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.

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

20 thoughts on “The Baseball Dad (#355)”

  1. Great story & fabulous closing line. Nice work coach Mom!

    Seriously, we have the same issue here with sports, I see loads of professional referees rebuking parents for giving the referee a hard time at their kids rugby games. Whether they’re overly obsession with their kids and how they play, I have no evidence, but it wouldn’t surprise me. That said, if you want to risk injury – rugby is so your game. My daughter has already decided her 2 year old son is *never* playing, no matter how much he appears to suit it physique-wise and temperamentally. Bless her, she even willingly offers up her shins to be hacked at playing soccer in order to try and make it so. Mother love, it’s a wonderful thing.

    1. Oh, here the injurious sport is American football. It’s terrible, especially for head injuries. I quit watching it on TV because I didn’t even want my son to know it existed! Good for your daughter.

  2. I missed the whole youth sports thing. There wasn’t anything for girls when I was young (nor did I have much talent). In high school we had intramural softball. Hardly any parents came out for any sports games ever (except Friday night football). At that time the professionals did not make much money. Now the money is insane and I can understand why a parent would want an athlete for a child. So few make it, it’s not worth the trauma and the destruction of the relationship.

    1. Parental expectations range from, “My kid will go pro!” to our own: “Our kid will burn off enough energy that our house won’t be destroyed by the time he leaves home!” What I’ve noticed, though, is that the kids of parents who push the hardest burn out or get injured early. By the time they hit high school, those kids no longer want to play. We let Dalton decide how much he wants to do with any sport–the only rule is that once we pay for it, he can’t quit until the season ends. When COVID hit, soccer shut down for a few months. I hired a private coach to work with Dalton (at a local park, wearing masks) several times a week. It was expensive, but Dalton loved it (and it wasn’t like we were traveling or eating out any more, so it fit in our budget).

      1. That’s the way that works best. If a child has a natural drive for a sport, it will manifest itself. How many pro players came from really poor areas of cities.

        1. Unfortunately, at least in Los Angeles, the rise in youth sports means that a lot of the lower income families are priced out of good coaching early. I’ve worked on increasing scholarships for Dalton’s teams and clubs, but the gap is widening.

  3. That is a great action shot showcasing your son’s left-footed prowess at soccer! I agree with your strategy of not forcing the issue, unless money is spent. It’s too bad some parents wish to live vicariously through their children…

    1. Thank you! That photo was taken by a parent with a much better camera (i.e., a real camera, not a cellphone one). Yeah, it’s not always an easy line to walk, making them finish a commitment. Sometimes they hate it because the coach is terrible or there’s a bully on the team. And then you’re stuck with the parental dilemma: letting them quit might be safer, but it’s not a great precedent to set. Quitting doesn’t teach them how to cope with bullies or crappy authority figures. But you don’t want them to simply suck it up and think they have to endure every bad situation, either!

  4. First, I’m disappointed to learn that Tom Hanks lied to us.

    I didn’t realize left-footedness was a thing, or that there were advantages to being a southpaw. Err…southfoot? Southtoe? I don’t even know the terminology!

  5. We are not a sportsball family. Our youngest son played intramural soccer in elementary school and football his senior year; both were completely his choice. I’ve never understood parents making their child(ren) miserable – and possibly suffer from a life-long lingering injury – just to live vicariously through them. And, I always enjoy a good League of Their Own reference.

    1. I can never tell how much is “live vicariously” and how much is “you need a scholarship for college.” There are no small number of parents on the soccer sidelines who really can’t see their child’s abilities clearly–which can be painful for everyone involved in the sport.

  6. I liked this. 🙂 Even though it brought back some terrible memories. My daughter once had a male (dad) soccer coach who was horrible. Gave most of the girls deprecating nicknames (his own daughter was Little Ugly). One game, a girl was blind-sided by the ball hitting the side of her head. Knocked her off her feet, and as she was flat on the ground, too dazed to move, he stood over her and screamed, “Get up! Get up!” That was it. My girl was a good player, one of the best on the team, but we lived in a rural area and there were no other options for teams or coaches. She finished the season, but we wouldn’t let her play with him the next year. She didn’t want to. She’s turned out just fine.

    1. Glad you liked it, sorry about the bad memories (my husband didn’t like this post much, said it also brought back bad memories). But what a terrible person and an awful coach your daughter had. And to call his own daughter “ugly?!” There’s a lot of anger and misogyny in that dude. I’m glad you kept your daughter safely away. Plenty of time to learn how to cope with the world’s assholes when you are older.

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