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