THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
Sometimes, the strangest things can remind you of teachable moments. For me, it was running into someone from my past that jogged my memory.
About eight years ago, I was asked to take over a Senior Babe Ruth program that had no direction. This summer baseball team featured kids aged 15-19 years old. I had played in the same program during a chunk of my years in the same age range, so I deemed it a good opportunity to give back to the community and accepted the no-pay volunteer job.
Here's some background information that may help put this program into perspective. In my hometown (where this position existed), the number of kids playing baseball was dwindling thanks to a number of factors. Lacrosse and other sports were becoming more popular. Travel teams in other sports were asking their players to dedicate their time to their team throughout the entire year. The popularity of baseball was down in general due to the pace of the sport and the attention span of our youth. Put simply, there were fewer and fewer kids who wanted to play baseball, and it was dangerously close to this program not existing.
Further, this program was second tier to our American Legion program. If you lived in my county and played baseball in the summer, you had two options: American Legion (the varsity of the summer) or Senior Babe Ruth (the JV). Legion baseball was quickly getting out of hand, too. The people playing (and their parents) were either too serious or too ridiculous to allow for the kids to have fun or succeed. This was an opportunity for me to show that this "lower level" program was still quality and offered kids almost the same experience as Legion, albeit at a lower dedication of time.
During the first three years at the helm of the program in my hometown, we won two championships. The first year was a bit of a transition, but years two and three proved fruitful. Interestingly enough, after the first year, as kids saw that we meant business and weren't the cutthroat coaches found in Legion, the players from Legion were quitting that team and coming to play for me. One of the biggest catalysts was that Legion was a 7-day-per-week dedication; Senior Babe Ruth was three or four days at most. Teenage boys had the chance to be themselves; they could hold jobs, go on vacation, etc. We never practiced or played on Fridays or Saturdays either. The only thing we didn't do was pay these kids a decent salary!
Each year also had a war of attrition. If 15 kids signed up for the team, we were lucky to get 10 to show up to any given game. By the time playoffs came around in late July/early August, we were fighting just to field a team. It certainly was frustrating, but it was also the price of doing business. If you wanted to attract teenage boys to play baseball, you had to offer certain concessions in your negotiations, including the flexibility to miss games if they met certain requirements, such as giving proper notice. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best we would get.
In my first year, I actually had a kid who was a very young 15 year old. In fact, he was the youngest kid on the team. He looked like a middle linebacker; he had decent athletic ability and a good knowledge of the game. He kept his mouth shut and did everything I asked him. His parents, on the other hand, probably caused my therapy bill to increase by at least 200% that year.
For example, I had two first basemen on my team that year, one of which being this kid in question. When both were there, I would alternate them each game. So if one played first, the other would be the extra hitter (an adopted rule that allowed an additional player to be in the starting lineup). The next game, I switched them. Plus, the young kid also pitched; so if he was playing first and then went in to pitch, it was pretty easy to put the other kid at first base. If the young kid's parents saw that he was only the extra hitter and not playing first base that game, I would have to listen to the parents complain about that while I was trying to manage the game.
At the end of that year, I had to nominate 16 year old kids from my team for an All-Star team in the county. When word of this got out, the parents of the 15 year old contacted me and requested that I nominate their son for the 16 year old team. I compared his stats for that season to those of the kids I had planned on nominating and saw they were not that good, but I also knew that this may be a battle not worth fighting. When I submitted my nominations, I wrote down four names: the three kids who deserved it and the 15 year old. I included a note saying this kid was only 15 and probably didn't deserve the nomination, but that he should be at least considered. The manager emailed me and said he would consider him, but that he would not take the 15 year old over another deserving 16 year old kid in the league. I completely understood and thanked him for at least taking it off my hands.
The manager ended up not taking the 15 year old. When word of this got back to his parents, my phone began to ring excessively. Both of his parents called me multiple times throughout the few hours after hearing the news and asking for an explanation. Thank God for voicemail.
I eventually emailed the parents and explained that I had nominated him, but that it was up to the manager of the team to select him, which he did not do. The parents chewed out the manager of that team for not selecting him, then turned around and chewed me out for not doing enough to get their son on the team. That was enough for me to finally stand up to them and cite their son's statistics and how he really didn't deserve to be nominated anyway. The email I received in response was enough to cause a grown man to cry. I was called a pejorative manager; my integrity as a player, a coach, and an umpire was belittled. Insults were hurled at my parents who held no stake in this matter whatsoever. The parents of this kid made it so personal that they still flip me off if they see me in public to this day.
By the time year three arrived, we had 20 kids registered officially for the team. It was a challenge to please everyone, but I did my best to get everybody into every game. I utilized the designated hitter and extra hitter rules to allow 11 players to play at any given time. I substituted players in at reasonable times. And if I didn't get a player in a game (due to it being shortened for the mercy rule or for rain, for example), that player started the next game. The players all seemed to be fine with it, and I encouraged an open dialogue between them and me to make sure this was okay.
Of course, you couldn't please everyone. When one kid realized he wasn't getting into the first game of the season since he was our closer and I was going to give our starter the opportunity to finish the game, I never saw the kid again. But I didn't lose sleep over this kid or similar kids...if the kid didn't was going to use that as ammunition to quit the team, I probably dodged a bullet.
One time, a player showed up to a game five minutes before first pitch. He didn't get into that game. He then asked me why he didn't get into the game. When I told him it was because he showed up five minutes before first pitch, he got confused and walked away. Everybody else had been there about 75 minutes before first pitch; I wasn't going to diminish their playing time to please the one kid who couldn't even bother to come up with a good excuse!
