Youth Sports The Right Way

Bobby Curran
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Friday - August 18, 2006
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You have probably heard by now. The Pony League championship game for 9-and 10-year-olds in Bountiful, Utah, featuring the Yankees and the White Sox. Yankees, leading by a run, White Sox up in the bottom of the final inning, two down, man on third. Best hitter for the Sox coming up. The kid on deck is a stick-thin recovering cancer patient who takes human growth hormone and wears a helmet even in the field because of a shunt in his brain. Decision time. Pitch to the best hitter or walk him to get to the weakest one?

Yankees coach Bob Farley conferred with his assistant and told his pitcher to walk the slugger. And the crowd went wild, parents booing or cheering according to their perception of the decision. Up came cancer survivor Romney Oaks, who promptly strikes out. Game over. Yankees win. Bountiful is polarized, and in the ensuing media crush, so is the rest of the country.

Coach Farley’s supporters agree with his decision. The play was legal, it was good baseball strategy, and the goal is to win. And don’t you want to give this sick boy the respect to treat him like anybody else?

The White Sox crowd sees it differently, summed up by Romney’s dad, Marlo. “It made me sick. It’s going after the weakest chick in the flock,” he said.

How to approach youth sports is a subject that draws heated argument. It has been ever thus.

I’m playing Little League as a member of Pat’s Cleaners (all teams in our town were sponsored by business or civic groups). The year was 1965. We were up against Nassau Chemists. The games had a time limit and we had a small lead, but needed to complete our half of the inning quickly to make the game official. We were huddled up by Coach Yulico, a large, intense and to my 10-year-old mind, scary guy.

We were to step up to the plate, and swing and miss the first three pitches. No exceptions.

Our first hitter steps into the box and swings at the first pitch, which bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. He swings at the next two pitches, only one of which was marginally close to the plate, and gets back pats and applause from the rest of us.

The opposing coach sees this, and goes to the mound to talk to his pitcher. Our next batter goes up, and every pitch is thrown six feet over his head into the backstop while he dutifully swings. We are now in the realm of the absurd. Coaches and parents are screaming. Finally a “red jacket” is summoned. League supervisors wore red satin baseball jackets, and no Masters champion in green ever wore his jacket as proudly. A long argument ensued, complete with foot-stomping and finger-pointing.

To this day I don’t remember the outcome, either who won or whether it even counted in the standings at all. I do remember quite clearly that the argument and ensuing tension caused the team outing to Carvel Ice Cream to be postponed. Maybe it’s good that these things happen occasionally. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate what we’re teaching the kids.

I believe that Coach Yulico and Coach Farley were both wrong. We shouldn’t have been told to ignore all our previous instruction and swing at the first three pitches. Coach Farley should have told his pitcher to go after the White Sox star hitter and get him out. Our jobs aren’t just to teach kids to win, it’s to teach them how to win. To compete in the spirit of the game. When we do that, everybody wins.

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