SPORTS AND THE PRICE OF HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Expectations bloom like mustard this time of year, and that's a good thing. Unless you happen to be a Little League coach, many of whom have probably put away those lesson plans about executing squeeze bunts and double plays in exchange for simple prayers that, come opening day -- today for some local leagues -- their players, upon hitting the ball, will run to the correct base.
And for those players who have forgotten their belts -- or never got around to buying one -- special graces are sought for arrival at their destination without suffering a potential rally-killing wardrobe malfunction.
Expectations, like pants, sometimes need adjusting.
I'm reminded of one time when my coaching hopes were calibrated for a group of 9- and 10-year-olds not all of whom, I discovered, knew their left field from their right. But there was one young man in particular who was tall and excelled at gloving the ball, so, as any winless-season-fearing coach would do, I put him at first base.
It came as a surprise later when the boy's father took me aside and said he did not want his son to play that position anymore.
"Why?" I asked. "He loves it."
"He's not left-handed," the father said. "He'll never make it at first base."
The inference was clear. Most of those who play first base in college and the major leagues are left-handed, the advantage being they're already turned toward the infield when they move right for a ground ball, and they can more quickly apply a tag on a pick-off move. But these fractional advantages matter little at an age when most players don't know their cut-off man from the team mom and don't really care other than the latter is supposed to bring snacks, and that's important.
When you're a coach whose only remuneration is a season-ending slice of cake, you don't argue with parents. And that wasn't the only time I've heard parents talk like that. But looking back on it, there are some things I wish I had shared with that father.
First, I would say that, in my book, a successful season one in which players enjoy the game enough to want to come back and play again the next year. And if it happened to be their last season, my hope was that they would learn enough that maybe as adults they would be willing to sit in a dugout, teach the game and worry about the important stuff, like players not having gum in their hair. That's all.
I also wanted to tell this parent something I wanted to tell all parents -- that none of their kids were going to be in the major leagues some day.
I know that's treasonous talk for April. But the fact is that many players at that age won't make it three years in the sport, let alone 30. And it's not because they are somehow flawed or lesser athletic specimens. It's because they find there are more stimulating, more challenging and more important things to do in life -- in their lives.
I know how difficult it is for many parents when a child finally hangs up the mitt and cleats. But here are the hard facts. According to Little League's own numbers, fewer than 10 percent of all players end up playing high school baseball. Of those, only six out of every 100 seniors ends up playing at the college level. And only one in 100 or so is going to get a full Division I scholarship.
And of those who do play in college, fewer than 10 percent play professional baseball, and that includes those whose careers consist of traveling between double-A ball parks on old buses, getting paid just enough for food and sunscreen.
Think your child is going to make it as an NBA player? The odds are worse. There are about 546,000 players competing in high school. Each year, only 60 are drafted in the NBA. Do the math.
And even if your child is one of the fortunate ones who gets a scholarship, I encourage you to read the March 26 decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that football players at Northwestern University qualify to be recognized as employees and can unionize.
The decision is compelling both for its potential landmark impacts on college football and the insights it provides on the highly controlled lives that await scholar athletes.
Because of the constant threat of discipline and losing scholarships, "coaches have control over nearly every aspect of the players' private lives," director Peter Sung Ohr wrote.
As an example, he referenced how quarterback Kain Colter "had aspirations of going to medical school and attempted to take a required chemistry class in his sophomore year." But "his coaches and advisers discouraged him from taking the class because it conflicted with morning football practices."
Ultimately, he decided to switch his major to psychology. And there are other costs to athletes, such as medical expenses.
"My goal is to make sure that all student athletes are set up for success long after their playing days are over," Colter said at a news conference after the decision. "Never should a student-athlete be forced to pay his own medical bills from their playing days."
And keep in mind this is the situation at one of the top schools in the country. One can only imagine what the deal is like at colleges less focused on academics.
Here's one more thing to keep in mind. Colter was a celebrated quarterback in high school in Colorado who had a highly successful career at Northwestern. Despite all of that, he's projected to be drafted 448th in the NFL draft next month -- if he switches to wide receiver.
All of this should add up to one conclusion: Help your kids focus on getting the best out of their education, not out of the local sports store.
And let them play the game for today, not tomorrow.