Safe at Home

I never thought I’d be the kind of dad who’d spend thousands of dollars so that his eleven- year-old daughter could suffer a sore arm, practice in freezing weather, and spend every other weekend on the road playing cutthroat softball. But that was before Maisie wanted to.

April 2005By Comments

HI MY NAME IS SAM. I am a Softball Dad, and these are my transgressions. I took my perfectly contented daughter, Maisie, out of her cozy, relaxed little neighborhood fast-pitch softball league and propelled her into the hyperaccelerated, hypercompetitive, brutally expensive, and, to many people, absurdly professionalized world of youth tournament sports. You know, “select” teams.

Yes, I am one of those parents. I can’t help myself. I am the sort of person who will spend $150 on a bat and later wonder if I have spent enough. Unless I miss my guess, we are headed very quickly and very irrevocably in the direction of a $225-plus Miken carbon-shell bat. One of my daughter’s teammates got one, and we all agree that it is a very fine bat. Very fine indeed. We spend $80 for Ringor baseball cleats, which happen to be purple (matching the team’s primary color), as are my daughter’s wind suit, helmet, and other pricey paraphernalia, all of which also bear her name and number. Though I have not yet shelled out upward of $1,000 for a backyard pitching machine, I confess it has crossed my mind. More than once. We spend $110 a month for hitting lessons and $100 a month for pitching lessons. We send Maisie to softball camps. We spend two weekends a month (December excepted) in glamorous places like Seguin, Willis, San Marcos, Katy, Richmond, Harlingen, and Killeen, watching tournaments in which the girls play as many as eight games, often ending at midnight or later. We practice long hours in the blistering summer heat and in the icy northers of January. If I sound like one of those middle-aged, testosterone-crazed, frustrated former athletes who are playing out all their pathetic dreams of glory in the lives of their children, well, I would like to point out that I have plenty of company. There are millions out there like me whose children play for select teams—privately run organizations that practice and play far more often than traditional recreational teams. They, and their sons and daughters, are attending marathon volleyball tournaments waged across forty nets at convention centers. They drive five hundred miles so that eight-year-olds can play hockey, pay $400 a month for traveling soccer teams, and fork over $3,000 to attend a single national competition. There are even select dance teams these days.

Like it or not, this is all part of the brave new world of kids’ sports, and in case you are wondering, the families who participate in them are not all Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Most are ordinary, middle-class Americans who are stretching to afford it. Since the eighties, when America decided that it was quickly becoming uncompetitive with the rest of the world in everything from automobiles and electronics to mathematics and Little League baseball, select teams have been multiplying like bacteria. Remember when we were all appalled to learn that the Taiwanese Little League boys played year-round? Not only that but, unlike their more relaxed and eclectic American counterparts, they focused on only one sport. And they played it all the time. Oh, the horror. After a number of butt-whippings in baseball, soccer, and other youth sports, America got the message: The more you practice, the better you are. Which brings me back to me, and us. I am not suggesting that massive global forces beyond my control caused my family to follow this course. We chose our fanaticism freely. Still, I never thought we would end up at this level of involvement. Like most of our fellow softball parents, we drifted our way into it, inning by inning. And suddenly one day we found ourselves signing up for private pitching lessons and heading to the west side of Houston for an egregiously long weekend of softball in 98-degree weather, camped in a two-star motel next to an interstate highway. Of course, the thing everyone wants to know is, Is this really worth it? Is it the right thing to do for our daughter, who is now almost twelve? How could it possibly be?

SOFTBALL WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THIS. I remember an earlier, simpler time, back when Maisie played in a low-key recreational league—the kind of competition where the playing fees are minimal and every kid gets to play—on the west side of Austin. I have a photograph of her from those days. She is six years old, dressed in a Yankees uniform, and looks as cute as a bug’s ear. She is poised to catch a ball with her glove turned upward. This is precisely the wrong way to catch a ball, of course. It pretty much guarantees that the ball will land in her face. Even so, from her earliest playing days, I was convinced that my daughter had talent. Maisie played for five idyllic years in the rec league. I coached for three of those years and was content to be where we were.

