Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's How You Play the Game

Like many of you, The Common Man was an enthusiastic participant in Little League baseball. In an oversized batting helmet and using an undersized bat, The Common Man would play two games a week, rarely swinging (The Common Man was a terrible batsman) but fielding his position with aplomb. It helped solidify his love of the game and gave him confidence. Indeed, The Common Man still remembers how it felt when he turned an unassisted double play, or that one year he somehow hit .350 (must have been a lot of infield singles), or breaking late from third after the catcher tossed the ball back to the mound to steal home, or dropping down sidearm to strike out Brian Giguere with the bases loaded and two outs (a trick that only worked just that one time). And frankly, it wasn't about winning or losing really. But it was about those individual moments of triumph and the rush that accompanied them.

The Common Man's faith in little league baseball was shaken somewhat in 2001, when Danny Almonte, a tall, skinny boy from the Bronx dominated a bunch of 12 year-olds from the pitcher's mound in Williamsport, PA. Almonte blew fastball after fastball past these boys, becoming the first pitcher at the Little League World Series to throw a perfect game. As it turned out, The Common Man is sure you'll recall, there was a good reason for that. Almonte was 14, and his birth certificate a fake. His team was forced to forfeit its games and his coach fired. And, tragically, Almonte was forced to endure media speculation and glare, and became the butt of thousands of jokes at his expense. It's tragic, as he was horribly exploited by those who were supposed to care for him.

Anyway, a few weeks later 9/11 happened and the world largely forgot Danny Almonte, except when someone like ESPN's Outside the Lines goes searching for another way to drag him back into the limelight. In what the ESPN article calls a "karmic reversal," it turns out that the hitters Almonte retired in 2001 are beginning to get drafted by big league teams, while Almonte toils in junior college trying to make people forget the scandal caused in his name.

And today, because of the adults who Almonte trusted with his future, The Common Man immediately feels conflicted about young Jericho Scott. Scott is nine years-old and plays in a Connecticut youth league, but teams are refusing to play against him because he's too good. According to ESPN, "the right-hander has a fastball that tops out at about 40 mph. He throws so hard that the Youth Baseball League of New Haven told his coach that the boy could not pitch any more. When Jericho took the mound anyway last week, the opposing team forfeited the game, packed its gear and left." The league is disbanding his team and handing out refunds to parents who request them.

It's all very strange, if you ask The Common Man. On the one hand, he does not feel that young Scott should be forced to pitch on a traveling team if he doesn't want to, and should be able to play on a team with his friends, rather than be bumped up to higher league. It seems wrong to penalize him for being too good. On the other hand, he sympathizes with players who might feel as though they have little chance when they step in the box, and with parents who want their kids to feel good about themselves and the game they're playing.

But what these parents seem to be forgetting is that any kid who does get a hit off of Jericho Scott, whether he's too good for the league or not, is going to remember that forever. Just like any kid who got a hit off Danny Almonte has a story to tell for the rest of their lives. Just like The Common Man is always going to have that moment he decided to drop down sidearm (and conveniently forgets that he allowed a double and two walks to load those bases in the first place, and ended up with an ERA around 8.00 that year).

Baseball, when you're young, isn't about winning or losing. It's about those series of moments. Moments that remind you that you're good enough. Moments that build character and camaraderie between teammates. Yes, Jericho Scott is going to have a lot of those moments. But his teammates will too, and so will his opponents. If not against Jericho then against some other pitcher. That's another thing about baseball. You can go 0-for-3 against Randy Johnson one day, but go 2-for-4 against Livan Hernandez the next.

So let the boy play, New Haven. Let them all play. After all, it's just a game. And they're just kids, no matter how good or bad they are.

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