Love of the Game

Two excellent pieces in The New York Times Magazine today.

The first is a feature on IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, a private school set up to provide intensive sports training in baseball, basketball, soccer and other sports side-by-side with traditional academic subjects. It’s sort of the logical conclusion to the long-term trend of kids’ sports having become a scheduled, programmed, largely parent-driven part of kids’ lives. The story, by Michael Sokolove, captures the inherent strangeness of families that have decided to make huge investments in their children’s abilities to throw or hit a baseball or shoot a jumper (in some cases, parents are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the kids’ youth sports careers).

“As Tommy stretched and played catch along with about 30 other boys, his mother, Lisa, sat on a lawn chair in a shaded area, watching practice as she did every day. She was living with Tommy and his sister, Jacki, a college student, on IMG’s sprawling 180-acre campus in a $310,000 condominium that the family purchased last year, when Tommy enrolled at IMG as an eighth grader. Her husband, Chuck Winegardner, had stayed back on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his car dealerships, but he visited frequently for long weekends. Lisa called after every practice. ‘I need to give my husband full reports,’ she said. ‘What they’re working on, how he looks, is he paying attention.’ ”

The story touches on another phenomenon that I used to sit in the bleachers and bitch about when Eamon and Tom were playing youth league baseball: that the only sports experience the kids were having was of the organized league variety. Sure, I played some organized ball when I was a kid. But not a lot. I just wasn’t very good when I was younger. But I could always play in pick-up games and did whenever I had a chance. And eventually I grew into sports and developed a huge passion for them (people I’ve played with would probably say it went beyond passion to an unhealthy competitive intensity, and I can’t deny the evidence of that). Anyway, it always seemed sad to me to look out on a baseball diamond and see kids, sometimes my own, who looked like they’d rather be doing anything but getting steered around the field by whatever adult was in charge. Sure, I’m forgetting all the unhappy episodes that can and do happen when we organized our own games, but the point was we were out doing something we had a blast doing, most of the time, and it had nothing to do with what adults wanted us to be doing or with parents discharging their responsibility to make us well-rounded or with moms and dads living vicariously through our on-field exploits.

The second piece I really liked in the Times magazine today is “Sandlot Summer,” a short personal essay by Melissa Fay Greene. It’s just a nice take on an experiment in trying to give kids back some sense of the joy in spontaneous, unorganized sports you do because, gee, you just feel like doing them:

“My 16-year-old son, Lee Samuel, ran a baseball clinic with his teammates Andre Mastrogiacomo and Matt and Palmer Hudson. Here’s what the teenagers didn’t require of their players: tryouts; advance registrations; birth certificates; assignments to teams by age, sex and skill level; uniforms or team names; parent volunteers; snack schedules; and commuting to fields in distant counties in search of the appropriate level of competition.

“Here’s what the players didn’t miss: almost none of the above. (Uniforms are pretty cool.)”

2 Replies to “Love of the Game”

  1. Funny, Dan, somebody was just asking me about when Niko was going to “join a league.” As you know, Niko just turned five! I didn’t join my first league until I was 10 and frankly, I wasn’t emotionally ready then. As with you, my sports experience had all been of the pick-up variety. In my neighborhood, teeming with athletic-oriented kids, this meant something almost literally every day. We moved through the seasons, from baseball to football to street hockey (basketball, strangely, wasn’t included). I don’t remember ever feeling any tension or anxiety in those games, competitve though they were. But when I joined Little League, everything changed. I was talented and did well, but suddenly there was this strange beast snarling at me: expectations. It wasn’t until late in my senior year, when I realized my baseball “career” was going to be ending right then and there, in high school, that I played a joyful game again. Now I’m not saying it’s that way for the kids at the academy (I haven’t read the article yet). Hell, some of these kids may be ready to rock ‘n’ roll with the competition at 10. But the variability in kids needs to be considered.

  2. Yeah, it’s kind of a sorry state to see sports being rigidly organized today. It is almost as though kids can’t just go do this stuff on their own. Hell, our softball games during p.e. at Crete weren’t nearly as rigidly organized as games are today. And there is something screwy about driving an suv 200 miles on a weekend so kids can chase a soccer ball up and down a field. What does that translate into in greenhouse gases? I rememeber going to the park to play a game of baseball and having fun. Mom and Dad got some relief too from the kids tearing up around the house. And the parents at these games can be real boors. I remember going to a little league game in St.Petersburg and seeing a father screaming at a fifteen year old umpire about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike. The poor kid looked petrified, I mean this dad was apoplectic and he outweighed this kid by about 70 pounds. But, to his credit, the kid didn’t back down. At any rate, I remember thinking that it was better to just let these kids play on their own while the dads stay at home watching college bowl with cousin brewsky…or something like that.

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