Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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The stupidest things youth sports parents and coaches love to say

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GQ, as part of an Internet-wide movement to create lists and slideshows for cheap page-count padding, recently posted an item called “Eight Stupidest Things Sports Fans Love to Say.” You know, stuff like “he plays the game the right way,” which is also on the list of Eight Stupidest Things Larry Brown Loves to Say.

So that got me thinking, fresh off a break from my 11-year-old daughter’s travel softball before we get to my 7-year-old son’s and 4-year-old daughter’s soccer leagues, about the eight stupidest things youth sports parents and coaches love to say. Given I’m coming off softball, this might be a bit heavy in that direction. I’ve got six items here. Feel free to suggest your own nuggets of numbnutsness for Nos. 7 and 8.

1. “Be a hitter!”

I can’t think of a time someone — a parent or coach — HASN’T yelled this after some poor kid had the temerity to take strike one. I can only imagine how hoarse Wade Boggs’ managers would have gotten had they yelled this every time he took strike one, which was every time he went up to bat.

“Be a hitter!” is dumb on many levels. First, even kids who are scared to take the bat off their shoulder are intellectually familiar with the concept that their mere presence in the batter’s box means that they are, in fact, a hitter. “Be a hitter? I thought I was supposed to be a fielder here!” Second, a kid who is not predisposed to hitting is not suddenly transformed into Ted Williams with the sage advice of “Be a hitter!” In fact, you usually can feel a player’s body tighten after that moment. Third, a kid who takes a pitch at a youth league level is no dummy. Often, a pitcher isn’t going to get the ball over the plate three out of six times, even with an extended strike zone. “Be a hitter” then becomes a command to get kids to swing at terrible pitches, thus teaching bad habits on pitch selection.

If you want your kid to “Be a hitter!” every time the ball is pitched, take him or her to a batting cage.

2. “Two strikes. Only one more!”

This phrase — or its batter corollary, “Two strikes, protect the plate!” — are yelled clearly because of the failure of the American education system. After all, why would even teenagers have this phrase screamed in their direction unless they did not know the number after two was three?

“You will get five strikes…” “Three strikes.”

3. “He’s going to get a scholarship!”

I could have called this blog “Your Kid’s Not Playing in College.” The holy grail (notwithstanding the above Monty Python clip) for many parents, particularly those whose children play sports with no mass audience, is for those tens of thousands of dollars and/or hours to pay off in a scholarship, which they realize only when their child gets to college sports (if their child is lucky, given a scholarship rate of 1% or less for any high school athlete) is year-to-year, and doesn’t come close to paying full freight. Hey, the volleyball team doesn’t make any money, you know?

Still, parents have programmed themselves early into thinking that the scholarship is the easily reachable pot of gold at the end of the athletic rainbow. My wife was out to dinner a while back with a few acquaintances, and she brought up bringing my then 6-year-old youngest son to his bowling league. Almost in unison, those acquaintances shot back, “Ooh, I bet he could get a scholarship for that!” Well, maybe he can. But the kid was still bowling with bumpers, for Pete Weber’s sake.

4. “Have fun!” or “Everybody have fun out there!” or “Hope you all had fun!”

When my wife tells me, “It’ll be fun,” that’s my signal that whatever she’s talking about is sure to be the opposite of fun. “We’re going out with our Bible-thumping neighbors to a creationist theme park. It’ll be fun!” Why does she make a point of telling me it’ll be fun? If it’s fun, won’t it be fun without me having to be cajoled into believing it’s fun? Of course, she knows this, which is why she’s trying to convince me (and her, perhaps) that “it’ll be fun!”

I know we’re supposed to encourage children to have fun in sports, but we do keep score, parents lose their shit on the sidelines, coaches are critiquing kids’ every move, and the umpire doesn’t care that the batter swung through your catcher’s mitt and your fingers are throbbing with pain — damnit, that’s catcher’s interference (the last one actually happened to my 11-year-old daughter this summer). No wonder coaches have to make a point of saying, “It’ll be fun!”

5. “Sports is good for them. It keeps them moving, so they don’t play video games.”

That is a paraphrase of a common reason parents sign up their children for sports when they would clearly rather be, well, playing video games. It’s not fun (“It’ll be fun!”) for anyone — not for the parents dragging the kid out to practice, not the coach who has to deal with a player who does not want to be there, not for any teammate trying to take a sport halfway seriously. And, of course, not for the kid. If you want your child to move and not spend so much time on video games (the only reason I can figure why they’re singled out is because the parents don’t get gaming, or they’ve heard other parents say it), there are other options, ones that are more practical. For instance, have your kid sweep the driveway.

6. “[Fill in unhinged argument with official/umpire/referee]“

Here is my personal code of conduct for parents and coaches when dealing with officials:

Rule 1: The quality of officiating is commensurate with the skill level of the athletes involved. Ergo, your child’s bitty basketball game will not have the same professional refereeing of an NBA game. (Plus, in youth leagues calls often are made differently so the game can be sped up, or to give players more leeway to learn.)

Rule 2: It is OK to react negatively and quickly — such as an eye roll, grunt or “ah, fuck” — to an official’s call. Not every call, but one that seems fairly crucial.

