Hardball

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

"So I got a clicker, you've seen it," he says. "I count every pitch.

"The bottom line is that you can't be afraid to take a loss. You can't rely on your son to do everything. You've got to get it in your head that you're absolutely not going to win a game at the expense of a kid. You just can't be afraid to get burned. It's got to be about the kids."

He pounded himself with these realizations. Then he made a plan "so I never let the emotions of a game dictate my actions." No more than 80 pitches -- ever. And that's only if the kid has been pitching a lot and is in shape. Maybe it is 50 pitches. He says he has a friend who limits his kid to 30 pitches.

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.

"Whatever the number is, you must make the plan and stick to it, no matter what," he says. "That's how you make sure the smart and caring dad in you doesn't get overcome by the competitive athlete in you."

Unlike a lot of coaches, he believes the overuse issue in baseball can go beyond the throwing motion. If a kid is playing year-round, he should even be taking batting practice from the other side, Benjamin says.

"It just goes back to that idea of balance," he says. "If you're a right-handed batter, swing from the left side some of the time. You lengthen and strengthen the muscles going the other way.

"It's all about balance," he says.

At this point, Benjamin is starting to sound a lot like Mark Verstegan, the Tempe-based physical trainer and guru on athleticism and injury.

One of Verstegan's trainers is off in Boston working on Curt Schilling's famous heel. Verstegan just sent Nomar Garciaparra back to the Cubs. He just sent Brett Favre back to Green Bay, where sports reporters are saying he's in the best shape of his life.

Verstegan is all about balance. Core balance, balance front to back, side to side, balance at work, balance at home.

Verstegan calls baseball one of the most physically lopsided sporting endeavors in the world.

You bat right or left and throw right or left. Half the body is doing one thing, the other is in a subordinate role.

Which is exactly why baseball is about the worst sport you could choose to focus solely on year-round. The best baseball players he has seen invariably were involved with other sports as kids.

"Having a kid only playing baseball is like taking a tree and forcing it to grow in only one direction," Verstegan says. "You're going against nature. And you're guaranteed to end up out of balance."

Verstegan's not just talking about the body here. He is talking about the mind, too. Including the mind of the youth baseball father. If both kid and dad are thinking about multiple sports, there's a good likelihood that neither will obsess.

"Isn't that the root of the concern?" he asks me. "Something is out of balance. You can feel that. It's just an issue of getting up and getting in gear and working toward that balance."


It is Los Angeles Dodgers scout Tom Thomas' opinion that Andrew has a "projectable" body.

When he first said it, I wanted to call the police.

But this is how pro scouts talk. Their lives are consumed with pro-jects and pro-jectability and pro-jecting for the pros.

He meant that my kid is generating a ton of speed and power out of a long, lean, skinny body. Just imagine, as scouts do, what could happen when a skinny, 102-pound kid who hits the ball 300 feet and throws the ball 71 miles per hour becomes a 200-pound man.

Thomas won a national title with Cal State-Fullerton, played in the Minnesota Twins organization for a while, then coached at the University of Illinois with college legend Augie Garrido. He coached rookie ball before he became a scout in 1992.

Recently, I received an e-mail from Thomas and his coaching partner asking if they could come to our house to talk to us about Andrew's future in baseball.

Thomas and his buddy Jeff Lane, a former college pitching standout whose oldest son is playing rookie ball right now, have a club team they want Andrew to play on.

Tom says he would not let Andrew pitch more than two or three innings a week. That would ensure that his pitch count is below 70, or 60. Or, if I want, 50. They would focus primarily on fielding, base running and hitting.

"You'd know he's learning the skills he needs to be successful in the future," he says.

Wow! Now that's what I'm talking about. A high-level pro scout for the Dodgers wants to help guide my son's baseball career.

You know, really, it could happen. Andrew is "projectable." Thomas said so.

With a real, live professional scout teaching him the stuff that real, live professional scouts look for, the sky's the limit! Andrew could play in the majors. The money those guys make . . .

Have you seen those houses that hang off the side of the mountain in Paradise Valley? That view has got to be so cool. I'm just not sure if I'd want to renovate an existing property or start from scratch.

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