Then came the 2003 sectional tournament. It was held in suburban Leander, where all-star teams from the greater Austin area competed for the privilege of moving on to the regional tournament and thence to nationals. (Pony League, the sponsoring organization, is roughly similar to Little League.) Maisie, who was then nine, was selected for the ten-and-under all-stars. My wife, Katie, and I were thrilled. Maisie had become a pretty good pitcher, at least by the standards of her rec league. And now she was going to compete against the best players from recreational leagues all over Central Texas. I had ambitions for my daughter. The team had a lot of talent. I had high hopes.

We were annihilated. We made a quick, painful exit. Girls were in tears. I was in a state of dull shock, made worse by the knowledge that the teams that had beaten us were nowhere near the best in the tournament. That honor belonged to two astonishingly talented teams from a small league in southwest Austin known as Oak Hill. I’d watched their A team play and could scarcely believe what I was seeing. They hit screaming line drives, ran like deer, and played flawless defense. They had a harrowingly fast ten-year-old fireballer whose pitches had been clocked at upward of 50 miles per hour—equivalent, in batter reaction time, to an 86-plus-mile-per-hour fastball on a baseball diamond. (By comparison, Maisie threw 39 miles per hour.) They’d won that game by fifteen runs and won the tournament easily. They would go on to win both the regional and the national tournaments. Just as amazing, Oak Hill’s B all-stars—most of whom, like Maisie, were only nine—finished second at sectionals, second at regionals, and third at nationals that year. I soon learned that Oak Hill, a “rec,” league no bigger than ours (six teams) and a mere four miles down the road, had been producing dominant all-stars like that for a long time.

Sports parents will recognize this moment, the revelation that comes at the intersection of “what is best for my child” and dreams of wild, transcendent victory. I did not know what they were feeding those girls in Oak Hill or how they could possibly be so much better than everyone else, but I knew that I wanted my daughter to experience some of that magic. She knew nothing about Oak Hill and had no sense of what it might mean for her to be able to compete with players who were that good. No matter. I already had my eye fixed firmly on the future, which is where the modern sports parent lives. Often far in the future. As we would later discover, the more competitive your team is, the more the parents will be busy calculating their child’s prospects for playing top-level select or high school ball, her prospects for a college scholarship, even the Olympics. It is a curious pairing—kids living in the moment, dealing with victories and losses as they come, while Mom and Dad are relentlessly planning events years down the road, imagining victories in hypothetical futures. I wasn’t dreaming of athletic scholarships quite yet, but I had at least figured out our next move. The following spring I registered Maisie at Oak Hill.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected to find there—a boot camp for überathletes, perhaps, run by square-jawed men with nonexistent senses of humor and voices like sandpaper. What I got instead was a friendly, well-run, mommy-and-daddy-coached league where everyone seemed to know everyone else, where coaches and parents behaved decently, and where there was an amazingly high level of parental involvement. But just being competent and nice obviously did not produce the sort of ponytailed assassins I’d seen at sectionals. What Oak Hill had that our former league did not was a group of two dozen players and their parents who were drop-dead serious about the sport. We had never seen ten-and-unders like this. They played all year long. They went to two or three camps a year. They took private hitting and pitching lessons and bought the best equipment. They were out in the batting cages on dark, chilly January nights and pitching in the rain. Because Oak Hill had produced so many champions, they all had high expectations, too. But perhaps Oak Hill’s main advantage was that in a league with seventy-plus girls, around half of them organized themselves into three teams that played outside tournaments against select teams on off-weekends. Such teams are somewhat rare and are called by the jargony term “rec-select.”

For many parents, the question of rec or select is the central dilemma of youth sports—whether to leave their children in low-pressure, parent-coached recreational leagues with light practice schedules and games on local fields or join a demanding select team with paid coaches, lots of practices, and a good deal of weekend travel. At that moment, no one in my family was yet ready to do the latter. We wanted nothing to do with the nightmare stories we had heard of girls burning out at thirteen or fourteen and of families stretched to the point of exhaustion. Nor did I buy the argument that by not putting my daughter onto a select team at a young age, I was seriously harming her chances of future athletic success. As it turns out, these were pointless philosophical arguments. Stopping our slide into select ball was like trying to prevent the sun from coming up.

But for now we did not have to decide. Oak Hill’s ingenious solution to this problem was to straddle the two worlds, keeping players and parents within the cozy rec-league family while letting girls who chose to do so play outside competition on parent-coached select teams. We joined one of those teams. It seemed like a small step at the time, but it made a huge difference. Maisie loved the new Oak Hill work ethic. She practiced hard, pitched to me every night in the street in front of our home—an almost meditative form of father-daughter quality time—and had a wonderful season.

