Hardball

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

"Your son -- he's 12 now? How important was that [off-season] tournament?" Woods asks. "I've seen too many kids blow out their arms because they got caught up in all the off-season stuff."

I am too embarrassed to mention the time I allowed Andrew to throw something like 140 pitches so his neighborhood team could win a lower-division bracket of a lower-division tournament named in honor of some second-rate holiday that we missed to go to that tournament. He looked strong and he said he was okay. What was the problem with that?

"It's mainly the pitching," Woods says. "If your kid loves the game and wants to play all the time, well, really, that's kind of neat. Just stop all the pitching. You've got to limit the pitching! You've just got to tell any coach that your son is a growing boy. His arm isn't built for that much pitching."

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.

Great advice. I need to set hard limits this year. I need to be a loving, protecting father, not a vicarious glory-sucker.

But before we get to that, did I mention that Coach Woods knew my kid's name before I called up?


Andrew and I both think Mike Benjamin is the coolest guy around.

Benjamin is a baseball artist. In his 13 years playing middle infield for the Giants, the Red Sox and the Pirates, I always believed he was one of the most soft-handed defensive players in the game. He was just fun to watch.

His .983 lifetime fielding percentage ranks with the very best in the game.

And he has a rad goatee. He looks like some Zen master out there fielding balls. We call him The Sorcerer because The Wizard is already taken by another shortstop.

His .229 lifetime batting average did not rank so high, nor did his .150 in 2002. So he was out of baseball in 2003. That's the year he helped coach the 2003 Chandler National team and his own son to the Little League World Series.

Benjamin is a soft-spoken proponent of the idea that youth baseball should be all about skill development and fostering a love for the game.

I've watched him take that philosophy onto a field with a group of raw kids and turn them into a clean defensive machine. The club team he coaches has not done too well in tournaments, does not play many, actually, but his players are a very fun group to watch. They may be small, but they are all in balance, biomechanically solid, and just about always smiling about the whole experience.

The team is not playing or practicing right now because all the kids are off playing other sports.

"I just think that cross-training, or just doing lots of other stuff, is so important at this age," Benjamin says.

Benjamin studied biomechanics as a student at Arizona State University. He's been a student of the physics of human motion ever since.

Growing up in Southern California, Benjamin says he "didn't even know there were traveling teams."

"Even if I had, I couldn't have afforded it," he says.

He played football in football season, basketball in basketball season, then baseball during baseball season.

Michael Jr. plays baseball, football and soccer.

The elder Benjamin is now a big fan of soccer.

"It gets these guys in phenomenal shape," he says. "I mean, they're out running around like crazy in 105-degree heat. When Michael is done with soccer, football is just a breeze for him."

For most kids, he says, playing the same sport all year long gets old. If the parents keep pushing when a kid is sick of a sport, the kid will come to hate the sport permanently.

"I hear it even from the kids who love the game," he says. "At some point, it just becomes a grind. At that point, you've just got to let them step away. The worst thing you can do is push a kid to the point that a sport becomes a miserable experience."

Benjamin and I start talking about some of the kids he is coaching now, a few of whom I helped coach in Little League. The conversation evolves to our own kids and their Little League experiences.

Our talk reminded me of a game last year when Andrew and Michael faced off near the end of the regular season.

The Benjamins and their Cubs won by one run. But Andrew, especially for an 11-year-old, had put up a pretty good fight, pitching six solid innings in late-season heat.

As I talked to Mike, I remembered a moment after that game where he came up to me and congratulated us.

"Andrew is a really strong kid," I remember him saying. "He was out there for a long time, but it didn't seem to bother him."

As I talked to Mike in August of 2005, I finally realized there was a subtext to that compliment.

You left your kid out there too long!

I asked him about that game and his comment. He's even got soft hands with criticism.

"Look, we're both competitive," he tells me. "In my case, it ended a couple years ago. I left a kid in too long in a game to get the win. And afterward, I felt like crap. What the hell was I doing?

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