- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Last week this newspaper ran a front-page story discussing the decline of youth baseball. In it, baseball people scratched their heads and wondered what they could do to get kids more interested in the sport. The world has changed so much since we were young, they said. There are so many more activities competing for our children's time now, and blah, blah, blah.
As someone who has helped coach a rec team in Montgomery County the last few years, let me tell you about my experience in youth baseball and what I think is being done wrong. Numero uno: My 11-year-old's six-game "season."
That's right folks, his team was allowed to play six whole games two of them against an all-girls team that it beat by a combined score of a jillion to four. I stood there watching those two games, and I thought to myself: What exactly is the purpose of this? Are the boys getting anything out of it? (No.) Do the girls feel empowered? (Didn't look like it.)
But to get back to my point: A six-game "season" for a group of fifth-graders just doesn't cut it. How are you supposed to turn kids on to baseball if you never let them play the darn game? When I was in the fifth grade, sometime around the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, I played a 20-game Little League season. I also played 20 games when I was in the fourth grade and 20 more when I was in the sixth. And my son plays six games two against "a bunch of girls"? This is human progress?
I almost forgot to mention the field we played on. It was a girls' high school softball field, and it was a veritable sand pit. Hard ground balls would be reduced to harmless rollers by the time they reached the infielder. That is, assuming they went that far. The only good thing about the field was that it absorbed rain like a sponge. (And thank heaven for that, otherwise the "season" would have been reduced to five games.)
I'm confounded, I truly am. Baseball folks will tell you that one of the reasons participation levels are dropping is that children just aren't exposed to the sport as much as they used to be. They don't play it on the playgrounds this being the Play Date Era and they don't play it in gym class. (My son, about to begin middle school, says he has never played any version of baseball softball, Wiffle Ball, whatever in P.E.) So why would anyone think the solution to the Baseball Problem is to have kids play the game less rather than more?
Why, you ask, am I so hung up on playing more games as opposed to, say holding more practices? Two reasons. First, as any coach knows, players almost never miss games. They're just too much fun. Practices, on the other hand, are much more iffy. Practices often conflict with piano lessons and Hebrew school and school plays and Cub Scouts (not to mention other sports).
Second, kids learn a lot more in a game than they do in practice, I'm convinced, simply because their interest level is higher. They're also forced to deal with situations in the field and at the plate that might not come up every day. It's just a better learning situation, if you ask me.
I honestly don't think youth baseball has fallen out of favor because "parent rage" has "turned off kids in droves." In all the years I've been going to games, I've never heard an adult say anything remotely objectionable. Amazing, maybe, but true.
And I've only run across one coach I would put in the jerk category. (He was the kind of guy who took advantage of the fact that there was only one umpire with one set of eyes. So his players would leave base early on steal attempts and obstruct base runners and, when they felt they could get away with it, pitch about a foot in front of the rubber. It was a pretty pathetic display, but what are you gonna do? Start throwing beach chairs?)
No, from what I've seen, the parents are doing a very good job of creating the proper environment for baseball. Except for one thing: This six-game "season" business. They're letting the kids down there. They're also letting the sport down, because when you're competing against soccer and Pop Warner and who knows what else, you're going lose if you don't have something more to offer, something to make it worth the players' while. Six games in 10 weeks (counting two weeks of "spring training" and two holiday weeks when no games were scheduled) isn't much of a come-on.
Anyway, after this last season I talked it over with my son, and we decided to try another league in another town. This league plays twice a week instead of just once. This league, I've been assured, has real fields, not modified sand boxes. This league believes kids should play baseball, not just (occasionally) practice it.
Am I one of these delusional parents who thinks his boy is going to turn into the next Greg Maddux? Hardly. I just want him to have one sport he might be able to play beyond the age of 12 or 13. Because when you consider some of the other entertainment options available to the teen-agers drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. baseball looks pretty good.
You can't learn it playing six games a "season," though, any more than you can learn Spanish by listening to six audio tapes. It's a hard game, sure, and not for everybody. But as Tom Hanks' character said in "A League of Their Own," "The hard is what makes it great."


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