It soon got even more wonderful. In late May she was named by the rec league’s coaches to Oak Hill’s ten-and-under all-star A team, the Oak Hill Scream, along with most of the remarkable players from the previous year’s precocious B team. This made us all very happy. The very idea of it was miraculous. She was as good, or nearly as good, as her deeply biased parents thought she was. Our softball universe was quickly expanding. My daughter was now on a team full of smart, cheerful, energetic, fresh-faced killers who had a real shot at a Pony League national championship. At a practice in early June, her fastball was clocked at 51 miles per hour. We were on our way.

AS ANY HARD-CORE sports parent can tell you, a ten-and-under elite team is about far more than just teaching the children to field and hit and lose gracefully. It is as much about parents and coaches learning to play nicely with each other. The Scream was a layered and complex socioeconomic unit consisting of more than 50 people: players (13), coaches (3), parents (26), and players’ siblings (at least 10 who attended practice and tournaments). The players had been playing together as a select team, the Oak Hill Groove, since the previous fall, had beaten some of the best pure select teams in Texas, and had mastered the logistics of select sports. As a group, we traveled hundreds of miles together, stayed in hotels together, took over entire restaurants, raised and spent large amounts of money together, and handled the seemingly endless details of everything from travel and hotel reservations to uniforms and tournament fees. And as the machine churned forward, the girls were pushed hard. In June and July the team practiced four times a week, two and a half hours a night. We played tournaments on the weekends, often far enough from Austin that we had to stay overnight. Most of our players went to softball camps. Some went to two softball camps. All took private lessons from professional coaches.

Not all of this was pleasant. Tournaments in small Texas towns dragged on endlessly. The team would often play six games or more in two days, always in high summer heat. Where our old rec league teams were easy and forgiving, this new group was strict and unyielding. You were expected to show up an hour before game time, and if you were late, you were scolded. If you missed a practice or a game, you were benched for one game. We had a no-swimming-before-games rule that once was enforced after a game as well, leading to a minor parent mutiny.

Such constant devotion to the team soon led to a sort of collective exhaustion. All our family did, it seemed to me, was play softball. The laundry went unwashed, the lawn went uncut, pets and friends were neglected. It was as though, suddenly, every minute of our free time was gone. Practices, which involved many parents, were often difficult, with large blocks of time devoted to intense conditioning. On a night when the conditioning was especially grueling, one of the girls vomited. At one point Maisie was throwing eight hundred to nine hundred pitches a week, many at practice but the majority at home with me. As we later learned, this was way too much and had the effect of temporarily deadening her arm; her speed dropped to 45 miles per hour. She was being tested harder physically—by me as well as by her coaches—than she had ever been in her life.

Why subject a ten-year-old girl to this, you may ask? The simplest answer is that Maisie liked it. She discovered how competitive she really was and liked the Darwinian toughness of the team’s workouts. For the first time in her life, she was lean, hard, and muscled. She liked the idea that she was an athlete and a special one. She had a new sense of her body and was proud of what she was able to do. But the real reason we stuck with the Scream was that, by midsummer, we found ourselves in the midst of our first wholly involved, and completely satisfying, team experience. In spite of the abundant discipline, the Scream was downright fun. The girls had water balloon fights and sponge fights at practice. At tournaments they hung together when they were not playing, munching hot dogs and playing tag and generally haunting the various games in brightly colored packs. They did line dances along the third-base line and dressed in funny hats and coaxed opposing teams into doing special dance-cheers at the end of games. If you have not heard ten-year-old girls doing cheers and chants, you are missing something. They chattered like magpies throughout the game, employing at least three dozen routines, and seemed to pick up new chants from other teams almost spontaneously. (Boys do not do this.) The chants ranged from rhythmic hip-hop—

My name is Maisie. Y’all, what?
I’m in da house. Y’all, what?
Came to do my thang. Y’all, what?
Not a perpetrator. What?
Just an aggravator. What?
Better known as a softball player. What?
A-ring-a-ding, a-ring-a-ding. What?

—to singsong melodies, often a benign form of trash talk.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin.’
Pitcher’s goin’ bowlin.’
Get those worms a helmet!
What? A helmet!
What? A helmet!

