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Taking The Fun Out Of Kids Sports

August 30, 2008 - John Whittaker

When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I loved to play baseball.

It was all I wanted to do in the backyard -- friends and I would play one-on-one baseball with ghost runners. When no one was there to play with me, I'd throw a ball against my house, with me starting as the pitcher and then, depending on where the ball landed, I would become that fielder, just nipping the runner at first. I'd have my baseball cards out there with me and play with actual lineups. Eventually, my parents bought me a pitch-back machine -- I really wanted one, but I'll bet I was doing a bit too much damage to our houses, too.

As we've established already, I'm a dork.

I loved playing Little League. I played in the Mayville league then -- the smallest guy in the league, with probably the least amount of athletic talent. I'd stand in, though, take my cuts until I had two strikes and then try to work a walk -- a great game plan when you're 4-feet, 4-inches, weigh 65 pounds soaking wet and have as much power as an unplugged toaster.

I loved playing, though, with all my friends from school. We'd talk about that night's game at school the next day, whose team was in first place, what had to happen for Team A to overtake Team B. Did you see what Joey did last night - he hit that ball hard! Did you see that kid whose pants fell down in left field?

We all had a good time. Everybody played. My stepdad taught one of our pitchers how to throw a ridiculous changeup. We had a girl on our team who could hit the ball as well as any of the guys. Did I tell you we had a midget shortstop who looks remarkably like the Whitless Wonder, with more hair and less of a belly?

It was like the big leagues to us -- which made my team, Andriaccio's Pizza, the 1962 Mets. We lost all but one game we played -- but we still got ice cream after every game. My stepdad said as long as we had fun playing the game, the ice cream was ours. You never saw kids enjoy playing more than those Andriaccio's kids.

Of all those memories, I still remember facing this tall, chunky kid named Jeff. Nearly 25 years later, I can't remember Jeff's last name, but he was one of those kids who just grew faster than everyone else. And, as a pitcher, he could throw HARD. I hated facing him - my eyes weren't the best, so seeing a hard fastball wasn't in the cards. The pitches sounded like strikes, and I swung like a bat would, because there was no way I was seeing the ball, much less hitting it with any authority.

And so, I'm watching the situation in the Liga Juvenil de Baseball in New Haven regarding Jericho Scott with a lot of interest. Scott is 9 years old, and parents don't want him pitching to their children because he throws too hard. He's never hit a batter. He's never been a problem to anyone. He throws all of 40 miles an hour.

Frankly, there are always kids who are more advanced than other kids in a league. It happens every year. It happens here in Chautauqua County. Some of the kids might play in numerous leagues just to have more competition -- which is what Jericho Scott does in his spare time. League officials want him to only play in the upper-level league.

But, he enjoys playing with his friends too, something I can admire. Half the fun of the game is shooting the breeze about it the next day at school. It's part of being a kid -- hanging out after the game with your boys, talking about the great pitch you threw to make that other kid look foolish or how hard you smoked a ball during last night's game.

For a 9 or 10 year old kid, it's at least partly about bonding with kids your own age, doing things together. It's where friendships are made. Forget about the game for a minute -- there is definitely a social side to this equation.

I've read the news stories and heard the arguments on talk radio. The side I haven't heard is of the other kids in the league. Do they want Jericho out of their league? Are they really afraid of the boy? Did they ask their parents to act on their behalf?

I'd bet not, and here's why.

As an athlete - and this is coming from one of the worst athletes on the face of the planet - you relish going up against the best.

Case in point - playing in the Bemus Point 3-on-3 tournament a few years ago, me, my brother and my buddy Todd drew Maceo Wofford and three of his buddies in the first round of the tournament. I knew we were going to get smoked. It's Maceo, for God's sake. The kid played in the NCAA Tournament -- I'm here making wise cracks in a blog in the Internet. There's no way any of us could guard him. His friends were pretty good too, by the way. Mismatches abounded that day - and they weren't in our favor.

But, we went out, played hard and kept the game close. We didn’t fold. We didn't run away. We stood, toe to toe, with perhaps the best player to come out of Jamestown, someone playing Division 1 basketball, and we only lost by seven points in a game to 15. I had to guard Maceo a couple of times- and I realized how talented you have to be to compete at those high levels some of us weekend athletes only see on TV. He blew past me like I was standing still -- which I was, because there's no way I was keeping up with him. The fat guy had to conserve a little energy. He's kind of like Jeff's fastball -- I didn't see him go by, but I swear it sounded really fast.

We played, we shook hands when it was over and moved on.

And that's the lesson that isn't being taught in the Liga Juvenil de Baseball and its dealings with Jericho Scott. Is it scary to face a kid who throws hard, who you know has more athletic ability than you do?

It sure is.

Is it gratifying when you get a hit off of that kid? Definitely.

I remember getting a hit off of Jeff in one of our last games of the season. He was pitching a great game against us and we were, as usual, losing.

But, I got into the batter's box late in the game and took my cuts. I wasn't taking a walk. I wasn't ducking. He threw a ball that probably wasn't where he wanted it, and I grounded a single through the hole between first and second base. It wasn't pretty. I was really late on the ball, and it took about 37 hops through the infield. But, I had a hit -- and let me tell you, the ice cream tasted a lot sweeter that night.

That is a feeling being taken from the other kids in the Liga Juvenil. Will those other kids, whose parents are trying to keep them safe, ever have that feeling of accomplishment having gone up against the best kid in their school and coming through?

Sometimes, the best you can do is go up, do your best and, regardless of the outcome, be happy that you did the best your ability allowed. It's a life lesson that goes far beyond the white lines of a baseball diamond or basketball court.

Let's face it. The chances are none of these kids are going to the major leagues. It doesn't mean you can't learn major league lessons, and the only lesson being learned right now is when the going gets tough, Mom and Dad will remove the obstacle in your way.

Their life might be easier not having to face Jericho.

But is their life better?

I'd say no.

 
 

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Parents in a New Haven youth baseball league say this 9-year-old is too good to play with their kids.