Baseball Still Cements Our Generational Bond

0pening Day 2015

We walked out of the Tropicana Field rotunda and into the late-afternoon St. Petersburg sunshine. Behind us, muffled by concrete walls and thick glass, a celebratory fog horn sounded.

“That’s a Rays home run,” I said to my dad and Jay. “I’ll bet it was Longoria. And we missed it.”

A quick check on the iPhone proved it was Evan Longoria. But because we left Monday in the top of the seventh, we missed his Opening Day home run. No matter. It wasn’t about what we missed.

It was about being there together.

Jay said nothing. He was tired and glad we were on our way home. That was OK.

My older son enjoyed most of our visit to the Trop Monday for the game between the Rays and the Orioles. But baseball hasn’t grabbed him like it did me and dad.

That’s partially on me, I think. After so many years around the game as a young player and, later, as a sportswriter covering the majors, my relationship with baseball is … complicated.

Baseball

Three Gaddis generations arrive at Tropicana Field for the Opening Day game between the Orioles and the Rays.

I love the game. It’s in my soul. I’m a Hall of Fame voter and a reformed seamhead. I don’t live and breathe it like I did when it was my job, but I have the privilege now of luxuriating in the sport. I watched thousands of games in person over the years, all over the world. Now, most of my baseball viewing takes place on my couch at home.

Still, as I did when I covered the game, my mind follows, unbidden, pitch by pitch. It happened again Monday.

Why did he start this batter with a breaking ball? Is his great stuff today the norm, or is Opening Day adrenaline in play with that 97 mph heat? What was the math behind this drastic defensive infield shift? He’s got him 1-2 … does he try to bury a slider here or come back with a four-seamer on the hands? Is he confident enough in his new changeup to use it critical situations?

That’s how I used to watch a game, looking for turning points, mentally filing away questions to ask in the clubhouse either immediately afterward or during a casual, pre-game conversation later in the week. That’s a lot of thinking. It’s exhausting, frankly. I find I enjoy the game more at this point, now that I can change the channel whenever I like.

I will always love baseball. I will always watch it. I will always read about it. I will write about it, on occasion. That’s me, though. My sons? Their interests reflect their generation, and that means baseball is not front and center – a Nielsen annual report on sports media in 2013 showed that half of baseball’s audience is 55 and older, while only 7 percent is age 2-17.

So, it’s a cultural shift. But it was also a personal decision in our household. As my sons reached playing age, I didn’t want to be the dad who forced his athletic interests on his kids. I wanted to give them space to gravitate toward their own passions, like my parents did for me. Jay enjoys soccer, so his first baseball season was postponed until now.

He’s improving every day and has loved every minute of being part of a baseball team. I’d be lying if I said that isn’t a thrill. His younger brother will soon begin to learn the fundamentals of the game, too, and seems to be excited about it.

Baseball

He plays for the Rays (not THE Rays, but still), and now he has a memory of attending a Rays opener with his granddaddy and his dad. And of green cotton candy.

Still, given the choice between playing an hour of Minecraft and going out to the ball park to work on throwing, catching, hitting and running, there is no doubt the boys would choose their iPods.

The iPod equivalent when I was a kid was the Atari 2600. Rather than spend hours battling Donkey Kong or Space Invaders, my friends and I were more inclined to ride our bikes to the field and hit balls until the sun went down.

It just happened that my interest in baseball intersected with my dad’s. It’s a shared bond, still, and it was special to me to attend an Opening Day game with my dad and my older son.

We sat in section 309, row P, slightly up the third base line. The players were tiny. The seats were small, but not cramped. The temperature inside the dome was pleasant, as always.

The Rays were trailing, 4-0, when we left. They lost 6-2, but that’s OK. It’s a new season, a new team. They’ll figure it out.

Around the fifth inning, Jay looked up at me and said, “When are we going home?” He did look tired. His cheeks were a little flushed and his eyes drooped. He gripped his bag of green cotton candy loosely.

I asked him to hold out for a couple more innings. Besides, didn’t he want to see Evan Longoria hit one more time? The All-Star third baseman – the only Rays player my 9-year-old third grader knows by name – had struck out twice to that point. Jay perked up for both Longoria plate appearances, once tugging on my sleeve and saying, “Dad, it’s Evan Longoria.”

