Really? Have you given any thought to the complexity of the athletic development process? I kinda doubt that Showball wants parents to do any deep thinking on the matter.
Showball’s front page boasts that “we continue to reshape the landscape of the recruiting process.” They’re marketing to my kid (me) as if he’s some high school-level star but he hasn’t played an inning of high school baseball. Sounds ludicrous, right? It’s been going on for a while. Check this out.
I can hear some of the travel ball parents now: “That’s just the way it is.” With a little bit of tsk-tsk in there like I need to put on my big boy collar or stay on the porch. Well, fuck you. It’s like that because we allow the system to reach with insidiously glamorous fingers to diddle the clits of our egos. So to speak. But the system is not some autonomous thing that exists “out there” forcing us to abide by its ironclad rules. The system is us. Desperate or obsessive or desperately obsessive parents. And profiteers, don’t forget them; they drive the bus and we sit in the back and allow ourselves to be taken for a ride.
Reshaping the landscape of the recruiting process? You could call this professionalization, and as a result, the landscape is rapidly becoming cluttered with burned out athletes; excluded kids; and an alphabet soup of torn ligaments.
Dr. James Andrews has discussed the increasing incidence of Tommy John surgery among youth pitchers. That’s certainly an alarming part of this problem, but there’s a related problem: Do outfits like Showball play a role in planting time bombs for injuries at the pro level?
Sportswriter Jeff Passan has been documenting what he sees as an “epidemic” of elbow injuries in MLB baseball: see here, here, and here. The “system” convinces parents that it is supreme and perpetual and that demz the rules. It creates chocolate bunny athletes cast to replicate carefully branded images of elites. Sometimes these bunnies grow up to become branded images themselves. Then they break.
A few weeks back a rant scrolled through my Facebook feed. A travel baseball parent was all piqued over a tiny Chicago Tribune bit of puff titled “Joe Maddon no fan of travel baseball.” The parent said something like his kid loves baseball and travel ball, and elite-level competition is more fun, and he loves his son and he’s just giving his son what he wants—baseball, year-round. So incensed was this guy, telling the Chicago Cubs manager that he should just hush his mouth. And as you would expect, he got a chorus of supporting comments. If you read the Tribune piece, the first thing you realize is that the title is misleading and meant to incite. Maddon probably doesn’t give a rat’s ass about travel ball; his concern is early specialization from the perspective of a professional baseball manager (and former player). He’s a fan of multi-sport athletes, I assume, because in his experience such broad-based background produces better ballplayers; this seems to align with NCAA Division 1 women’s ice hockey coach Katey Stone’s perspective (which appeared in my Facebook feed as I was writing this piece—oh, and pay attention at about the 45-second mark).
I considered commenting on the indignant parent’s post, you know, to kickstart an exchange of ideas, but I don’t know… Venturing into a socially mediated psychodramatic killing field and presenting even the remotest challenge to a person’s sense of self and self-righteousness, no matter how congenially offered, generally ends poorly. Especially if I suggested something like allowing his son to play baseball year-round was the athletic equivalent of feeding him only boiled chicken breast three meals a day, every day, all year, and calling it a balanced diet. Frankly just the thought of the likely give-and-take exhausted me.
By the way, I’ve been trying to learn all I can about athletic development for almost five years now and have not run across a single study or expert opinion that defends early specialization in team sports such as baseball. Not one***. But I’ve seen unwavering, if tacit, support for it among many parents in travel baseball. That particular perspective unwittingly provides entities such as Showball license to market showcase events in such a deceitful manner.
Going to Bat for Your Kid: Enchantment’s Opposite
A less tangible negative effect of youth sports professionalization is the sense of entitlement ingrained in young athletes at an early age. On a couple of notable occasions, when the team played like mopes, my son’s travel coach launched into tirades on player entitlement. He made sure the parents understood that we were at fault and the entire nation was handbasketing its way to hell because of it. The kids are spoiled, and that makes them lose and it’s destroying the country, but by my reckoning that team won a lot more than it lost, so how do dat jibe with the diatribe? Also, after observing three hardcore years of travel baseball I have to wonder if there was ever a moment in the deepest well of the night when the coach considered even for a second if his academy’s win-now coaching philosophy might have a little something to do with it.
Entitlement can also get entrenched in our local baseball league:
- Some kids are rubberstamped as all-stars from one season to the next.
- Daddy ball often yields what might charitably be called an embarrassment of opportunities for coaches’ sons, at other kids’ expense.
- I’ve seen parents join the league board and use that position to help grease the way for their kids.
- I’ve seen fathers suck up to coaches who they may not respect or even like to ensure playing time for their kids.
