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.
Mike Woods has built a baseball powerhouse at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
Peter Scanlon
Mike Woods has built a baseball powerhouse at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
Andrew Nelson warming up for an All-Star game.
Robert Nelson
Andrew Nelson warming up for an All-Star game.
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.

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.

But if it had, I just hope the coroner would have identified the true cause of my demise:

Death by Pride.


"That's the dark heart of it all, isn't it?" child psychologist and author Darrell Burnett asks rhetorically. "A father's pride. It can be quite a beast."

But we're supposed to be proud of our kids. Every father-son movie ends with: I'm proud of you, son! To express one's pride ina child to the child is something dads are always told to do.

"I guess, just tell him you love him instead," Burnett says.

Simple, really. Just amend the old song by the '70s band Sweet. Pride is like oxygen. You get too much, you get too high. Not enough and you're going to die.

Just enjoy and distribute, in moderation.

"You're over-thinking this," he tells me (a nice euphemism for you're neurotic). "But you are thinking about it. That's the main thing I tell dads. Just make sure you are thinking about it, watching yourself. Always be asking yourself: 'Who am I doing this for? Am I doing it for me or my child?'

"And remember: Make sure you relate to him or her as a kid first, an athlete second."

I know, I don't mean to be an asshole, I tell him.

"That's probably true of the vast majority of the fathers who cause the vast majority of problems for kids out there," he says.

We live in a state where more kids than ever are playing the same single sport all year-round.

Where there are leagues funneling into big schools where very many kids can be left very far behind if they do not completely focus on one activity at which they are very, very good.

(I personally had the good fortune of going to a small Nebraska high school known for mediocrity where I could participate in myriad activities at which I universally sucked.)

Dads quickly become well aware of the facts of sports life in suburban Phoenix in 2005. And even dads who are not feeding their own egos get caught in the year-round cycle because they want to help their kids survive and thrive in this highly populated and competitive market.

Which can lead to pitching and hitting and agility coaches. Which can lead to fall ball and winter ball and spring ball and summer ball. Which can lead to rec teams and club teams and developmental teams and elite teams and scout teams and high school prep teams. All fine in moderation. All dangerous when abused.

Which all can lead to curve balls and splitters at age 13.

Or, at age 12 because your son needs to keep up with the kids from the Blaze or Yankees or Bulldogs who are throwing them.

Or, it's age 11. Or at 10. Because the other guys are doing it.

Or, hell, because you just want to beat the jerks!

So you will only let your boy throw a few.

But it is the fourth inning in the championship game of the Super Series or the Triple Crown tournament in October, then November, then December. And yes, his pitch count is high, but yours is a strong kid. And the team just needs a few more innings out of him, and just a few more curve balls because it is the only way to keep the opposition from scoring in this really, really important tournament that nobody besides a few other dads knows exists. And then there are a few walks and a few hits, and the bases get loaded a few times, and the pitch count sneaks over 110. His fastball is dying, so you let him turn to the curve ball, trying again to finish this thing off. And, hurrah, your boy succeeds and gets a little gold-colored medal. And then you wonder the next morning why your son cannot lift that spoonful of his Breakfast of Champions without whimpering.

Each source for this story -- from doctor to pro ballplayer to coach -- went into a rambling narrative about the nature of today's youth sports that sounded oddly similar to the previous paragraph.

This chain of bad thinking has led to, according to coaches and doctors, a massive increase in the number of children who have had some sort of sports-career-ending injury.

Or, kids who just do not want to play anymore.

"The result is, we're destroying the whole reason for youth sports," Burnett says. "We're not building bonds and self-esteem and strong bodies and character while having fun. We're tearing them all down with too much work."


"H ello? This is Mike Woods. I'm the baseball coach over at Hamilton. You called about a story you're doing."

I explained to Woods, coach of a team that has won two of the last three 5A state titles, that I'm trying to find out about overuse injuries and burnout in kids from the perspective of a dad who probably is more the problem than the cure.