Rule 3: It is OK for the coach to ask for a clarification from the referee as to why a certain call was made — as long as that clarification is requested respectfully. (Not, “Can you please tell me what the fuck you could have possibly seen, you stupid shit?”)

Rule 4: Once the matter is settled, shut up. And if you don’t shut up, the ump, even if it’s a 15-year-old girl, can tell you to shut up.

Rule 5: If you spend the ride home with your child blaming the officials for the loss or anything bad that happened, your child will grow up to be Rasheed Wallace. Except, more than likely, without the money and the NBA career. In other words, all of the whining, and none of the benefits.

Does anyone want to nominate the final two?

Written by rkcookjr

August 3, 2010 at 1:37 am

The greatest 10-and-under girls softball game I ever saw

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Believe it or not, there are times when youth sports really are all about the kids, playing now, at this moment. Not about parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, or who’s bringing the snack. All of a sudden, a game gets so good and compelling, and the young players’ nerves of steel so awe-inspiring, that all you can do is watch and enjoy the ride.

Tonight, that was my 10-year-old daughter’s third-place softball game for in the kinda-sexist-named Petite Division of the Oak Lawn, Ill., house softball program.

Usually, a third-place game (I managed that same daughter in one two years ago) is a loose affair, what with the pressure of a championship gone. (Thank God.) My daughter Grace’s team is pretty loose to begin with, so they can practically barely stand erect as her Frost, the fourth-place team in the regular season, played the Storm, the second-place team.

The Frost went up 2-0 in the top of the first inning, and the Storm tied it in the bottom of the second. The bottom of the third wasn’t so good for the Frost. They gave up the maximum six runs in an inning, were down 8-2, and looked outmatched by a team that had four travel players to their one. The girls looked dispirited coming into the dugout — and didn’t look any better when they went down 1-2 in the top of the fourth. The coaches’ voices didn’t change pitch, but the Frost coaches seemed much louder as they urged their players.

But then, the magic started happening. The Frost scored four runs in the bottom of that inning, the last two, if I may brag, on a two-run opposite-field single by Grace. Now down only 8-6, the Frost’s spirits were back up, and the parents started getting a little more interested in the game. A few by me joked about not wanting to go to the bathroom, lest they miss anything. All that toilet talk made me have to use the bathroom (where, by the way, I was saw my daughter’s manager in the next stall).

Actually, not just the parents were zooming in their focus. This Frost-Storm game was taking long enough, games were finishing on other fields, and hearing about the comeback under way, players and their families decided to stick around and watch. Slowly more people were circling the field, cheering good plays (by either team), and making more of a buzz and ruckus than your average Florida Marlins home game.

I don’t know much about the Storm. But what they were seeing out of the Frost was pure guts. Players who normally didn’t hit were smacking balls. The Frost would get pushed to the edge of the abyss, then come fighting back. Again in the bottom of the fifth, the Frost got two quick outs. But then came four more runs — on two-run singles placed to about the same spot Grace placed hers. By the end of five-and-half innings, a 8-2 Frost deficit had become a 10-10 tie. More fans streamed toward the field, out of the impending darkness, to check out what was going on.

What was going on was two teams of 9- to freshly minted 11-year-old girls who were as cool and loose as the crowd was wound tight, especially we parents. It’s always difficult to watch your child play because you can’t protect them from injury or failure. It’s even harder when they are being put in situations that would make major-leaguers fold. In the Frost’s comeback, all of the eight runs they scored after falling behind came with two outs. A lot of them came with two strikes. I don’t think they even heard the parents or coaches anymore. I didn’t. I didn’t know of anything that wasn’t happening in front of me.

The Storm came back with one run in the bottom of the fifth to go up 11-10. That meant, for the Frost, score in the top of the sixth, or the game is over.

Grace was up first. She had two hard singles her first two at-bats. But she struck out against the same pitcher she already hit twice. If you followed me on Twitter and Facebook (and why wouldn’t you?), you would have seen this:

Grace strikes out to start 6th. Just setting team up for more two-out heroics.

Hey, after what I had seen the previous two innings, that was not a cocky thing to say. Meanwhile, the players and coaches for the Petite championship game, which was already supposed to have started, were now gathering around to watch.

It turns out the heroics were after one out. More girls smacked base hits to that same magic spot in right field, and the Frost ended the top of the sixth up 13-11. Do you believe in miracles?

The Storm didn’t become a second-place team by folding up easily, either. Though they appeared rattled at times that the Frost wouldn’t go away, they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and final regulation inning. They had the bases loaded with two out. One walk, and the game was over.

The Frost’s pitcher, Jackie, who in her first game pitching cried herself to distraction after her rough outing (so much I had Grace make a point to tell her everything was OK and her teammates had her back), was now in her third inning tonight — and she wasn’t backing down. Sure, she might get a little frustrated over a bad pitch, but her eyes were lasers into the catcher’s glove. The count works to two balls and two strikes. At this point, the 15,000 people were standing or on the literal edges of their seats to see what would happen. Discussion over how a 10-year-old girl can stomach this much pressure was rampant. If anybody brought Maalox, they were chugging it.

Jackie throws a pitch catching the outside part of the plate. Called strike three. Game is tied.

You know the cliche that it’s a shame somebody has to lose this game? (Ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut about that one.) As it turned out, in Frost v. Storm for third place, no one had to. It was 8:35 p.m., 35 minutes after the championship game was supposed to have started. So no extra innings — there’s a tie for third.