Then there’s this:
Last week, a friend of mine voiced an opinion on my oft-visited free-range petty political dreamscape of Facebook. She raised a concern about a policy at our local baseball league whereby 14-year-olds who played on the high school team are allowed to join the league late so they can participate in the Memorial Day RBI (Ramona Baseball Invitational) Tournament and the so-called EOY (End-of-Year) all-star tournament. The RBI is a great tradition in our town and a fun tournament, and any and all teams are welcome to participate. The EOY is PONY Baseball’s annual international all-star tournament.
My friend didn’t think this practice was fair. Her post quickly grew a shrew’s tail of polarized commentary that quickly curled into the kind of turd so often sharted by the artless voices speaking for youth sports from the grassroots. From what I saw, those who didn’t agree with her either didn’t have a dog in the fight or had a freshman kid returning to the league under the policy. Most, when they weren’t dishing poorly veiled accusations of sour grapes, noted that the practice has always been allowed. In other words, “That’s just the way it is.” One commentator glibly trotted out the rule from the PONY Baseball rulebook (see page 32, T-3 – Legal Players: A) that supports the policy. In other words, “It’s the system, so don’t hate the playa.”
It’s a dumb daddy-ball-playing-win-at-all-costs “rule” written in faux legalese by what wouldn’t surprise me was a cabal of nubbin dicks.
So this year, seven freshmen want into the league to be part of the 14U tournament team. That’s nearly enough to form a starting lineup. Given that these boys all played junior varsity or even varsity (remember, there’s no longer a freshman team, so these kids must be quite good), it seems likely that they will form most of the tournament team’s starting lineup. After all, as one board member posted on the comment thread, the coaches just want to put the best team on the field (pretty sure her freshman son is returning to play). By the way, PONY stands for the somewhat ironic “Protect Our Nation’s Youth.” I don’t think that means what you think it means.
As I said above, any team can register for the RBI tournament. So why not build a separate team around those seven? Let them steamroll over everyone. I mean, why else are they coming back to a rec league after a season of high school-level competition? I get that these kids want to play; they know all of the rec league kids and it probably sounds like easy fun. But their parents must be aware that their kids’ triumphant rescue fantasy return means that other players who participated all season and earned a spot on the tournament team because of their performance could miss an opportunity that those freshmen have enjoyed for many years. For example, the original poster’s son opted out of the team because he felt that he would just sit on the bench; in my opinion, he was one of the league’s top players this season.
Full disclosure: My kid was bumped from the 14U team as a result of this policy. Go ahead and shriek sour grapes at me, but, frankly, fuck you. My kid’s 13, so they made space for him on the 13U team. Although my understanding is that all of this went down while the selection process was still in flux, I now have to wonder if someone else got bumped to make room for the squid****. If he plays next year, he’ll play for the 14U team (unless of course he gets bumped again by an incoming freshman).
“How do you even know he’ll make the 14U team?” you sneer.
“I’m psychic,” I say. “I’m a motherfuckin’ shaman.”
“Then tell me what happens next year, Nostradamus, if, by some miracle, your squid makes the high school team?” you ask with a smug smile. “Whaddya gonna make of the policy then?”
“Ha. Great question. Talk is cheap, so you’re gonna have to wait and see.”
But enough of this gay banter, I want to speculate a bit on something of a broader structural factor that speaks to the entitlement phenomenon. My son is playing baseball in a division that for the past few years managed to field only a few teams; this season, like last season, there are only three teams. Hard to be competitive against much deeper pools of talent from, say, South Bay, San Diego (especially if those teams are also bringing back high school players). It’s easy to see, given the current keeping-up-with-the-Joneses climate, how the board is so open to bringing in seven bona fide all-stars to stack the 14U team.
Look, it’s well documented that this is the age where kids start narrowing their sport choices. A large percentage of kids drop out of sports entirely, yes, but for those who stick with them, many find that they prefer one sport over another. That seems innocent enough, but I feel like I have seen something not-so-innocent driving those preferences in some cases.
There are a lot of decent 13-14-year-old baseball players in Ramona who quit the sport somewhere between ages 11-13. Rather than making up bullshit rules that allow non-league players to take spots from full-season participants, maybe PONY ought to work on athlete retention during this known risk period.
There are any number of reasons why kids drop out, but I wonder if the “system” culture discourages them from participation in activities in which they perform at a “sub-elite” level, if they aren’t A-team all-stars, for example. They gravitate to those sports where they’re celebrated as the crème de la crème. Their parents have allowed them their choice. Interestingly I’ve heard on more than one occasion those parents expressing the wish that their kids hadn’t quit, but maybe there’s something more nourishing to the parental ego in watching their kids’ exaltation rather than their lack of grand distinction. So maybe they’re okay with their kids’ drift away from sports they don’t excel at, adopting a c’est-la-vie attitude rather than subjecting the matter to closer (self-)reflection.
