When Playing to Play Becomes Playing to Win

My father once remarked that watching his two children brought him joy.  While I appreciated the sentiment in that moment many years ago, it was only when I became a father with my own three trying out new interests that his comment really took root.  Seeing the kids have fun and trying new activities is, on one level, frustrating for the schedule and time; but when I see them find those activities at which they do well, then it truly does become what one person calls a joyful thing.  That is until they reach a point at which it begins to shift from simply being a fun activity to an avocation at which they want to excel, and you’re forced to see them begin to suffer the physical and psychic bruising that comes with real competition.  Such was the case this weekend with Youngest’s baseball playoff game.

We’ve come to love baseball.  Throughout our life together, my wife and I lived in cities with minor league teams and have taken advantage of the opportunity to enjoy decent ball, good seats and cheap beer; Youngest has been bitten by the love for the game and now plays each season and is frankly developing into a good player.  He’s at the age at which baseball-loving boys begin to consider what position they wish to play and in his case, he sees himself as a catcher.  He’s realistic enough to understand that he’ll never be a fleet-footed outfielder or pitcher but in his mind, he has begun to stake a claim behind the plate.  Given his young age, we held off three years of requests before finally caving in and getting him catchers gear of his own.

It’s helpful to understand something about Little League baseball and the catcher’s position.  For the first two levels of Little League baseball, no stealing is allowed and it’s at the AA level (8 and 9 year olds) that the kids are allowed to begin to steal second and third base; until this point, the catcher is simply a backstop with arms.  It’s at the AAA level (9 and 10 year olds) that the catcher becomes important as it’s at this level that the runner is now allowed to steal home and score a run and it’s also here that the talented kids start to understand the strategies and tactics of the game.  The catcher’s position has been called the field general since from his spot behind the plate, he can see where his fielders are and actually make adjustments and I’ve witnessed two boys who – at this level – have played as though born to the position.  But there’s a double-edged sword for the catcher since he’s also catching for kids who, even when they’re good, can be wild with a sizable number of passed balls and with the catcher’s cumbersome gear and inexperience, the plate is ripe for the taking by aggressive baserunners from third base.  The safeguard for the catcher at AAA is that the batting team can only steal home twice per inning.

While Youngest wishes to be the catcher, this season’s reality was that a recurrent knee injury kept him from playing there due to the stress of constant squatting.  He missed the first game and spent the remainder of the season in the infield and the catcher’s mitt was relegated to two younger players who were repeatedly burned at the plate by aggressive baserunning.  He was finally cleared for catching and his first appearance as catcher was the first playoff game this weekend and in the final practice two nights before the game, his coach had him don his gear for passed ball drills behind the plate with a cadre of teammates repeatedly trying to steal home – and frequently succeeding. 

The game was against a team that runs well and aggressively.  While I doubt that they hit as well as Youngest’s team, they’re coached to take advantage of mistakes and in the first two games played against them this season, they beat Youngest’s team by aggressive baserunning, including consistent steals of home plate.  It was clear that the strategy would be more of the same and if there was to be a change, it would be up to Youngest to make that change by keeping them from stealing home plate.

We live in a world in which some schools and organizations have dumbed down sports by abolishing the idea of winners and losers.  Everybody should get a ribbon for participating and our kids apparently need their self-esteem bolstered more than their skills.  But that’s not how life works and in this particular organization, there comes a point at which kids play not only for fun but also to win.  There are always far more teams at the youngest levels of a sport as everyone tries it out for size but within a few years, the funsters have departed and the number of teams have decreased to accommodate the kids who truly love the game.  It’s also at this point that the kids realize that if you’re going to play, you should play to win and the coaches are there to develop their skills and teach them to win; sometimes, winning is more than just physical attributes but also thinking about what you need to do to win and the coaches have to model that for the kids.

The upshot was that the opposing coaches did more of the same, sending runners from third on every passed ball opportunity, and Youngest took his lumps behind the plate as he repeatedly tore off his mask and helmet, searching furiously for the ball as it rolled around the backstop area.  The pitchers did what they were supposed to do as they advanced to cover home, but while there were some close plays, the runs scored.  The boy got banged up in the melees but to his credit, he refused to quit and stuck through the game.  My first inclination as I watched the play was anger towards the opposing coaches for taking advantage but there was a begrudging respect for their strategy as they taught their own kids that they could win with more than pure hitting.  This was a learning experience on both sides of the ball, joyful on one and painful on the other. 

Despite the painful learning experience, Youngest still wants to catch and I admire him for that.  There will be other such lessons – both in baseball and life – in his future but learning from them now will help him in such instances in the future.  There comes a point with the kids that shielding them from adversity only serves to hinder them in the future as bosses and clients will not be so forgiving of errors.  So teach them to play to win now, when their losses won’t have more serious consequences.



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