Hardball

Dads' egos can run amok in super-competitive Valley youth baseball, and that's dangerous

I am standing on an earthen berm beyond the right-field fence during the second game of the Arizona Little League Majors State Tournament.

If my oldest son's team wins this tournament, the boys are off to San Bernardino, California, to play in the Little League Western Regionals. If they win there -- as the Chandler National Little League team did two years ago -- they would move on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

My son is the fourth batter, the cleanup hitter, for this year's version of the Chandler National Little League Majors All-Stars. He is also the team's big-game pitcher.

Some men have trophy children.
Mark Skalny
Some men have trophy children.
Mike Benjamin during his playing days with the 
Pittsburgh Pirates.
AP/Wide World Photos
Mike Benjamin during his playing days with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Just the words are studly cool -- Majors, All-Stars, big-game. And boy, do I take pride in Andrew being seen as a power hitter, a go-to guy, an electric arm, a five-tooler.

He even has a cool nickname: Nelly.

I was just Bobby, the most diminutive form of Robert.

Pride. God, it feels great! So why the hell is it one of the seven deadly sins?

And who is it killing, exactly?

That part of the Bible must have been written by some benchwarmer who, unlike this benchwarmer, never had a kid who wasn't a benchwarmer.

There is much hope for this team.

Its players won state last year as 11-year-olds. We are stocked with several top club-ball players. We are considered one of the favorites. And, of course, the boys are making their run in the footsteps of the "2003 team" (as it is now called in Chandler shorthand), the Chandler National All-Stars who, two years ago, became the first Valley team to make it to the Little League World Series since the 1960s.

I explain all this context to the young reporter from the Chandler Connection who is standing next to me.

But he is more interested in Andrew's friend and teammate who has thrived after surviving a particularly deadly form of leukemia.

This time of year, when college and professional sports are in a lull, the 12-year-old boys who have success playing in Little League All-Stars competition become the focus of local newspapers around the country.

A story that's also out there this time of year is about bad sports parents. Particularly dads. But such tales almost never go deep enough. They seldom really hammer those guys who live vicariously through their children's sports, who push their kids in ways that take the joy out of playing games, who are jerks to kids and umps and coaches, who become so obsessed with their child's sport that they forget about their family, friends, co-workers and everybody else in their life. Dads who, to put it simply, become giant assholes.

These dads are messing up more than just their kids' heads.

Research shows that 65 percent of youth sports injuries are from kids playing too much. The percentage approaches 75 percent for baseball.

At the same time, the number of teens getting Tommy John surgery, once a last-resort elbow reconstruction for pros, has increased fivefold in the past five years.

I know of two 14-year-olds in the East Valley who have had the surgery in the past year. I have seen three pitchers my son's age come up lame from parents allowing them to be overused.

The culprits, many experts say, are monomaniacal dads in a world with year-round baseball.

I am standing on the berm as my kid comes up for his fourth at-bat. I feel the eyes of other fathers on me. They say they take pleasure in watching me fidget and fuss and grimace and growl and murmur unusual profanities.

Andrew has struck out twice and popped up. He is dropping his hands, collapsing his back leg, and swinging up.

I have spent two goddamn years correcting that swing with nearly daily batting practice that has torn my right rotator cuff and kept me in near constant pain, and here he is -- with all my buddies looking on -- standing at the plate looking more like he's trying to stick a lob wedge close to the pin than hit a line drive.

I am embarrassed.

He then swings and drives a ball 20 feet over the left-center-field fence for a two-run home run. Chandler wins 12-3.

And I am still unhappy. It was an upper-cut swing.

After the game, the team manager comes up and jokingly mentions that he looked over to the berm before Andrew's fourth at-bat to watch my body language.

"I knew your head was about to explode over there," Randy Rector says with a laugh.

And I laugh. The other dads laugh, too.

But the truth is: It did feel like my head was about to explode.

And had I released the pressure in my head by voicing my frustration, I might have ruined this whole experience for my son.

Which, as far as I can tell, is the experience of playing his favorite game with his best buddies.

When I saw Andrew again a little later, I didn't say a bad word, at least. "Good game, buddy," was what finally came out.

My head did not spontaneously combust this time, either.

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