Youth baseball participation has been dwindling for decades, especially in urban areas, so when I bring my 13-year-old son to his games, I flatter myself that I’m a preservationist. I am just old enough to have enjoyed the tail end of baseball’s supremacy. Now more skateboards are sold in Brooklyn than catcher’s mitts.
Henry’s team generally wins its league games, which are played in South Brooklyn and on Staten Island. When they travel to tournaments against suburban kids in New Jersey and Delaware, they mostly lose. Given what the five boroughs have contributed to baseball history—Gehrig, Greenberg, and Koufax, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds—this seems unfair. In any event, the next generation of major league stars is playing in Santo Domingo and Caracas and Willemstad. The Brooklyn Pitbulls are chasing old dreams.
Youth sports get bad press these days. A missed call in the 10U semifinals can come to stand for all the world’s injustices, and coaches, parents, and umpires seem more and more inclined to settle these disputes in parking lots. Serious money gets spent on hotel rooms, tournament fees, and specialized coaching, prompting journalistic hand-wringing about misplaced priorities. Telling other people what to do with their money has always struck me as a fool’s errand. If affluent parents want to fly their daughter to Orlando for a softball tournament, who am I to tell them otherwise?
We all let the kids down from time to time by making the games too much about us. Fathers want their genetic fitness demonstrated in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound. Of course, we parents are quick to disclaim any dreams of professional glory for our children. We all say what we’re after is the pure joy of competition, the privilege of being part of a team. Our less respectable motives lie in the psyche’s dank basement. It’s best not to go down there alone.
Thirty-plus years after they were released, Hoosiers and All The Right Moves flicker away on basement television screens as part of a durable sub-canon of high school sports movies. The audience for these movies never goes away; it just keeps turning 17. The movies have the same seductive premise: that everything their celluloid teenagers will ever become turns on getting that scholarship, winning the final match, getting to the state tournament. Since the pressures are greater than a teenager’s ability to cope or dissemble, everything is right there on the surface. In middle age, I enjoy these parables of desire more than ever. But the purifying fire of athletic competition is for the young.
The arithmetic that Henry faces is brutal: only 2 percent of high school baseball players will play at the Division I level in college, the culmination of a journey that began when they were seven or eight and Coach bought everyone a snow cone after the game, regardless of the outcome. Henry wants to know where the best tournaments are, which high school programs have incubated the most future pros, where he himself stands in the hierarchy. The competitive drive of the young athlete is Janus-faced. Success is measured somehow by the sacrifices made to achieve it; in the Stakhanovite logic of youth sports, everything is worth exactly what it costs. But the year-round grind can take the joy away, too. Many successful young athletes get to 15 or 16 and say, “Enough.”
From the beginning, sports have been Henry’s lodestar. Even as he struggled in his early school years, he looked remarkably assured with any kind of ball in his hand. That was always what we did together; the field was where I communicated my values. Watching him sling a football, other playground fathers would drift over to me, asking, “How old is he?” And I felt the warm complacency of those upon whom the gods have smiled.
But Henry has fallen behind baseball’s pitiless development curve. Once a standout, he’s become merely a contributor. In basketball, though, he has surged, becoming the dominant scorer on his middle school team. The videos we watch when crouched around my phone are increasingly of ballhandling drills, and he lures me away from my laptop to work on his crossover dribble. This, I say to myself, is the dream he’s chasing now. Stay in the moment.