Hardball

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

"Your last name is Nelson? Is your kid 'Nelly'?" he asks.

Intoxicating.

"What's your first name again?" he then asks.

Tom Thomas, scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Peter Scanlon
Tom Thomas, scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Chandler National's players celebrate winning the 
Arizona Little League title.
Robert Nelson
Chandler National's players celebrate winning the Arizona Little League title.

Sobering.

"Sounds like too much," he says after I describe our baseball schedule, particularly the amount Andrew has pitched in the past couple of years. "Those arms are so fragile at that age. You could be doing him a real disservice."

Woods, like many high school coaches, like many college coaches and pro coaches, has deep concerns about the massive upsurge in club teams and club tournaments.

He believes the phenomenon may be fueled by a misconception by dads that their sons must play year-round ball to ever have a chance of playing on the local high school team.

"I think there's an idea that if you don't have your kid in club ball, he's going to fall behind," Woods says. "I see that a lot around here. And I just don't think it's true.

"What is true is that some kids will certainly get better by playing a lot. But there are also always just kids who are blessed with talent. They will rise to the top without year-round ball. And it's just as likely that a kid who's playing all the time as a little kid will get tired of the sport, get resentful, even. Youth baseball should just be about learning skills and fostering a love of the game."

Woods remembers when a club-ball résumé "meant something." There were a few teams made up of the top talent. Scouts and coaches did look to those teams, they did believe that a kid from an elite team, playing other elite talent, probably had refined skills.

Now, "everybody has a club team," the coach says. The quality of play and coaching there is more like traditional rec ball. Which is fine. More kids out playing baseball. More kids having a great time doing something other than video games.

But don't think your child has to be on a club team. And please don't push him onto a club team just so you can say your kid is on a club team.

Woods' 11-year-old plays several sports. His boy likes the variety. Dad likes that his kid is having fun in sports. The coach in him likes the cross-training, something that's "greatly underestimated" by most dads, he believes.

And dads, please, please don't get on a club team so you can go to club tournaments and maybe win a "state title" or "national title" that was created by the tournaments' for-profit organizers to make money off the lust of dads for a title.

"There's a state title for most anyone who wants to buy one," Woods says. "In a lot of these tournaments, it's whoever won that tournament made up of whoever paid to play in that tournament. Some of these [dads] want to win so bad they get caught up in this stuff. That's all fine unless there's a cost to the kids."

I'm just laughing to myself as he says this. I can think of so many guys who just get crazy about the next Super Series or Triple Crown event. And many of these guys really get into the yearly point standings that basically require teams to play these expensive tournaments every month of the year to have a chance of racking up big points.

It is the baseball equivalent of a coin-toss game on the midway. Ten wins at the two-dollar game and you get the three-dollar stuffed monkey.

A few guys I know really brag up their little club trophies. Their boys are just the hottest thing ever.

But who am I to criticize? Last year, the coach for the best club team in the state called and asked if Andrew would come play with his team for the "Winter Nationals." One of the teams they would be playing was a team I had come to despise.

The tournament would take 10 days right through the heart of the Christmas holiday.

My wife said no. Andrew said he didn't want to do it.

I persuaded Andrew to do it. I said it would be good for him. Maybe I believed that.

And sure enough, Andrew helped that team win the National Championship, as I called it, a victory that included three whippings of the group of dads and kids that had irritated the hell out of me with all their bragging and posturing.

Actually, all the coach wanted was Andrew's legs. The tournament allowed a pinch runner in each inning, and Andrew can steal bases at this level at will. He stole something like 20 bases through the tournament.

He didn't play much otherwise. Just sat out in the cold desert nights. He did not seem to enjoy stealing a single one of those bases.

But he did get a hat that fit me that says "National Champions" on it. For a while, I couldn't stop wearing it to Andrew's baseball games. At some point about six months ago, I gave up wearing the thing.

Realizing you are an asshole is not an overnight process.

Coach Woods and I are actually laughing at me.

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