Guest Column: Little League thrills should remain for the kids
Hope springs eternal for the youth of Fairfield, as they take to the ball fields all around the town.
Bridgeport Bluefish manager and Southport resident Willie Upshaw told me Saturday at the Fairfield Girls Softball League's opening day ceremonies about the thrill he had as a 7-year-old boy in Texas when he put that wool uniform on for the first time.
It's a thrill I still get to this day when I put on a new slow-pitch softball t-shirt. It's a thrill that means for an hour, you can be a kid again and run around on a grass and clay field (before taking in adult libations, in moderation, of course).
But are we taking that fun away from our kids? My wife and I are expecting our first child in September, so that thought has been crossing my mind more than ever.
I dropped by a high school baseball game a few years back, not as a reporter, but because I knew a player. I stood with a parent of one of the players, and one of his friends stopped over to say hello.
The parent introduced me to his friend as a writer. The friend looked me in the face and his friendly demeanor changed.
He barked at me, with an attitude, "Oh yeah? Well write THIS! MY son should be the THIRD BASEMAN!"
And then he stormed away.
This, by the way, was a freshman baseball game.
This is not just a Fairfield epidemic, either. I went to see the same player in a Little League tournament back when he was no more than 10 or 11. The mothers sitting behind the opposing teams bench screamed "you suck" at him as he pitched. And later when he was at bat and was hit by a pitch, some of them cheered.
It's also not an epidemic that targets preteen parents, either. It seems the fathers of the starting players of certain high school football teams form their own pack, and the dads whose kids are backups are left out. It's as if their social status in life depends on how well their son performs on the football field.
Parents, the more you pressure your kid on the field, the easier it will be to walk away from the game. If your children are turned off by a sport they love, think of what they will do when they have kids who are old enough to play youth sports. They may not even let their kids play.
I saw a couple of banners at Haydon Field during the softball league's ceremonies. One was a state championship banner for its 9-10 year old all-star team.
Now I'm sure this is something set up by Little League Baseball, which sanctions the Fairfield Girls Softball League. But how young is too young for an all-star team? Does this benefit the girls who are just learning the game and told at such a young age that they are the best among their peers, or does it show off how wonderful the parents who coach the league are?
What's more, how many kids are quitting sports at a young age because they were told they were no good as a 10-year-old? And for that matter, how many of these kids were being raised as superstars peak at 12 or 13 and then, well, aren't the starting third baseman on their freshman baseball team?
Sometimes I don't understand it.
My guess is that it's an unfortunate part of human nature. Trust me, the week I found out my wife was pregnant, I was researching how young a kid can start weight training. Maybe I need to get our son or daughter a baseball to hold while it's still in the hospital nursery.
I asked Upshaw for his perspective of youth sports -- not just as a retired Major League Baseball player, but as a parent whose three children all went on to play sports at the Division I level.
"You've got to teach them how to play, and when you're done teaching them, let them go play and have fun with it," Upshaw said. "You don't want to put any pressure on them, how they play and whatnot."
But he added something else that a lot of us are forgetting. You have to let your kids go out and play by themselves. You know, like most of today's parents did when they were kids.
"You have to use your imagination, especially in this game," Upshaw said. "You can play baseball with two people. And you have to have a lot of imagination to play it, and that's what makes it a great sport."
Willie Upshaw remembers what it was like to be a kid. And the rest of us need to remember it, too.