The Baseball Dad (#355)

My son wound up in the competitive local Little League—oops, I mean PONY League. (God forbid I don’t use proper terminology for the U.S. baseball caste system.) It wasn’t planned. We just happened to run into a fellow preschool parent on their way to the first meeting and my kid wanted to join his classmates.

I’d heard rumors, but I lacked firsthand knowledge about how insane some Pony League parents were until I watched a dad insist his (sobbing) child bat left-handed.

“I didn’t know Ty was a lefty,” I murmured to another mom.

“He’s not,” the mom whispered back. “But if he learns to bat left-handed, he’s got a much better chance at playing in high school or at a D1 college. Pitchers have a hard time with lefties.”

The sports advantage of being a lefty made sense. I played volleyball, and it’s much harder to block and defend the rare, left-handed hitter.

But to deliberately turn your kid into a lefty? Dalton, like most kids, was right-handed. He could barely hit the ball that way. I couldn’t imagine making it even more difficult by insisting he bat backwards. No wonder Ty was crying: batting had gone from being fun to being miserable. Which was anathema to me. I coached Dalton’s soccer team and the AYSO mandate was to make practices as much fun as possible.

Pony League did things…differently.

Over the next three years, I watched boys mess up their shoulders from pitching and cry. I watched a kid get his orbital socket broken by an errant pitch (the pitcher cried almost as much as the kid who got hit).

There was so much crying in baseball.

There was screaming, too. If it wasn’t a psycho sports dad, it was a player. One boy, who had just recovered from a broken orbital socket (apparently a common baseball injury), got dragged up to the plate by his father, despite his screams of protest. As soon as his dad let go, the kid bolted, carrying his father’s dreams of the Major Leagues with him.

Other parents sighed and offered the dad sympathy. I silently cheered the kid on: “Good job, buddy! Way to stand up for your poor face! I hope you find a safe home with theater or band kids some day!”

Dalton sliding into second

Obviously, I did not envision Dalton playing first base in high school, getting a scholarship to a Division I college, or going to the majors. All I wanted was for him to enjoy some team camaraderie, learn a few skills, and hopefully not sit on the bench too much.

We got two out of three. At least he couldn’t get injured when he was on the bench.

And, unlike with soccer, I didn’t have to coach baseball. There were tons of dads who volunteered. Each team had four coaches. They were almost all white. They were all young. And they were all committed baseball dads (i.e., not rational).

In addition to regular practices, mandatory time at the batting cages started at age six. (Some dads also had their own batting cages in their backyard.) The normal practices (beginning in February) often ran late, on fields without lights. Sunset is an ideal time for enthusiastic young boys to swing bats and throw hard balls—if you are trying to achieve concussions and broken noses.

More crying. More screaming. Blood, even.

I have never understood increasing the risk of injury to a child. And how insane is it to do it to your own child, the very child you want to play a sport so long and so well that it either saves you money or makes you money?

Welcome to the baseball edition of toxic masculinity. Put your son in harm’s way, then insist they fight through their completely unnecessary pain and mental trauma because that makes them real men. Oh, and make your love conditional on their performance. That won’t mess them up AT ALL.

When Dalton opted to focus on club soccer and drop other sports, Andy and I cheered. Club soccer cost a small fortune, but we could retire from coaching. Our son would have a professional, paid coach—not an insane baseball dad.

When I met my first club coach at tryouts, I told him, “Even though he’s fast, Dalton’s also pretty good in goal, if you want to try him there.”

The soccer coach gave me an incredulous look and said, “He’s left-footed. I’d be mad to put him in goal.”

I closed my gaping jaw and weakly echoed, “He’s left-footed? Really?”

I watched the coach mentally lumping me in the “American who doesn’t know shit about soccer” category before kindly offering me a way to save face by asking, “His coach never told you?”

Dalton’s coach thought back to her very first day coaching Dalton’s team.

I had taught ten five-year-old boys to plant one foot with the toes pointed in the direction they wanted the ball to travel and to then kick the ball with the other foot. I never told them WHICH foot to use. Dalton must have used his naturally dominant right foot to aim and kicked the ball with his left foot…and kept doing it. For almost 4 years.

OMG. I had turned my son into the most coveted player in team sports: a lefty.

I was a baseball dad.

