• December 9, 2023

What Gets Lost as Little Leagues Get Smaller

On a windy Saturday in April in Hamden, Connecticut, where I live, I saw a group of kids testing their baseball skills in preparation for the Little League season. My son was among them; I volunteered as a trainer this year. On the following Monday evening I was supposed to choose the teams together with the other coaches.

I had previous experience drafting players. In 2011 while write a book I had watched the inner workings of an NFL team as the New York Jets prepared for the draft. That year, jet scouts roamed the country, watching and meeting college players, and speaking to coaches, professors, acquaintances, and sometimes law enforcement. They made five thousand long reports on twelve hundred prospects, searched for hidden truths and the secrets of young souls, overestimated the things they valued most in themselves, and kept their fingers crossed.

In Hamden, my “scouting notes” were on the level of “quick” and “fun”. Hoping to improve my drawing acumen by Monday night, I went home and called some of my old subjects from the Jets for advice. Former Jets CEO Mike Tannenbaum, who now runs a football think tank he founded, warned as a precaution: “You will walk with your heart instead of your head.” The team’s former defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, who later became head coach of Cleveland Browns said, “Pick kids who love baseball – don’t play because of dads. Avoid children with overly engaged parents. ”Anthony Lynn, a running backs coach who subsequently headed the San Diego Chargers for several years, recalled his own Friday Night Lights childhood as a star athlete in small town Texas where his closest friend was called Rocky. Lynn made it clear that he was still blaming his town’s Little League for not being teammates with Rocky. “White Sox moved me in,” Lynn said. “Astros took him. I was in tears. The first draft we ever had in our city. We showed up in front of the school. Everyone waited. Then we screamed. Lots of crying. ”Lynn had very specific advice. “You design the team chemistry,” he said. “I was hell on the White Sox coach this year. I wouldn’t serve ”- that is, until one day his trainer’s wife brought baked goods. “She won me over with brownies,” he said. “We made the playoffs. I was pitching and talking shit with my best friend Rocky the whole time! “

Hearing Lynn reminisce in this way brought back similar atmospheres from my own years in uniform growing up in New Haven – not quite baseball itself, but surprising things people said and did at the games. There was the bully who religiously crossed himself before striking and got a pitcher to do the same just so they would be an equal. The way we talked more in school in anticipation of the upcoming games than after the decision. The interesting-sounding companies – a hot dog wholesaler, a tropical fish shop, a karting company – that sponsored teams and gave them a mystique that made us, at eleven and twelve, feel halfway complicit in their missions. The distinctive way people wore their uniforms. (The best player in our league had one pant leg high up on the knee, the other lower on the shin, and soon others took over the fashion.) The boy who borrowed my cherished new wooden club and broke a single one as soon as he hit it. He later came up to me and I expected him to apologize, but instead he said, “If the bat had been better, I would have hit a home run.”

I grew up with a single mother and I always noticed fathers in the stands watching their sons play. Most of the time we children knew our neighborhood. But through baseball I met kids I wouldn’t have otherwise, kids from all over New Haven. The games opened up the city, showed how things and people were.

Hamden, which became the home of Thornton Wilder, who wrote “Our Town,” in the 1930s, was once a street suburb of New Haven. It was home to many of Yale’s faculty members, but there were also working-class neighborhoods, inland villages, extensive farmland, and a child named Donald Hall, the country’s future Poet Laureate, who would later have a prose collection titled “Fathers playing tag with their sons. ”In the 1950s, Hamden was redesigned with new motorways and parks based on the model of the white suburban escape. Hamden was both a town in its own right and a place of transition, not exactly a separate entity, but a continuation of New Haven, a region of cities and suburbs giving way to the country. It was then almost entirely white; It had the state’s first suburban mall and, from 1953, a youth sports league called the Hamden Fathers’ Baseball Association. (The paternal nomenclature remains.) One of Hamden’s sons was Joe Castiglione, whose congenial tenor was known to supporters of the Boston Red Sox since 1983when he became the team’s play-by-play radio station. Describing balls and punches or telling the sweetness of the strawberries he buys at his local market, Castiglione sounds like someone talking to his neighbor over a backyard fence.

Hamden continues to reflect America’s changing suburbs: Today, 27 percent of its population are African American, and about one in seven was born in a country other than the United States. Many of Hamden’s residents, as well as much of the country, are committed to the community Self-examination. Dealing with a single topic, such as B. a land reform or the desire for affordable housing is complex; At public hearings, school assemblies, and online, speaking about one thing inevitably leads to discussions about other things, such as educational reform and the city’s budget difficulties, and employment, opportunity and taxation issues – a cohesive thicket of processes that are just as spirited and burdened like the times. The city’s vibrant small-business culture, from Kelly’s Cone Connection to East Side Flooring, is still featured on the jerseys of young baseball players. The demographics are diverse, but the city is divided into districts. In this way Hamden reminds me of the New Haven I grew up in, a vibrant, diverse city where people tended to stay in their own homogeneous communities. But there were ways not to do that, to get to know a little bit of each, and one was Little League.

In our design room sat the affable League commissioner, Carl, and my fellow coaches who reported to Doc and John and Mayor Curt. (He really is the mayor.) The evening was a simple, completely awkward exercise in apolitical conviviality. None of us knew all the players, so in the later rounds there was information on the level of “He’s my best friend’s kid” and “His favorite color is green”. Everyone shared Pettine’s dislike of the father’s over-participation and could remember previous cases of shield theft behind home plate, fathers who came to games in altered conditions and shouted scornfully for six innings, and even a man who coached his Son to say, “My child plays way too much. We have to win! “

In the past few years, Hamden had occupied two complete and well-stocked leagues. Now we were about to field four teams in a league. Quite a few of the better young players from our growing city with 60,000 inhabitants no longer play in our league. They had been involved in another sport all year round or had decided on the travel ball.

Across the country, local city leagues face off, not just in baseball, but also in soccer and basketball and other youth sports falling enrollmentsas more children enroll in the country’s thousands and thousands of travel programs – immersive experiences with expert guidance from alumni, a long game plan against opponents from distant places, superb facilities, gleaming uniforms and uniforms next door swag, and pre-professional seriousness of the game that preaches hard work and dedication to practice. In the interest of these creeds, skills clinics, private lessons, and special strength and conditioning days are also available. Youth sport is a booming business that is profitable fifteen billion dollars per year. For many parents, the financial and time commitments are transactional, investing in the Grail of a college athletic scholarship, or who knows, maybe even a career in Houston or Chicago with the real Astros or White Sox.

Travel sports seem to suit our time, not only in the way they seek to gain an advantage in order to move forward, but also in the way they are created Inequality and separation within the culture. Most people don’t have thousands of dollars to invest in a nine-year-old third baseman season after season. At the local level, most cities cannot compete with the lush facilities of travel companies, which are often based in affluent white suburbs.

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