I tell the baseball coach at Arizona's largest high school, which is a mile from our home in south Chandler, that I'm writing this because my kid just finished Little League in Chandler and I'm in postseason self-assessment mode. I tell him that I believe I've let my kid play too much baseball.

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

Intoxicating.

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

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.

"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."

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?

"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.

"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.

Stop!

Because the odds are horrible that Andrew can make it that far, no matter who his coach happens to be. And it is just crazy to look at a 100-pound kid and think you have a miniature big leaguer. So much can happen. So much nearly always does happen.

So I'm back to Earth. You know, where sports are a neat side dish to a good education. That's where the good money really is. Get your child a good education.

And then I remember what else Tom Thomas said.

That college coaches who don't have scouts often call their old buddies who are now pro scouts to ask if they've seen any coachable smart kids with strong skills who might be too small or too whatever to get selected in the pro draft.

For example, Thomas offered, what if a coach at an Ivy League school calls up a scout buddy and says he has access to some nice academic scholarships at the school for some smart kid who might want to play some baseball, too?

"Andrew's grades are really good, aren't they?" Thomas queried, knowing the answer.

Remembering this part of our discussion, I'm hooked again.

Because, just the month before, my wife and I had realized just how badly we were doing at saving for our kids' college educations.

Harvard? Dartmouth? Yale? Thomas had mentioned the Ivy League. George Bush Sr. played baseball at Yale. The Ivy League is the pipeline to power, to building family dynasties: the Kennedys, the Bushes.

Ladies and gentlemen, President Andrew Nelson!


It was Saturday night about two weeks ago, and I was balancing both sides of my body unloading the minivan.

The Little League adventure was over. The night before, Chandler National had gotten shelled in the regional semifinals in San Bernardino by the team from Northern California, which our guys had beaten the night before.

So it goes in youth baseball.

A week before, I had been on a mountaintop, the father of the boy who was being heralded in Arizona's two largest daily newspapers as the kid who nearly single-handedly pitched and hit Chandler National to the state title.

A week later, Andrew came in to pitch with his team behind 8-0 and fairly quickly drilled a kid, walked another and then ended the game with a ball in the dirt that allowed the 10th run to come in from third base.

Andrew was not supposed to pitch that game. He was slated to pitch the championship game Sunday on ESPN2 against man-child Kalen Pimentel and his powerful Southern California team in front of 12,000 SoCal fans.

It was to be an epic showdown between a 102-pound David and a 170-pound Goliath.

But it was not to be.

And dad was secretly relieved. In 99 percent of the battles between a David and a Goliath, Goliath kicks the living shit out of David.

So it was still about my pride. I did not want to see Andrew get hurt, sure, but I know I had some fear of how a butt-kicking of him would reflect on me.

Bad dad!

I concluded that it was a good thing that it was over for another reason.

We would all be able to better address the mountain of professional, academic, physical and emotional baggage that had accumulated in the previous month of obsessive attention to child's play.

That is, we could all move on.

Then I saw Andrew melded into the couch with tears in his eyes. He was watching ESPN2's broadcast of some other Regional Final.

"I wanted to pitch tomorrow," he said.

"You need to get away from this," I said, finally being the good father.

"Can we go do something?" he asked.

We walked into the garage and, for the first time in years, started rummaging through a shelf that held all the toys and sporting goods abandoned because they were not a bat, a glove or a small leather ball.

As we rummaged, I tried to cheer Andrew up.

"You know, I'm so friggin' proud of you! I'm worried I might be filled with too much pride."

He did not hear me.

"Oh, cool! Boccie. Remember when we'd play this, Dad?" he asked.

So we played that. And we played it poorly. And the worse we played, the funnier it got.

"We're goin' down," Andrew said, parroting a line from the South Park episode where the kids try to throw their Little League tournament games so they can get back to summer fun.

And one of us did go down, but I cannot remember who it was.

All I remember is how much fun we had.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Phoenix Concert Tickets
Loading...