A Sporting Chance (#354)

The first year I coached my son’s recreational soccer team we lost almost every game.

Undoubtedly due to the shitty coach who had never played soccer.

The second year I coached AYSO, I had all the boys from Dalton’s elementary school. They were smart, Dalton was fast, and there was no offsides rule. The boys quickly learned to send it out to Dalton on the run—he would get to it first, they would sprint for the goal, and he’d pass it back to them for a score. They won most games. We were only crushed by two teams, both stacked with good players—players with dads who had started them young and/ or also had them playing on “club teams.” Club teams are known as “travel ball” teams outside of California, where apparently you have to travel a long way to play other good teams. In a huge city like Los Angeles, with millions of Latino kids (who got soccer balls before they could walk) and Japanese American kids (who got soccer balls as soon as they could walk), no teams had to travel far for good competition.

Club teams played all year.  They had licensed, professional coaches. They were also thousands of dollars annually. AYSO was $165.00.

Dalton at British Soccer Camp

Every summer break, winter break, and Spring Break, I put Dalton in whatever soccer camps were available: AYSO, British, or local club camps. He had a blast and I got a break. Even those camps were a fraction of the cost of club soccer. That was as close as Dalton got to a club team.

Until our worst AYSO season. Once the kids hit U8, AYSO coaches rank their players at the end of each season. The age group coordinators are supposed to use those rankings to make sure the teams are fair. In Dalton’s age group, the coordinator claimed the previous year’s rankings had “disappeared.” She stacked her son’s team with good players, including the great player with the dad who had played soccer in college and now coached. I had three players who had never played soccer before. All Dalton’s prior teammates wound up on other teams.

We were the Panthers, and we were pathetic. In our first game, we were slaughtered 9:0. In our second game, the Crushing Red Typhoon crushed us 11:2, with repeated goal-scoring breakaways from a club player named Jacob. Our one bright spot—aside from snacks bags with brownies—was Dalton chasing Jacob down. Face red and furious, Dalton came diagonally from one goal all the way to the other to deny Jacob a last point.

Then I had to bribe Dalton, who hated injustice even more than losing, with ice-cream to get him to go through the post-game handshake.

But with every practice, and with every game, the Panthers improved. (Probably because getting worse wasn’t possible.) I kept the practices as fun as I could, using games like “Target the Coach” to improve passing or “Simon Says” to work on ball handling. Every week I handed out a little black panther statuette to one player for doing something great…or just following directions. When we managed to tie the Agent Orange team, we celebrated like it was a win.

By the time we played the age group coordinator’s stacked team, we only lost 5:0. At that point, I was almost as angry as Dalton over the disparity in the skill levels among teams. After the handshake line, I told Andy, “Don’t let Edwin get two snacks and don’t let Dalton see the other team celebrating. I’m going to go give the coordinator a piece of my mind.”

“Do you think that will help?”

“Of course not. But it’s the only consequence I can give.”

“Okay. Same deal as Dalton. You get an ice-cream if you don’t hit.”

I did not hit her. I told her I’d watched her stack her son’s team for years, against the AYSO mandate for fair teams in order to build a love for the sport. I told her it discouraged players and that all the kids deserved better. I told her she sucked as a coordinator, a parent, and a human. I refused to accept a single weak excuse and then I left.

For the Panthers’ last game, we again faced the Crushing Red Typhoon. And do you know what?

WE WON. Despite the amazing Jacob (who eventually moved on to the LAFC Academy team). Despite our inexperience. And despite our Goal Keeper getting knocked over and falling into dog poop. When the last whistle blew, it was Panthers: 3, Crushing Red Typhoon: 2.

The jubilation of Panther parents, Panther players, and, yes, the Panther coach rivaled that of any World Cup Champions. (Nobody hoisted our keeper on their shoulders, though.)

During the next Christmas break soccer camp, a coach from a local club team asked Dalton to try out for his team.

Eyes shining, Dalton asked, “Can I do it, Mom? They play ALL YEAR. And it’s a REAL coach, not a parent.”

Andy said, “Ouch.”

I laughed and said, “Sure. You need an actual soccer coach. And I’m gonna retire while I’m still on top.”

“On top? We didn’t win AYSO,” Dalton scoffed.

“Oh, I think we did, buddy. I think we did.”

And I always will.