Andy Hinds | Parenting
I remember, when my twin girls were not yet one year old, parking the stroller near one of the baseball diamonds at Morley Field to watch the little kids play tee-ball. It was so adorable to me, and so amazing that these squirrelly rugrats could keep it together to participate in a team sport that involved skills and rules and cooperating with their friends, that it almost brought a tear to my eye.I imagined my kids playing on a team some day, practicing sportsmanship, growing physically and mentally tough, and perhaps becoming confident leaders among their peers.
Another family I knew from the neighborhood sidled up alongside us. The dad had their six-month-old strapped to his chest in a sling, and we engaged in the standard small-talk of new parents: baby sleep habits, baby eating habits, baby screaming habits, baby defecation habits, etc. Once we had caught up on one another’s latest trials, we all shifted our gaze to the four-year-olds on the ball field, who seemed so big and independent relative to our little bundles of need.
“So cute, right?” I said, nodding toward the young athletes. “Can you imagine that our kids will probably be doing stuff like this in just a few years?”
I felt like I was verbalizing what we were all thinking.
“Really?” said the dad. “You would let your kids be involved in this kind of fascist brainwashing?”
The mom, too, could hardly disguise the shock and disgust at what I had just said.
“Well,” I stammered, “you know … teamwork … um … sportsmanship … that kind of thing. It’s supposed to be good for kids, isn’t it?”
The truth was, though, that I wouldn’t really know about that. Not first-hand, anyway. It was all theoretical to me.
I grew up as an “Army brat,” and we moved frequently, so I had fewer opportunities to settle into any extra-curricular activities than my civilian friends. The longest my family ever lived in one place was on a tiny base in Bavaria, close to the Austrian border. On a good year, elementary school enrolled about eighty students. There was an organization that sponsored after-school activities for military kids like hiking, skiing and shivering in the frigid water of a nearby medieval monastery’s swimming pool, but there wasn’t much offered in the way of team sports.
There was, however, a baseball team. It was part of a league that included two other teams from other American bases that, while tiny, were not as miniscule as ours. Our community was so small that not enough boys went out for the team. So the coach went out recruiting to fill out his roster. When he had run out of boys who were the right age and interested in baseball, he went after the boys who weren’t necessarily interested, but were willing to give it a shot. Then he went for the boys who were interested, but technically too young. After he had drained that pool, he went after me.
I would have been six or seven then, on the small side, and a daydreamy little kid who liked to run around in the woods, build forts, make up gibberish languages to communicate with my friends and sew clothes for my GI Joe. I also liked to throw a baseball around, hit it with a bat, and run. I was fairly good at those things, but the idea of organizing those discrete activities into a structured “game” had never occurred to me. I suppose I was flattered to be recruited, and so I accepted the coach’s offer.
So there I was, the last-picked player on the worst team in the most rinky-dink Little League in the western world. I literally picked daisies while covering right field, where I don’t remember a ball ever entering the airspace during my career, which is probably good since I wouldn’t have know what to do with it. At bat, I never hit the ball, although I did get walked a few times because I presented such a small strike zone, swimming, as I was, in my three-sizes-too-big uniform. We never won a game. Our team was a joke. The other teams jeered at us, and the big kids on my team took it out on the smaller kids: the smallest, of course, being me.
I started hiding from the bus when it would come by our house to pick me up for away games. The coach would chase me down; one time, I just told him I wanted to quit. He tried to talk me out of it, and then my mom tried to talk me out of it, and then my mom tried to talk my dad into talking me out of it. “Go on,” she told him. “Tell him about the importance of sticking to it, being a good sport, getting back on the horse.”
“Well,” my dad said, “it sounds pretty miserable to me. If I were him, I wouldn’t want to play either.”
And that was the last time I played a team sport. It was back to running around in the woods for me, and I couldn’t have been happier.
When we moved back to the States, there were kids who had been playing league sports for their entire childhoods: soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, you name it. I had been skiing and hiking for the past four years. Had there been a ski team at my school in the Washington, DC suburbs, I might have tried out for it. But I didn’t feel like I had a chance playing in the traditional sports, and my bad baseball experience solidified my lack of interest.
Lack of interest turned to disdain as I found my place in the hierarchy of American high school. Jocks were on top; weird artsy kids like me were down there with Dungeons & Dragons nerds and recent immigrants. I probably referred to jocks as fascists several times a day.
So when the dad at Morley Field used that language to describe the culture of sports, it resonated with my inner twelve-year-old.
But strangely, I still feel like I missed out by never being on a team after the Little League Debacle of ’77. I’m not as comfortable working with a group as I could be. I’m not always sure what role to take on and the extent to which I should try to lead. I struggle with maintaining any interest in things that I’m not already good at, and I’m a poor loser. I’m painfully awkward in locker rooms.
Like most parents, I want my kids to sail confidently right through their schooling and into rewarding careers and lives. A part of me has bought into the idea that team sports set the groundwork for that, and I want my kids to at least give it a try. There are so many options for them these days, in this area, that even if they end up as artsy weirdos, they will have learned to lose a game gracefully. And maybe even win one.