So, yes, he enjoyed the moments. He’ll remember sitting there high up in section 309 in his Rays jersey and TB cap, eating green cotton candy and standing, hat in hand, for the National Anthem while a giant American flag shaped like the lower 48 states was unfurled in center field.

He would’ve remembered Longo’s homer, if we had seen it, but c’est la vie. It wasn’t about what we missed Monday. It was about being together for the occasion, me and my dad and my son, enjoying the freedom to sit and watch and to leave when we wanted.

It was about baseball, a game that still cements our generational bond, a game that still matters.

High Anxiety: the Price of Parental Expectations in Youth Sports?

Parental Expectations and Sports

Our older son expresses his high anxiety during a recent youth league baseball game. Clearly, he’s wilting under the weight of parental expectations.

An Ithaca College study published this month in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology confirms again that we, as parents, have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

This is especially true, according to the study, for parents of kids aged 6-18 who participate in competitive swimming, tennis, gymnastics, bowling, wrestling, cross country and indoor track. Probably baseball, soccer, football, basketball and hockey, too, but they haven’t gotten around to observing team sports, so they don’t yet have a gauge on how stupid we are when our kids play those.

What egregious parenting gaff has been revealed now? How are we damaging our kids who play individual (and probably team) sports?

We place expectations upon our children. And that, apparently, is bad.

To be clear: I agree to an extent, but reject the notion that expectations are to be avoided in youth sports. I’ll explain why in a minute.

According to the study, parental expectations in youth sports are bad because the more ambitious the expectations, the greater the level of anxiety (pregame jitters) exhibited by the kid athletes. Similarly, the more parents wanted their kids to out-perform the other kids – in other words, the more the parents cared about who won – the less a kid was able to concentrate during the competition.

The reverse was true, too. The study found that the more ambitious the kids’ goals were, the higher the levels of anxiety experienced by the parents.

Hey, that’s fair. If we’re going to mess with our kids’ minds, they have every right to mess with ours right back.

Look, I’m all for managing expectations. I’m all for maintaining an even keel, especially when it comes to my kids and sports.

We enrolled our kids in YMCA soccer for years. Every player got a trophy. There were no standings. The score was kept informally, and no one knew (or cared) who the champion was at the end of the season.

There are parents and academics who believe that kind of athletic competition is a waste of time, that it defeats what they consider the purpose of kids participating in competitive sports. Their idea of meaningful participation in youth sports is that learning how to win a game at a young age can prepare their children to “win at life” as adults.

I wrote about my objection to that way of thinking about youth competitions in 2013 – After School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids. The bottom line for me was that the skills required to win a youth athletic competition only very loosely translate to the skills necessary to succeed in any profession except professional athlete and maybe coach.

Perhaps a kid can learn social skills as part of a team, but excelling on a field of play at age 8 is not a predictor of a corner office with a Fortune 500 company.

Still, now that our older son is well into his first season of competitive baseball, you’re darn right I have expectations. These expectations are fundamental. They are not negotiable.

  • I expect him to learn how to catch, throw, run, slide and swing a bat well enough that he won’t get hurt during the course of a game.
  • I expect him to pay attention to his coaches during practice, and that he’ll listen to me when we’re playing catch in the back yard.
  • I expect him to treat his teammates and his opponents with respect.
  • I expect him to learn the rules of the game, and I expect him to remember what he is supposed to be doing at all times on the baseball field – and if he doesn’t remember, I expect him to ask his coaches or more-experienced teammates.
  • I expect him to finish his homework before week-day practices and week-night games.
  • I expect him to have fun.

Now, I understand what the Ithaca report meant to condemn. There are parents who take sports too seriously, who live and die with every moment on the court, in the pool, on the mat or on the field. If pushed too far, that can be tough or even impossible for a kid to handle emotionally, and it’s not a good way to teach. It’s certainly no fun for anyone.

What I’m not wild about with this study is that it attempts to caution parents that any expectation has the potential to heighten the level of anxiety for a kid athlete. Furthermore, this is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.

