How the joy of T-ball gets lost on the little league field

The purest play one can find at the diamonds down in Arroyo Seco are on that wee field nearest the skate park and across from golf course entrance. Beyond this dirt diamond, you’ll never see a batter run from home to third after laying bat on a ball and anyone on hand be remotely okay with that.

On this field is where my younger son, now a local junior varsity third baseman, played T-ball in South Pasadena’s Little League. He was five. The ball had a leather cover and the players wore the tiniest gloves, but no one kept score. There was joy on the field and laughter amongst the parents who lined the field.

Any observer of the human condition should experience T-ball at least once, because the purity of this joy diminishes sharply by the time the kids are eight. For the mostly boys who play it, but for their parents as well. The difference in vibe between what you’ll find on a T-ball field and what’s going on at the bigger boys’ Burke Field — where I coached the Green Goblins “National League” team in 2007 — is pressure. In my experience the kids grew, but too many of the folks lining Burke and the other big boy fields in Arroyo Seco had not.

I deeply wanted to win when I coached in the South Pasadena Little League. A friend and fellow dad, Darius, helped me lead the young men. Two years ago when we revisited our time in the South Pasadena Little League, Darius said he remembered me singling out players for criticism, unfairly. I told myself that no such thing ever happened. But now I am wondering if maybe I did. The mind plays tricks. Coping tricks. And one can get caught up under the spell of wanting to be the best or, at least, not being judged as the worst.

It was easy to say that this desire to win was for the kids’ sake.

It’s been a decade since I’ve watched Little League live. (To see it on TV is wildly underrated. Not T-ball good, but fairly excellent.) From what I’ve read though, little has changed. Winning is ingrained in the fabric of America. Aspirationalism is, too, and sometimes not so righteously. Logic be damned, deep down a lot of Little League parents — and let’s be real: dads are driving this, overwhelmingly — think they’ve got a star on their hands.

Youth sports wasn’t always like this.

“What puzzles me,” Regan McMahaon, writes author of Revolution in the Bleachers, “is that when I was growing up, I felt that in every one of my classes and on any given playing field, there were kids who were above average, average, and below average, and everyone knew who they were, including the parents. But in the current era, it seems that virtually all parents want their kids to be No. 1, and believe they can help them be that simply by providing the right opportunities and training.”

Baseball in particular has a problem with excess serious. Travel ball for older boys is running up family expenses, monopolizing schedules, and taking the joy out of the game. (Critics also say that travel baseball has also brought class and race divisions to a game that once held out open entry as a prime attribute.) These challenges are a severe ratcheting up of the pressure I felt playing youth baseball in the early 1980s, when getting bawled out by a beer-drunk coach was the worst that could happen.

You won’t find that guy handing the umpire a line-up card in South Pasadena’s Little League. Not anymore. Somehow, top-down intensity remains an oversized part of the game. And the ball fields of Arroyo Seco are such a fantastic platform for unbridled joy, it seems criminal to sully the child’s play with heavy-handed life lessons or Ruthian levels of pressure.

Donnell Alexander is a Portland-based creator writer whose work has been featured in Time, Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” and Narrative Global Politics. His most recent short film, with Sika Stanton, is An Oregon Canyon.

Listen to Donnell’s story about coaching the Green Goblins

(Photo: Donnell’s younger son, Wyatt; Photo courtesy of Donnell Alexander)