As with most kids’ teams, the Scream worked mainly because the parents and coaches got along. We had (and have) three coaches, all unpaid: Mike Prinzo, a bank teller; Kris Wood, an engineering professor; and Eric Herron, a project manager with an architecture firm. Wood and Herron have children on the team. Prinzo, a 28-year-old who is first among equals, does not; he coaches because he likes doing it. Their main job—and a challenge not everyone would want—was to try to divvy up playing time fairly on a team that was loaded both with superb athletes and with strong-willed parents who were naturally looking out for the interests of their children. That they have been successful is evident: The team has stayed together. (We had one player leave in the fall, to everyone’s disappointment.) When the coaches made tactical errors, as they occasionally did—usually involving baserunning in the late innings—they were immediately engaged by the parents, and the problem was usually discussed openly. If there were hurt feelings because of this, we did not see them. This open dialogue is one of the team’s strengths. We have all seen teams destroy themselves, often in very public and very ugly ways, usually because of the real or perceived sins of coaches and the parents’ subsequent overreaction.

There was grumbling, to be sure, as there is on all teams. But it stayed at a low level. It seemed to be a necessary and healthy way of venting frustrations. It rarely went to a higher level. This was partly because many of the parents were so deeply enmeshed in the general management of the team. One handled hotel reservations, another ran the Web site and kept statistics, another ordered uniforms, another sewed patches, another made sure the girls got the right amount of sunblock, another ran the accounting systems, and others chased down sponsorships. At a practice, it was not uncommon to see nine or ten parents, in addition to the coaches, helping girls with hitting, fielding, and pitching drills.

This is going to sound odd, coming from an ambitious Softball Dad, but what the team did on the field that summer was almost an afterthought. Our family’s team experience, and our daughter’s successful integration with this group, was far more important to me than winning or losing. For the record, however, there was plenty of winning. We were undefeated in the sectional tournament, winning by a collective score of 74—2. We went undefeated in the regional tournament, winning by a collective score of 40—6. We went to nationals in late July and came within a whisker of winning it, losing to a team we had beaten several times before. We placed third. The kids, who thought they should have won, were deeply disappointed. For about a day. Then they all went on vacation and had a great time and forgot about it. One of the things you learn about kids’ sports is that parents are the ones who really mind losing. It just doesn’t bother children that much, at least not at this age. Unlike their parents, who have experienced plenty of winning and losing, and who bring lifetimes of emotional baggage to the sport, they see no larger meaning in the loss of one game or one tournament.

AFTER NATIONALS the team decided not to rejoin the rec league. As much fun as it was, it was now impossible to go back. The world had changed, and we had bigger ambitions. Playing again as the Oak Hill Groove, we’re now competing as an eleven-year-old select team in the twelve-and-under bracket against the best teams in the state, whose girls are often much bigger than ours and who occasionally clean our clocks. That’s okay. We are a team that knows how to lose. We have also beaten some very good teams and have recently placed high in tournaments. A year from now, as “old” twelve-year-olds, we are going to be very, very tough to beat. We practice twice a week, play two tournaments a month, and live the softball life. I estimate that our family will spend $6,000 to $7,000 this year on lessons, equipment, and travel to tournaments. At that rate, we will have spent $60,000 or more on select softball by the time Maisie goes to college, far more than the value of an athletic scholarship to a state school. From what we have heard, the future promises to be even more expensive, with more travel to out-of-state tournaments. Increasingly, the path to college sports runs not through high school teams but through select teams. They are the ones who are scouted by the colleges. I am trying my best not to look that far down the road. Maisie has many other interests in life and may very well not want to play softball in a few years. Who can tell?

For the moment, we are happy spending the money, even though it forces us to curtail family travel and to make economies elsewhere and occasionally to load up our credit cards. Others may think we are crazy to do it and unreasonable to put such an athletic burden on Maisie at a young age. But I don’t think so. And more important, Maisie doesn’t think so. In February her team played a tournament in San Marcos, winning all four games and outscoring the opposition by a combined 37—3. Maisie pitched two of those games. At the end of an exhausting twelve-hour day of softball, I was ready to head for home. Maisie wanted no part of that. She begged to join her teammates at Chili’s for dinner. “I want to be with the team, Dad,” she protested, when I pointed out how late it was. “I just want to be with my team.” It was an argument I was happy to lose.

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