I submit that parents should set reasonable expectations regarding a child’s participation in youth sports. Those expectations should be explained clearly and parents should be sure that their kid understands exactly how to live up to the expectations.

My expectations are reasonable, but I also acknowledge that trying to live up to all of those – including the part about having fun – might present a challenge for my sons. So be it. Growth happens when we confront our anxieties. We either overcome them or succumb to them. Either way, we learn.

Give a kid goals and watch him or her excel.

And that’s part of the job as parents, to present challenges for our kids to overcome. Overcoming those challenges might not put them on the path to a career as a high-powered executive, but it will help them learn how rewarding it can be to live up to – and sometimes exceed – expectations.

 

 

 

 

After-School Activities: Just Let Kids Be Kids

What if our sons just did after-school activities for fun and to make friends? Does that mean they'll fail in life? Gosh, I hope not.

What if our sons just did after-school activities for fun and to make friends? Does that mean they’ll fail in life? Gosh, I hope not.

My son gains possession of the ball near midfield and seems to move in slow motion as he guides it with his feet along the grass, dodging flailing teammates and charging opponents, dribbling carefully, slowly, deliberately, toward the goal. He doesn’t run. He glides through and past the other kids as if only vaguely aware they share the field. He stops, changes direction, slides through an opening, switches control of the ball from one foot to the other, again dribbles carefully, slowly, deliberately, toward the goal.

He eludes one final defender at the top of the box, shifts the ball to his stronger left foot, and kicks as hard as he can. The ball hops and rolls through legs, past feet, toward the goal mouth, bending, bending, away from the frantic goalie, rolling, hopping, bending … and sliding past the far post out of bounds for a goal kick.

I lower my iPhone, watch him trot back to cover an opponent during the ensuing kick. I lower my gaze and curse quietly. So close. So close. I cue up the brief video and hope against hope that the ball will somehow find its way into the net this time. It still goes wide, and I become resigned to his fate as defined by the Upper Middle Class ethos of win-win-win at all costs. Life is a zero-sum game. Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. Win … or lose.

I turn my attention back to the soccer field, where I now know the frenetic activity to be futile. It dawns on me gradually, relentlessly, achingly, that my son will never be a Fortune 500 CEO. I swallow a sob, delete the video and slide my iPhone into a front pocket.

There will be no more video or photographic evidence of his failure – of my failure as a parent. It’s over. We lost.

Nonsense.

__________________________

I won’t get much into the socioeconomic elements and conclusions of the work and research of Harvard- and Princeton-educated sociologist and author Hilary Levey Friedman. I can’t even come close to matching her academic credentials, and I’m not even certain I have much of an opinion on the stated topic of her recent article on the Atlantic website – “After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse.” Nor have I read her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

I should also say this: It’s your life. I make no judgments about how you decide to teach your children about what is important. As I have said many times, I don’t have the answers. As a parent, the only universal truth I know is there is no such thing as a good night’s sleep.

That said, after reading that piece in the Atlantic, I was compelled to express a certain level of dismay. As I so delicately put it in a Facebook update when I shared the article: “This Atlantic piece makes me want to poke all the sticks into all the eyes of all the narrow-minded people who see life as a zero-sum game, and youth sports as a training ground for stepping on and crushing the hopes and dreams of others in order to get ahead.”

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The Foundation of a Sound Retirement Plan: Youth Soccer

One of these boys owes me a Cessna Citation. Or at least a flat in Hampstead.

About 14 million kids play soccer in the U.S. every year. Jay became one of them at age 4. That was too young.

I’m not saying that starting all kids in organized sports before they enter kindergarten is wrong. I’m saying it was wrong for our kid.

How do I know he was too young? Because on the morning of his debut in organized sports, after a promising pregame warmup session with his new teammates, Jay broke down during the actual game. He played for a while and even scored a goal, but after about five minutes of the “amoeba” soccer chaos that is the Beautiful Game as played by 3- and 4-year-olds, he was done. And when he was done, he was completely done. There were tears. He took a rest on the bench, but refused to go back in, no matter how much cajoling we did. I was mortified. I was more upset than I should’ve been, certainly. He was 4. He still pronounced his R’s like W’s and his C’s like T’s. He just wasn’t ready.