For this game, there really was no other appropriate way to end it. I don’t know how the Storm felt. But the Frost players were beaming and jumping around with excitement over grinding out such a tough, um, not-win. After each game in their league, a team will form a line with players on each side, slapping hands and chanting, “We. Are. Proud of you, yeah, we are proud of you,” as the other team runs underneath — and then the teams reverse the lineup. In this case, I think the 27,000 fans who saw the end were ready to do the same chant with each team.

Oh, of course, there were some dimbulbs who couldn’t grasp the excitement of the moment. One old fart sitting next to me was ripping the coaches and the players like he was watching a Chicago White Sox game. Dude, these are volunteers coaches and 10-year-old girls, not full-time millionaire pros. Another guy was upset the Frost and Storm couldn’t play extra innings. I mean, really whining about it. Another parent mentioned to Grace’s coach that it’s too bad the Frost made so many errors, or they would have won.

My response is to quote my late father: If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.

Who cares? Each team makes errors. Half the fun of watching this age group play is seeing how they recover from their mistakes — and both teams improved by leaps and bounds in learning how to forget their mistakes and move on.

It’s nearly three hours after the Frost-Storm game, and I’m still feeling a buzz about it. It’s the kind of buzz that keeps me excited about my kids’ games, even when around me there’s hassles with parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, and who’s bringing the snack.

Your 2010 Frost, after losing to the eventual champion. Yep, they’re a loose group.

Powerball winner funds prep softball field, undermines hard-work message

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Coaches (such as myself) like to teach that hard work is the key to success, that luck is only the sudden opportunity to take advantage of all the time and focus a player has brought to the game. However, what we fail to accept is that sometimes chance and dumb luck happens, whether we like it or not.

At Enka High School in Candler, N.C., outside of Asheville, members of the Sugar Jets (great nickname, isn’t it?) softball team will get a reminder about how hard work knuckles under to the whims of chance whenever they step onto their first-ever home field — funded and named after the Sugar Jet Daddy who just won a metric assload of money in the Powerball lottery.

From the Asheville Citizen Times:

Enka expects to break ground next month on the $700,000 Griffin Field at Sugar Jet Park facility along Enka Lake Road. Its amenities will include seatback chairs, a press box, locker rooms, a laundry room and space for video study.

Most of the money for the project is coming from [family spokesman Kevin] Griffin’s family — his daughter is junior Chelsea Griffin and her grandfather, Frank, won a $141.4 million Powerball lottery jackpot in February.

I’m imagining Chelsea Griffin is being recruited by every club in the school right now. “Hey, Chelsea — wanna join the French Club and bring $100,000 with you?”

Talk about dumb luck: Frank Griffin, a retired Asheville firefighter, bought his winning ticket one day when he had $5 left after pumping gas and figured, what the hell, why not play the lottery. He let the computer pick the numbers. He didn’t know there was a $141 million drawing the night he bought the tickets, Feb. 6, 2010. So, to summarize, Griffin did not participate in a weekly pool, where he carefully plotted what numbers he thought had the best odds. He just decided to piss away $5 for fun, and ended up taking $69 million in a lump-sum payment, or $47 million after taxes. (By the way, do people still complain that winning the lottery is great, but for the damn taxes? I’m guessing Frank is pretty happy to clear $47 million, no matter what the IRS share.)

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Frank Griffin’s lottery-winning message to the guy who told him not to buy tickets: “Fuck you, Larry.”

The school isn’t totally relying on Frank Griffin’s lucky break-fueled generosity. It’s selling naming rights for the individual seats. Still, it’s not like Enka High had to sweat to woo Griffin. It was the lucky school that had his granddaughter on the roster.

You know how in a lot of sports stadiums or locker rooms, there’s an inspirational quote to fire up the team as it hits the field? At Griffin Field at Sugar Jet Park (I’ll buy a T-shirt with that logo), the quote should come from one of Eddie Murphy’s early skits on Saturday Night Live:

…Life is luck. If you’re not lucky, you’re a bum. So go ahead, drop out of school. Get each other pregnant and play Space Invaders.

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Go ahead, play it.

Why I coach(?)

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My youth sports coaching career, in its present form, began with my oldest son’s second-grade basketball team; today he just finished seventh grade. In between I have coached three of my kids’ teams, in basketball, softball and baseball. I’m planning to coach my youngest daughter’s T-ball team when plays next summer.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I’m going to make it.

You’ll notice that I titled this entry Why I Coach (?) instead of Why I Coach.  That’s because, today, I am writing from the perspective of a youth sports coach whose “career” has hit a bit of a trough.

I am managing my 7-year-old son’s coach-and-kid-pitch-no-score baseball team this year, following a year in which I managed his T-ball team. There are seasons when you as a person and a coach click with all the personalities, kids and parents. Last year was one of those years. This year is not. At least a couple of times I’ve had parents complain to me about, me.

Their complaints, which generally revolve around my loudness (my voice naturally projects, aided by past theater training), and my chattiness (I’m naturally talkative, aided by present copious Starbucks americano consumption).

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Here’s a song dedicated by the baseball parents to the loud, chatty jerk-off who coaches their kids.