When we reached the championship game at the end of the third season, my roster of 20 was no longer an accurate representation of my team. I had 12 kids show up to the final game, and one of the kids forgot his contacts, so he was only used as a pinch runner. (I give that kid credit, though; he was mature enough to admit he forgot them and didn't want to put the team in jeopardy.) So I really only had 11 kids at that game. And we won our second consecutive championship that night.
The next year, a new coordinator was elected to serve on my hometown's board of directors for our local baseball association. He was essentially my supervisor. I had known him for years. His wife worked for my father. I taught two of his three kids music lessons. We've met.
As kids started registering for my team in that fourth year, the coordinator emailed me and said he wanted to split my team into two teams. He cited the fact that I had 20 kids last year and that he heard complaints from parents that the kids weren't getting enough playing time as a result. I was floored.
I sent the coordinator the spreadsheets I meticulously kept over the past three years, citing which kids were registered, which kids showed up, and which kids played. I had hoped to prove to him that three years of experience would show that 20 kids was actually not enough for two teams based on the inability for kids to show up. If only 12 of 20 kids would show up to the championship game, isn't that enough evidence to show that splitting a team in half may not work?
However, as a reasonable person, I offered to compromise. I told him that if 30 kids officially registered and paid, I would look to split the team into two, assuming we had enough players at each position to do it without putting the kids at risk of injury or diminishing their fun. He agreed to this.
Then he split the team when we had 24 registered.
To say that relationship would be permanently strained is an understatement.
I pleaded with him to honor his end of the deal. Rather than do so, he had the coaches he appointed to the new second team fight the battle for him. The insults started again. I'll never forget the parting line of one of the coaches. "All you care about are championships!"
Some battles are just not worth fighting because they fall on deaf ears. No matter how much you try to reason with someone, they refuse to consider that the other person might have an argument with substance, even if they didn't agree with it. It's like trying to argue with someone who refuses to believe that George Washington was the first US President: you can show that person every history book in the world, but their stubbornness will prevent logic and truth from prevailing.
We tried to make it work that year, but what I had predicted came to fruition. With 24 registered players and only 12 on my team, we couldn't even get 8 to show up for a playoff game. In a league where every team makes the playoffs, my team couldn't even participate in the playoffs because some people accused me of only caring about championships and decided to break up the team.
Maybe jealousy played a part. Did these other parents see the team succeed under my guidance and decide it was their time to try to take my job? The job didn't even pay me anything...what was in it for them? Was it just the chance to live vicariously through their sons?
When my team was facing the problem of not having enough players to even play a game, I asked my team what they wanted me to do. The players didn't have an answer. The parents also didn't.
The person I ran into today was the only one who did have an answer. His answer was simple: "Put on your big boy pants and get it done."
Yeah, because that solves everything.
I submitted my resignation after that season. I could see the writing on the wall. A group of parents were swooping in and claiming this program as their own once they saw that I had done the dirty work and turned it around. It's an unfortunate phenomenon that happens too frequently: nobody wants to do the work to create something special or to revitalize something that has faded, but once the work is done, everyone comes out of hiding and tries to claim it as their own. And since the program was nothing more than a volunteer job with no contracts under the heading of a non-profit community organization, I had nothing. It was free game, and I lost it.
The frustration that comes with such an experience raises a very interesting question. Why would anyone volunteer to do something like this if this possibility is lurking? Are we blind to it when we are young and inexperienced? Do we neglect it when our hearts tell us to do something good for others? Or are their other motives?
How do we battle people who accuse us of wrongdoing when we try to do the right thing, especially in the name of sportsmanship? Managing a baseball team is not an easy job; the balance of trying to put your team in a competitive position to win while also providing equal value to the playing time of each player (especially when they are kids and paying to be on the team) is not easy. It's akin to an orchestra where everyone pays membership dues to join: the director then has to decide who performs in what chair and who takes various solos, and if someone paying money isn't pleased by the director's decision, who's to stop that person from just leaving unsatisfied? It's not like a school team where money does not determine who makes a team and who doesn't, as well as who plays and who doesn't. If you were to make an argument that this job is impossible, you'd have a point.
Sportsmanship is a topic that we usually reference when looking at events that occur during the course of a game or competition, as if they were "between the lines," if you will. We specifically look at it as something that occurs between the two teams or competitors and their associated coaches. We are just now starting to apply it to the behavior of fans in a vast number of scenarios. And we are also trying (as described in some of my previous posts) to make sure it applies to sports officials, too. But who would have thought that it could apply to the administrators who are responsible for just the business side of athletic teams?
The parents of the 15 year old who didn't make the All-Star team didn't understand the sportsmanship side of considering that there were other kids who probably deserved to make that team. They didn't see it as an opportunity to explain to their kid that sometimes we have to accept that we can't always get what we want.
The coaches and coordinator who decided to split the team in half didn't understand the sportsmanship side of putting the experience of the kids ahead of their own. They saw an opportunity to credit themselves with success at the expense of others; thanks to them, half of the kids didn't get a chance to play at the end of the season.
Is it possible that all these people thought they were doing the right thing the entire time? Yes. Anything's possible. What I write here may be the exact opposite of what they were thinking. Maybe we'll never agree on these specific items. I can only report from my experience.
Since I quit that volunteer coaching job, I haven't coached another youth baseball team. Yet, according to another coach, all I care about are championships.
I'm sure someone will accuse me of just taking my ball and going home, right?