Just finished coaching youth baseball for the summer, as has been the case for the past six years.
However, this year the coaching foray stretched into late July and tournament baseball. It was a new experience from a coaching perspective. Last year it was just cheering from the bleachers as the local 11-year-old team reached the state tournament with my kid serving as a role player.
This year was different. It was eye-opening. And frankly, what was witnessed was pretty darn embarrassing.
First, let it be stated that tournament team baseball has simply taken over in every suburban community near and far.
Whether it's Little League, Babe Ruth, or the younger arm of the Bambino known as Cal Ripken Baseball, everything is geared toward the development of tournament teams.
House leagues, which mostly everyone who grew up prior to this era participated in, are not important, except as cash cows for the athletic organizations that offer them and often end the same week as school.
This means, for 90 percent of the ball-playing youths, America's pastime, which is synonymous with summer, is over before the solstice even arrives.
That's a shame. But, in defense of the house league organizers, it's somewhat understandable. With parents more interested in going to the shore, or enrolling their children in summer camps than they are with continuing baseball as an activity into the summer and rosters being smaller in number as it is (to assure every kid playing time), come the summer months, the gamble of forfeiting games because of other activities that take precedent are too great to risk keeping these leagues running very long past the final school bell.
But what of the 30 or so kids in each age group that really want to keep playing? There has to be something for them, right?
Well, that's where tournament ball comes into play. And that's fine. There are now tournaments for kids as young as eight and as old as 18. The premise of these tournaments keeps the kids that want to continue playing to do so, which is definitely a positive.
So, each athletic association, whether it's the Brandywine Youth Club, or the Ridley Athletic Association, or Drexel Hill Little League, or whoever, creates a team of kids to play tourney ball, usually through
some sort of tryout.
If there are enough kids left over, a second squad, or "B" team is formed. There are plenty of tournaments for all to participate in, including the kids in the "B" program.
And while this all sounds hunky-dory, it's really not. That's because when it gets to this point, for the most part, the organizers, or coaches, or both, and yes most of them are parents of kids on these teams, suddenly take it too far.
It becomes more about winning for community pride, and making themselves look good -- as if they are going to be hired by a major league team at summer's end -- than it does about teaching the kids to play the game the right way.
At a recent "B" tournament, I was talking to an opposing coach during warm-ups. He said that his organization held tryouts every year for the tournament team for four years running, and every year, the same 12 kids were chosen to be on the team, no matter how many kids tried out.
"It's so political in our town," the coach said. "As a parent, you're either part of the 'in-crowd' or you're not. It has nothing to do with your kid, it's all about who the parents are, who they know, and what part they're willing to play."
But it doesn't stop there.
At the same aforementioned tournament, while speaking to another coach, it was divulged that one of the 10 participating coaches loaded his roster with 20 names, which is a lot for one team.
After nearly losing to a team he felt he should have obliterated, the coach called on kids who played for that organization's "A squad." He was handing out jerseys to these kids at the field minutes before the next game.
Suffice it to say, they dominated.
And it wasn't enough to blow out the inferior competition, but the coach was an outright jerk, saying things to his team out loud for the opposing kids to hear like, "You wouldn't be able to get away with that if you were playing a good team." Or, "Come on, this is their No. 9 hitter, just put the ball over the plate, he's not going to hit it."
In my team's final game, while coaching first base, two of the coaches from the opposing team were talking to my left. One pointed out a kid sitting in the stands who played for their squad a season earlier.
One coach walked over to the kid and said, "What are you doing this weekend?"
"Nothing, why," the youth replied.
"I could really use you for our semifinals and finals," said the coach.
"But, I'm too old, and I'm not on your roster," said the dumbfounded child.
"Don't worry," said the coach with a snicker. "I'll take care of that."
Unfortunately, this shouldn't surprise, because it happens far too often. And not just in baseball, but in other sports too. There are the coaches who sneak bigger kids into weight-restricted football leagues, or coaches who have ringers on their soccer and ice hockey squads.
It's all about their shallow and fleeting individual glory, and not about the kids themselves who are participating, and supposedly growing within the game.
As watchdogs, we in the media are quick to point out character flaws and things like drug abuse and steroid use by players as a way of both reporting news, but also sending a message to those impressionable in society that this behavior is wrong.
But, what good is it when children are learning from their parents and coaches at such tender ages that cheating is acceptable?
Yet, nothing can be done. As long as the competition remains more about the adults involved in youth sports than the ones actually playing the games, it will remain this despicable, if not worse.