Not that unusual, really. It happens to every youth coach, even if you’re a combination of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and John Wooden. This past basketball season, I had a mom (whose father was my assistant coach) berate me with every curse word ever invented in front of a crowd departing from a game because I sat her son on the bench (to rest!). (She had previously rushed the bench only to be restrained by her father.) I know I’m loud and chatty, and while I compliment and encourage kids, I also — and this is a radical idea for a coach — also try to teach and correct. However, I understand how I can come off sounding a little unhinged, even if, unlike one my oldest son’s past baseball assistants, I’m not swearing up a storm and screeching away in my car with a hand on the wheel and another flipping the bird. (A shame he flipped out. My son liked that coach.)

Even when the mother attracted a stunned audience ripping me by the parking lot of the gym, eventually we found a common ground and settled things. I feel like, right now, I’m not able to connect like that. Maybe it’s the parents. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s both sides.

I’m not sure why, but I feel far less patient in dealing with people coming up to me and telling me I’m a horse’s ass who is ruining their children’s love of [insert sport here].

Maybe it’s years of dealing with petty complaints, whether about me, another parent, another kid, or why we’re playing on a certain field at a certain time. Maybe it’s the years of racing from work to a field or court, squeezing planning in on the train. Maybe it’s all the meetings I’ve sat through. Maybe it’s all the time being responsible not only for coaching, but making sure someone is bringing the treats and passing out the picture information. Maybe it’s because my own job has gotten more pressurized in the last year (not that I’m complaining, considering the alternative), leaving me less energy to deal with other people’s kids and their parents. What worries me is the nagging feeling I AM doing something wrong. I know I can be pretty dumb, but for some reason this season I’m feeling especially not smart.

At some point every season, I go through a period of wondering whether I should ever coach again. Guiding a bunch of kids you don’t know, who may or may not be interested in a sport, and trying to make them learn while have fun at the same time while you have a zillion other responsibilities can be an emotional drag, even if the parents are supportive (and mostly in my coaching career, they have been).

It’s a feeling that’s become more acute, and it makes me wonder whether I should leave my youngest daughter to someone more enthused and less asshole-ish than myself. Certainly, me not coaching might be easier on my family, which won’t have to worry about the time consumed by me coaching, and which can sit and watch a game and not see people whispering because they don’t want the other Cooks to know what they’re saying about ol’ Loud Dad over there.

However, when I get down like that, something happens that makes me realize the psychic rewards of coaching, the kind of rewards you can’t get doing anything else.

I go to the local library, and the mother of one of my old softball players tells me she wishes her daughter still had me for a coach. I get a phone call from a fellow basketball coach (one who, by the way, has far more basketball chops than I’ll ever have), asking me to give him a seal of approval to the star player’s mother, who is upset I’m didn’t draw her son that year. I go to my kids’ schools, and boys and girls who have played basketball under me run up and say, “Hi, coach!” I look up in my office at a drawing of me, wearing a “Coach” shirt and my weekend stubble, my now 10-year-old daughter did when I led her softball team. It’s titled “My Dad Is My Hero.”

Me, posing in 2008 for my daughter’s pencil drawing.

For that matter, there is the moment when my 7-year-old, perhaps blissfully unaware of any animus toward me, tells me how much he loves having me as a coach. And then there was last night, when I asked my 4-year-old daughter, while I was bathing her, if she wanted me to coach her in T-ball. She said, enthusiastically, and loudly, “YES!”

I remember how I was near tears when my son’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball team fought back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win a league title. I remember how I was near tears when my daughter’s fifth- and sixth-grade basketball hit a last-minute shot to win their only game of the season. I remember how I was near tears when, on my son’s basketball team, the team’s best player led the charge to congratulate a kid who, midseason, hit his first-ever shot in a competitive game.

OK, maybe I DO get a little intense. But the point is, coaching these teams makes you FEEL something. And you get to feel it not just with a bunch of kids you didn’t know, but grew to enjoy, but also with your own child. And when you’re still hearing the echoes of the mom who thinks you’re too hard on her boy, you start remembering that stuff, and remembering how much you love to share those intense moments with you children.

So, despite a present feeling that maybe my coaching career SHOULD be over, when next year’s T-ball season starts, you’ll probably find me on a field somewhere in Oak Lawn, Ill., with a bunch of 5-year-old girls, their parents staring me down, wondering if that loud, chatty guy is the right coach to mold their little careers. And you’ll find my 5-year-old daughter. I hope at that moment, on the field, she’ll be as proud of having her dad as coach as she was in the bathtub last night.

Written by rkcookjr

June 4, 2010 at 5:38 pm

When a Little Leaguer has cancer

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This story out of Haverstraw, N.Y., about an 8-year-old Little Leaguer with leukemia brought back from strong memories for me, because two years ago I was managing a team of kids around that age in a similar, difficult situation. From the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.:

Sean DePatto ran onto the Haverstraw Little League field Friday with the energy one might expect from an 8-year-old ballplayer.

But what impressed the parents, coaches and players before the Haverstraw Devil Rays took on the Haverstraw Phillies Friday night was that Sean ran out onto the field after rushing back from Manhattan, where he had just undergone six hours of chemotherapy. …

Like the manager of the Haverstraw Devil Rays, I knew before my 2008 season of managing the 8- and 9-year-old Cyclones softball team in Oak Lawn, Ill., that one of my returning players would be recovering from leukemia. That’s because the girl, Olivia, lived just down the block and was good friends with my daughter, Grace.

