The so-called “Genie” has been out of the bottle for some time now. Kids no longer ride their bicycles with their gloves on the handlebars to local playgrounds or ball fields to play sandlot baseball. Many towns kick kids off the fields unless they have a permit anyway! Kids no longer make up their own rules, their own pecking order, never mind their own batting order. Indeed, few among the current generation of parents even know the intricacies of fashioning a three on three baseball game where a base hit is an argument, and a home run is anything in the air that goes past the second telephone pole on the right.
In the Ruffnecks program, our coaches enjoy highly focused and skilled ball players. Ruffnecks are wonderful kids, mostly passionate about the game of baseball, highly competitive, and athletic to varying degrees… but mostly above average. Yet, each year we are amazed at the low aptitude among players in their knowledge of baseball history. We play baseball trivia at practices with our new 13s, and are underwhelmed by their ability to recall any baseball history beyond last night’s Sports Center. Sure, by the time we play our second or third doubleheader, our 13s know who coined the expression “Let’s play two!” But how many even noted the great Ernie Banks’ passing January 23rd?
So the Ruffnecks march forward as a college development program, tuition-based (though substantially subsidized), and do our best to adhere to principles and values that build young men, reinforce teamwork, and teach the game of baseball. We travel far beyond the boundaries of town baseball, our home state, and even the region of New England. We challenge our players and coaches to measure themselves against the best competition, the best opponents, and on the most demanding stages of tournament baseball, regardless of where that takes us. It is a dream and a privilege to play in a program such as the Ruffnecks, traveling to Texas, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and elsewhere. Our players devote themselves to developing the skills of the game: They work with hitting coaches, pitching coaches, strength coaches. They get up before 5:00 in the morning to participate in Winter Workouts at the indoor “Bubble” at Harvard University. But are we guilty of “too much?” Are we falling into the trap of specialization, over emphasis, and chasing ridiculous expectations?
The answers are neither obvious, nor easy to discover. We neither defend ourselves, nor have we been asked to justify our purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect and consider the conditions of our times, and what it is we do. And it is crucial to examine ourselves regularly. An article in the New York Times, published Saturday, January 17, 2015, addresses the factors of money and expectations in youth sports. “The Rising Costs of Youth Sports, in Money and Emotion,” speaks to the disconnect between playing sports for fun, or the benefits of sport’s learning platform, and the dreams, hopes, expectations, and even pay-back parents seek from their investment. The article suggests that “experts” caution “The willingness to spend heavily — in money, time, emotion, and a childhood — needs to be looked at more carefully…” It cites data that may dampen the hopes and aspirations of parents and players in the Ruffnecks program and elsewhere. Specifically, the article references that less than 5 percent of high school athletes go on to play in college, and less than 3 percent will enjoy school financial aid related to that sport. Even youth coaching is criticized as being often “emotionally illiterate,” of which most coaches are guilty… at least some of the time, including ourselves.
So how much is too much? We simply do not know. What we do know is that we attract terrific kids… and good, well-meaning parents who want what is best for those kids, even if some are nervous, anxious, or otherwise too invested in their son’s athletic successes and failures. Expectations are the biggest challenge we face in managing parents. And while the percentages in the New York Times article do not correspond with our “success” rate (between 80 and 90 percent of our players go on to play some college baseball), we are challenged to make our program affordable, accessible, and relevant to players from all social and economic backgrounds. We steadfastly adhere to the old fashioned notion that a multi-sport athlete is a better, more rounded athlete, than a single sport athlete. Yet we are guilty of Winter Workouts, Fall Baseball, and year-round opportunities to advance baseball skills for baseball players. And most will say that this is the trend, the reality of youth sports in the 21st Century. If it is, we hope to teach well, and provide the best possible experience. We intend to keep it about TEAM first. And while our fields are now artificial turf, and virtually none of our players arrive by bicycle, we continue to foster an environment in which Ruffnecks enjoy the game and each other.