So much for that private jet and London retirement.

That behavior – and my frustration – carried through the first half of the season. We would get to the games on Saturday mornings, Jay would go through the warmups fine, then either break down shortly after the start of the game or refuse to play altogether. Soccer games became weekly trials of my patience. Jay wasn’t enjoying it, and I sure as hell wasn’t happy. I thought we had made a terrible mistake registering him for YMCA soccer. And what if it was the kind of mistake that had long-reaching repercussions? What if this early, miserable experience turned him against organized sports for all time? We endured the slog, and now he loves it. So, that’s a relief.

I’m not going to generalize here about the desire of every father to see his sons or daughters excel in athletics. Not every dad lives vicariously through his child’s organized sporting events. Not every dad dreams of the day his boy or girl earns a full athletic scholarship to college, then signs that first life-changing professional contract. Some dads truly just want to see their kids have fun on the field or court. They see organized sports as a way to encourage physical fitness and social interaction. I’d like to think I’m one of those dads, the kind with the healthy attitude about the role of participatory sports in a child’s development.

I’d LIKE to think I’m one of those dads. Maybe one day I will be. But I must confess: I would love for Jay or Chris to become sports stars. I want to sit in the stands, watch them score a goal or steal a base or make an interception, and I want to say to the other dads and moms, “That one’s mine.” I do want that.

I also want them to make perfect scores on the SAT, never get anything worse than an A on their report cards, learn to play the violin like Itzhak Perlman, blaze trails like Susan B. Anthony and President Obama, discover creative ways to transform the world like Steve Jobs, stand up for what’s right in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity like Nelson Mandela, and be as kind and generous as their mother.

Deep down, though, what I want is for them to be able to swing a stick or kick a ball well enough to allow them to make more money than A-Rod and Tiger Woods combined.

I know the odds are against this happening, especially since I’m not going to be the dad that forces his kids to practice, practice, practice every day, all day. As if that was even an option. It’s all I can do get them to kick the ball around in the back yard for more than three minutes (no exaggeration) before they’re ready to move on to the next thing. But you know what? That’s fine. It really is. Do I want a retirement home in London or Edinburgh, bought with my son’s hard-earned golf winnings? Sure. You bet. Am I going to get the next-generation Cessna Citation as a birthday present from my son after he signs for a jillion pounds with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club? Probably not. And I’m good with that. Hoping for something and expecting it are not the same thing.

Which brings me back to the Cessna-less present day and Jay’s youth soccer career. He loves it now. The frustration lasted through the first half of his first season, after which he settled into neutral semi-enjoyment. It ended well enough that we signed him up for the next season, the 5-6-year-old division, after making darn sure that he wanted us to. Because he was the youngest and smallest kid on a new team, it was like starting over. Same kind of breakdowns. Same frustrations. Same gradual change in mindset and reaction. By the end of that second season, he couldn’t wait for the next one. He’s two games into his fourth season and, as I say, loving it.

Chris, on the other hand, has just started his first season. If anything, his reaction has been worse than his big brother’s. No tears, just an utter refusal to participate. Even though he acted excited about it, he refused to even join in the pregame warmups. He sat on MomScribe’s lap throughout his first game, then sort of wandered around, uninterested, during his second game. Again, no amount of cajoling would convince him to run around and chase the ball with all those other kids – some of whom are actually younger than him. Again, I started to feel frustrated, and worried that we had made a mistake in registering him at such a young age. Younger than his brother was when he started, in fact.

And you know what? We did make a mistake. There’s some temptation to hold the line, to point to the experience with Jay as evidence that Chris will come around eventually. We’re not going to force this, though. If he’s not interested – which clearly, he’s not – then we’ll wait. It’s $100 down the drain, but it’s a lesson learned. Later, when he’s ready, he’ll let us know. If he’s not interested, he’ll let us know that, too. I hope he’s interested. I mean, have you SEEN the new Cessna Citation Ten? Just the thing for a hop across the pond to watch my kid play a Saturday game at Wembley, after which we can pop over to our Hampstead flat and sup with Becks and Posh and the lads.