In midsummer 2007, soon after my then-8-year-old daughter’s first softball season, my first as an assistant coach, and after Grace and Olivia had both played in their league all-star game, Olivia was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Her mother feared the worst when she noticed Olivia’s lethargy and an unusual amount of bruising on her legs. Olivia’s family was told that while the five-year survival rate was 80 percent, it would take two-and-a-half years of treatment, including intense chemotherapy, before she would be back to anything resembling normal.

When we told Grace about Olivia’s sickness, we didn’t use the c-word, cancer. With the prognosis for recovery good, we didn’t want to scare her that she would possibly be losing a friend. Later, Grace came home from a visit to Olivia’s house (often the visits were brief because of Olivia’s lack of energy, a combination of the leukemia and the therapy) and asked us if we knew Olivia had cancer.

As adults, you get worried about how your child is going to take bad news from you. It never occurs to you that their fellow child will deliver it, and do so in a way that’s a lot less scary than your tiptoeing around.

It got to the point that, at least as far as Grace and Olivia were concerned, her disease and treatment routine became a matter-of-fact kind of thing — to them, anyway. For us adults, Olivia’s ability to handle so much struggle with so much ease was much more amazing. Olivia’s hospital gave her an award for her courage in the face of leukemia and all it entails. Then again, Olivia had never shown herself to shirk away from trouble. Grace and Olivia first met at age 3, when as her parents walked her down the block after just moving in, Grace — who then as now towers over Olivia — put up her dukes and chirped, “You wanna play fight?” Olivia didn’t say yes — but she didn’t back away, either.

When her hospital gave Olivia the award, the press release that came with it said that because of exhaustion, she could have to curtail her favorite activities, such as dance and riding her scooter.

Softball wasn’t mentioned, but as the 2008 season approached, I, as manager that year, fully expected Olivia not to play, even though her parents had signed her up the previous October, quite an act of positive thinking only a few months after her diagnosis. Olivia’s mother told me she would miss pre-season practices because of an especially intense round of treatment, but that she would be available for games. I went overboard emphasizing that it was up to her and Olivia, and that I wanted her guidance on what Olivia could handle. She said she would give it to me, and that, by the way, she’d also like to be the snack parent again this year.

I also explained to the team and the league what was going on with Olivia. With the team, as my wife and I were with Grace when we first learned of Olivia’s diagnosis, I was more circumspect about the c-word. I explained that Olivia had been sick and was getting treatment, and that they shouldn’t be surprised about Olivia’s lack of hair. Instead of a visor, Olivia would wear a cap given to the managers and coaches that her mother cut up and sewed so it would fit her head. As an added touch, she colored the white lettering on the black cap green so it would match the color of the lettering of the black visors worn by her fellow Cyclones.

Unlike Sean DePatto’s teammates in Haverstraw, neither my girls (nor their coaches) shaved their heads in support. That’s a great idea, and I thought about whether to suggest it. However, I figured that might be a lot to ask to a group of girls, particularly on a team which had members going through their Catholic First Communion during the season. Plus, I got the sense that the last thing Olivia wanted was attention as the Sick Girl, and having a team full of bald heads would only make that more plain.

Unlike Sean DePatto, Olivia by this point was well enough to go to school. But I think this statement by Sean’s mother, Kim, applies to Olivia as well, or any sick children who, if they don’t understand how serious their illness might be, understand the frustration of being told you can’t do your favorite things, and the determination to be able to do them again: “For him to be able to participate with the baseball team is giving him such a rush … It really makes a tremendous difference for him.”

I did not realize until the season was close to the end that Olivia sometimes would come straight to the game from, say, a spinal tap. All I knew was, Olivia, except for her jury-rigged cap, looked no different from the girl who played the previous year. Between her small stature and her quick bat, she was a tough out. And she again was one of our best pitchers. She could pitch two straight innings without getting frustrated or distracted, even if she got herself into a jam.

The only signs of Sick Girl were when the brother of an opposing team member tried to rip off her hat, and my constant asking of Olivia whether she was all right, which I asked so often she probably wondered whether something was wrong with me.

Otherwise, she ran with her teammates, played catch with her teammates, and sang the same interminable cheers that softball girls appear to know without anyone ever having taught them. I chose Olivia as one of our team’s all-star representatives because she was one of our best players. (In the picture to the upper right is Olivia, on the left, and Grace on the right.)

Sean DePatto’s coaches and teammates say that they are all better for having had Sean on the team, and I can say the same thing about myself and Olivia’s fellow Cyclones. I’m not sure how those girls will remember the experience. Maybe it’s because Grace and myself knew Olivia long before she got sick, or maybe it was her own determination to play well no matter what. But I don’t recall any overly emotional moments related to her being ill. All I remember is a kid who played hard on a team I had fun managing. I suspect in later years Grace will crystallize and share with my wife and I more of her own memories, and that they will probably have a lot more to do with the one-on-one time she spent with Olivia at her house during the worst of her therapy and illness, and not so much about the softball.