I think this is why we sometimes get all-star athletes in at Brand X who don’t stick around. The Brand X Method™ is by design a long-term program. It takes time and requires a commitment from the kids that is built on their attaching fun to the incremental process of becoming more physically literate and fit, of becoming stronger and faster. The coaches treat none of the kids like all-stars, but the hard work that the experienced kids have put in make them appear to be all-stars. Everything seems so easy-peasy for them that I wonder if some new arrivals experience a degree of cognitive dissonance that disrupts their expectations because their sense of fun is linked to taken-for-granted all-stardom.
This is particularly true of the boys. They may be all-stars outside of Brand X, but they find themselves facing concrete evidence that they are not all that among the younger kids who gleefully do dozens of burpees and the girls who bust out sets of near-perfect strict pull-ups inside of Brand X. That can be pretty discouraging when the all-star can barely fight his chin over the bar for one pull-up. This type of all-star hasn’t learned the value or the joy of perseverance, can’t appreciate the consistent, disciplined work the other kids have put in. Regardless of our effort to define success in terms of the smallest increments of progress or any of the positive feedback we provide, these athletes often walk away. They go back to the comfort of an environment in which they’re the kings, where they’re lauded at every turn, where they perform well now.
The phenomenon of entitlement, although an obstacle we must try to overcome, is really just a symptom of the larger problem of professionalization. What’s fascinating about Eric Sorenson’s “Is player entitlement ruining our sport?” is that two esteemed college coaches lament the existence of entitled ballplayers in the same pat manner as my son’s former travel ball coach. Two fixtures within the “system” pointing fingers toward something “out there,” not an iota of self-reflection apparent in their perspectives. Broader social factors are certainly involved, but big money collegiate sports are a product of those social changes too, and they make shit like Showball Showcase Camps just as possible as overindulgent and success-oriented parenting.
Rebel against Yourself
I know that the Brand X Method™ can improve any kid’s sports performance. I’ve seen it in my own kid when it comes to pitching speed*****. It’s not so much that his training made him stronger, which it has, but that it taught him how to harness and efficiently use existing strength. I’m certain that we can deliver additional MPH to any young pitcher’s fastball and help protect his arm just by getting them to understand and apply basic principles of movement. But as I keep saying, it takes time, and the pressure exerted from the higher levels to create (the appearance of) recruitable prospects at ever-younger ages perverts parents’ understanding of realistic athletic development timescales. They expect—and kinda urgently need—results in about the time it takes for us to get the kid to begin grasping and utilizing some of the essentials. So if kids express a quick dislike for the program, parents probably won’t encourage them to hang with it, not when their own expectations are so terribly distorted.
Frankly, I’m not all that interested in developing elite athletes for the “system” to chew up and spit out. Not the kind of delicate athletes who seem to lack true athletic durability and the staying power****** to remain in the game. I do care about developing lifetime athletes. People of all ages who not only want to participate in sports and physical activities but can. And do, right up until they expire.
Lotta lip service out there these days about obesity and sedentary lifestyles and lifetime physical activity, lotta chatter about the problems in youth sports. But very little self-reflection. The structure that fosters entitlement and fragile Easter-bunny athletes who win now and lose it all later must be torn down and rebuilt on a foundation that promises physical literacy, injury prevention, and longevity in physical activity.
The Brand X Method™ offers a way to start challenging our assumptions about “the way things just are.” Give it a chance and you’ll see that it is the tool for rebellion against the system, widespread creative disruption, and, ultimately, innovation in the best interests of our kids.
* Last year our local high school shitcanned its freshman baseball team because there weren’t enough teams in the area to sustain a season. That loss has drastically reduced some kids’ (including my son’s) chances of playing any high school baseball at all. The situation speaks to a larger issue, I think.
** Are these high-level coaches or neophyte staff members wearing the team colors?
*** If anyone has, please direct me to it or them.
**** It’s important to note here that I don’t burden my son with the ethics of this issue. In that way, he becomes much like the returning freshmen, much like children in so many other situations, a foot soldier in the parental identity cold war.
***** Because he’s a small dude, his velocity used to be jaw-dropping. How does such a little squid throw so hard? However, because many of his peers have hit puberty and have experienced the natural gains concomitant with that developmental phase, this expression of power is not so noticeable anymore (this is a by-product of relative age effects). I’m curious to see what happens when he receives the puberty dividend that his friends are currently enjoying.
****** The subject of this article played travel ball for the academy my son used to play for.