The next year, Grace and Olivia moved up an age group in their league, and they ended up on different teams. I switched to managing my son’s T-ball team, leaving Grace’s softball training in much more capable hands. Olivia ended her treatments for leukemia and is cancer-free. She also got back her head of hair. In 2010, she’s not playing softball, favoring instead theater and dance — as well as making videos with Grace, like the iCarly-inspired piece below.

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And, in case her old hospital would like to know, when Olivia comes over to see Grace, she’s riding her scooter.

Lawsuit claims softball coach was Bernie Madoff wanna-be

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Experts on Ponzi schemes will tell you that the victims are often preyed upon by a trusted person in their inner circle, such as a church member, a neighbor, or someone with whom they share an ethnic tie. However, until now, I had never heard of that trusted person being your daughter’s high school softball coach.

Even for Ponzi scheme victims, these softball parents, if a recent lawsuit is to be believed, set new standards for being what Bugs Bunny would call gulli-bulls. If Louisville, Colo., Monarch High coach Richard Dale Mott had an $11 billion fortune and a mansion stocked with expensive cars, why the hell would he be coaching girls’ high school softball? For the investment contacts? To give back to the community? (Boy, if he said that last one, that REALLY should have been a tip-off.)

Technically, what Mott is accused of doing is loan fraud, because he allegedly didn’t even get far enough to “invest” proceeds anymore. But the dynamics are the same.

From the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo.:

Randy Davenport, who was president of the Monarch Fastpitch Softball Club and whose daughter plays on the team, sued Richard Dale Mott after he said he was unable to recover $80,000 he loaned Mott to fund a supposed gypsum mining operation in Wyoming.

Davenport alleged in his suit that Mott, who resigned as coach from the Louisville high school in December, had promised him a $50,000 interest payment on the loan and had guaranteed the loan with a promissory note.

Mott also got loans from “numerous members of the Monarch High School parent community” that he never repaid, the suit states.

Davenport claimed that Mott, who was hired by the Boulder Valley School District in the summer of 2008, made off with $185,000 total from four or five investors, including himself.

“It’s an expensive lesson and one that I will be paying for,” Davenport said Thursday. “I want to see that guy suffer some kind of consequences for what he’s done.”

According to the Daily Camera story, Davenport said Mott told the parents he had set aside $25 million for each of his children. In reality, Mott lived in a rented house and was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and had settled numerous breach-of-contract cases in the past. (The newspaper called various Richard Motts, but it could not find the one in question.)

We can agree that Richard Mott, if he did what Davenport said he did, is a bad person. So is Bernard Madoff. So is Allen Stanford. And so is Nicholas Cosmo, who at least plowed some of the $375 million he apparently swindled out of suckers in his Ponzi scheme back into youth sports.

But jumpin’ Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, how greedy and/or dense do you have to be to hand $80,000 over to your daughter’s softball coach to invest in some bullshit you don’t understand, even if the coach is Charles Fuckin’ Schwab? Did the Monarch parents ever, oh, stop by his mansion to check it out? Do a Google search on Mott? Check the Forbes 500 to see if Mott’s name was in it? (At $11 billion, it would have been.) Get statements on the potential investment and run them by a financial adviser? Ask themselves why their daughters’ softball team was coached by a billionaire who needed to hustle parents for money? Find out what gypsum was?

Ponzi scheme experts will tell you that the scammers know what they’re doing, that their delivery is smooth, and that peer pressure can take over good judgment, especially if your friends are getting statements back about how fabulously their investments are doing. As the old saying goes: If it sounds too good to be true, it is. And, if your daughter’s softball coach approaches you with a hot investment, ask why, if the coach is so smart, he or she still can’t figure out how to teach players how to field a ground ball cleanly.

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And if that isn’t enough to help you avoid investment scams, perhaps this video will help. Ahem, her face is up there.

Knee injuries and girls: lessons from my 10-year-old daughter

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I’m no physician, but I feel like I’ve become a little bit of an expert on noncontact athletic knee injuries suffered by girls. That’s because today, for the second time since February, I took my 10-year-old daughter to the doctor because she had sprained her left knee playing basketball. In that sense, I am becoming an expert in girls’ knees the same way I became an expert in the cars I drove in high school: because the same parts kept breaking down.

Tomorrow I take my daughter to her first appointment with an orthopedist, who will find out (hopefully) exactly why this same knee keeps getting hurt. In the short term, I know she’s worried about getting well before her softball league games start April 27 (and given the frantic messages I’ve gotten from her coach, he’s worried about it, too — hey, it’s my kid and my blog, so I can brag!), and so she can get back to her musical theater rehearsals. (Once she got her crutches today, she spent most of the afternoon walking around with them outside, fighting my entreaties to get back in and rest her knee.)

However, my wife and I are more worried that someday she’s going to need more than crutches and Ace bandages to take care of that left knee. Hence, why I’m planning on asking the orthopedist about any physical therapy or structural problems that might be causing my daughter to hurt that same knee.

As anyone who has watched women’s college basketball and its high knee-brace content knows, female athlete knees are more susceptible to injury than those of their male counterparts. Without using phrases like “narrow femoral arch,” researchers believe there are physical reasons why this happens. In particular, girls and women are more at risk of tearing their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), especially after puberty. The ACL connects the femur and the tibia behind the kneecap, which is why when that sucker gets torn, you see athletes writing in so much pain. ACL injuries are commonly caused without contact, through twisting or jumping. Each time my daughter got hurt, she reported feeling pain after jumping.

I’ve become enough of an Internet expert on girls’ knee injuries to know that a common reason jumping is a problem is because of how many girls land. Mainly, the problem is that girls are more likely to jump with their knees pointed together, creating more stress on them upon landing. Do that enough times, and the ACL starts to tear, and when it tears enough, it pops. And when it pops — the pain!

We’ll find out at the orthopedist whether this is the root of my daughter’s problem, particularly because she noticed the pain after a jump, with no contact from anyone else. If the orthopedist doesn’t check that, I might have to break out my Internet Expert’s License and tell him. Although, technically, I don’t know for sure that it’s the ACL. It seems like it, given her complaints of pain under the kneecap, although I don’t know if that’s why her left kneecap seemed to move a lot more, and disturbingly, freely than the right when her pediatrician manipulated it today.

I might be a budding Internet expert, but that only will take me so far in trying to ensure my 10-year-old daughter isn’t having major knee surgery by age 13. Eventually, I was able to afford to buy cars that allowed me not to learn so much about how they fail. Hopefully, my daughter is on the road to allowing me to spend less time becoming an expert in how girls’ knees fail.

California softball star's suicide stuns her community

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Whenever I see stories of high-achieving people inexplicably killing themselves, I think of two people: Richard Cory, and Kathy Ormsby.

From the Orange County Register:

Nadia Brianne Matthews [known as "Bri"] had a glowing future.

The sophomore star softball pitcher at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana had verbally committed to play for the University of Arizona, and had a sense of confidence, grace and warmth that went beyond her 16 years, friends say.

Her suicide Thursday at her Anaheim home has shocked and devastated relatives, friends and teachers and coaches who saw in her amazing talent and promise – a nice girl who could put a smile on anyone’s face. …

The coroner Friday afternoon ruled the manner of death suicide, “by ligature hanging.” …

[Nadia] Martinez said her daughter had a 4.0 GPA and had dreams of becoming a neonatologist.

One of the most awful things about suicide is it often comes with no warning. Bri’s family will probably never be able to answer the question, why?

The reason I think of Richard Cory is because he is the title character of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem about a beautiful, tragic figure. I remember reading this poem in grade school, and it hit me pretty hard and has always stuck with me, maybe it’s because it’s the first work that opened my eyes to the idea that you never quite knew what was going on inside the heads and hearts of those who seemed to be well. The last line, which comes out of nowhere, symbolizes the shock anyone feels when a loved one commits suicide — even for me, when I had a friend kill himself at 15, a friend who gave ample warning (what I considered ample — others did not ) of what he was going to do.

The poem, in its entirety:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

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You might recall Simon & Garfunkel’s rewrite of Richard Cory.

The reason I think of Kathy Ormsby because I was in attendance at the 1986 NCAA track and field championships in Indianapolis — the event where the North Carolina State 10,000-meter runner split from the track mid-race to jump off a bridge over the nearby White River in an attempt to kill herself.

Instead, she was left paralyzed from just above the waist down. A lot of coverage at the time focused on how Ormsby, a high school valedictorian and premed student, was extremely driven and put a ton of pressure on herself to succeed, with the implication that might somehow have been behind her suicide attempt. From the New York Times, circa 1986:

Mitch Shoffner, the head of the social studies department at the high school, taught her world history and coached her in volleyball in the 10th grade.

”I know that she’s always driven herself very, very hard,” he said. ”She’s not the type of person who can accept second best for herself. If there’s any pressure, Kathy was putting it on herself. She’s always been very much of a perfectionist.”

Later, Ormsby did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself.

”One time, I got on the volleyball team for not practicing hard enough, and she broke down and cried. Most of the girls just got mad. She was very, very serious about everything she did.”

Later, Ormsby indeed did cite fear of failing her coaches and parents as to why she tried to kill herself, and in later interviews said she had a panic attack and never intended to kill herself. (Ormsby is now an occupational therapist in Wilmington, N.C. — I believe her photo is the top one on the blog post here.)

Do Richard Cory or Kathy Ormsby give any indication as to why Bri Matthews, who seemingly had the world at her feet, decided she could no longer live? No. But they’re all unfortunate examples that suicide, and whatever is behind it, can affect seemingly the most successful among us.

What keeps kids from signing up for baseball? Hint: not video games

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The article I’m going to react to has been out for more than week, but I needed time for my slow burn to transition to full-blown foaming at the mouth.

The article is about a perceived decline in the number of children in stick-and-ball sports, and it comes from the Daily Herald, the official chronicler of Chicago’s north and northwest suburbs. I found it thanks to True/Slant’s resident Suburbanista, Hilary Shenfeld. Something stuck in my craw, which I think is near my cockles, right from the start:

Suburban youth baseball and softball coaches can expect to find fewer players on the ball fields this summer, according to many league directors.

And while the finger can be pointed at everything from the recession to competition from other sports, experts increasingly are blaming children’s habitual video game playing as a key reason why droves are ignoring America’s No. 1 pastime.

And the better children get at video games and more used to the fast-paced action they get, the less likely they’ll give them up to play the real game, experts say.

“Instead of going out to play sandlot baseball, kids today are content to sit in front of a computer to play a video game,” said Rich Honack, a professor at Kellogg School of Management.

Studying generations, he says his data shows the computer is the reason for the decrease in kids playing competitive sports.

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Contentment.

So this is how we’re going to do it — again. It’s video games’ fault. It’s always video games’ fault. Video games sexualize children, make them fat, and make them drive too fast. Video games are sure to be blamed for bank bailouts, the Toyota recall and CPAC.

But that’s a facile, knee-jerk argument. I emailed Honack (technically, a senior lecturer, not a professor — an actual professor would be quick to point that out) to ask where the research is proving his point, but I never heard back. I certainly couldn’t find it.

Some northwest Chicago suburban recreational leagues are reporting 20-plus percent drops over the last five years, accelerating during the last two, and particularly acute in the 10-to-14-year-old age group. But video games weren’t just invented five years ago. A lot of factors are contributing to the decline of baseball in that area and others, such as:

– Increased specialization in a single sport.

– The increase in travel and elite leagues. Note that recreational leagues are noticing a drop. It’s possible (not down 20 percent possible) that at least a little bit of the drop comes from parents signing up their kids for travel leagues instead of recreational-level ball.

– The large number of kids who drop out of organized sports by the dawn of teenager-hood. It’s practically an article of faith in youth sports that there is a huge dropoff in participation by age 13, as kids who aren’t interested or aren’t pursuing a scholarship or pro career drop out in favor of other activities. I would not be surprised if a lot of that dropoff comes as early as age 10. I know in my area, the line of demarcation between when baseball and softball are fun, and when it’s time to get serious, comes at age 9.

– And, of course, money. One league in the Daily Herald’s area is reported to charge a $325 entry fee. I hope everyone gets their own steroids for that. Even if the fees aren’t much, the economy is dictating choices. Kids, you can’t do everything anymore. It’s like how I told my oldest son, who had an interest in hockey and loved to skate, whether he kinda liked the sport or whether he LOOOOVVVVVED it. “I kinda like it,” he said. So I didn’t sign him up. I wasn’t going to spend $1,200 in league fees for something he kinda liked. I imagine even in some of the posher suburbs of northwest Chicago, parents are making similar decisions. (Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune wrote a story about the same area saying just that.) After all, why waste time and money signing your kid up for something he or she doesn’t want to do? Plus, the foreclosure crisis isn’t leaving your tonier suburbs unscathed. The money just isn’t there for everything.

If video games play any role, it’s only as a time-killer for kids who decide (or have it decided for them) not to play baseball or softball. I’ve never known a kid to quit to play video games, although I do remember my oldest son getting pissed, at age 7, when his third baseman wasn’t paying attention when he tried to get him the ball on a force play. “He was probably thinking about video games,” my son said.

If kids aren’t interested in sports, they’ll fill it with whatever they’re interested in — theater, music, jerking off or, yes, video games. If kids explicitly choose video games over sports — and parents allow them to do so — I would bet that also has something to do with not wanting to spend hours upon hours in stupid practices getting yelled at by the knuckle-dragging coach for the right to ride the bench all game. Hey, if you’re going to sit, why not in the comfort of your home, with no one barking at you?

Written by rkcookjr

February 24, 2010 at 1:04 am

Pitchers and catchers report, youth baseball edition

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graces-camera-117

Gameface is ready.

This week was the managers’ meeting for those of us managing at the Shetland level of Oak Lawn (Ill.) Baseball. Shetland is 6- to 8-year-olds, which include my son (above). Like his last year of T-ball, and my first year of managing him, we are the Phillies. My wife’s reaction when I came home with the roster: a facepalm and “It’s not that time of year already, is it?”

I don’t know if this is universal, but in my little universe, spring sports season is the craziest. It’s not just my son playing baseball and me managing; my 10-year-old daughter plays softball, too. Two kids in an outdoor game that requires no rain, stone-dry fields and temperatures above 50 degrees means night after night of being on edge: is there practice? Is there not practice? Is there a game? Is there not a game? Should we show up and see if everybody’s there? Do I call the other manager and cancel? Damnit, now we have seven straight nights of games. Thank you, Chicago weather!

It makes me thankful my 12-year-old son has already retired from baseball, and that my 4-year-old daughter doesn’t play (yet).

For major-league managers, the onset of spring is getting into warm, cushy spring training digs and going over the assembled roster, much of which they already know. For me, the onset of spring is introducing myself to young kids and their parents, and begging them to be the one who brings the snack every game, or makes the team banner for our league’s annual parade, or handles the candy sale, or gets them to coach, or nicely informs them that if they don’t fulfill their volunteer commitment, it’s $300 out of their pocket next year.

It gets hectic quickly, and it turns into night after night of quick dinners and/or fast food.

But you know what? All the hassle is worth it. It’s nice to get back outside after months burrowing like Punxsutawney Phil in the crappy Chicago winters. It’s fun to watch the kids play. And for me, it’s fun to watch a group of little boys I’m managing improve and become friends over the course of the season. It’s fun to watch my own kids revel when they do well, and forget by the time the postgame snack arrives the times that they didn’t.

Written by rkcookjr

February 18, 2010 at 11:49 pm

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