On Tuesday night, I headed out to watch my son, Charlie, play in his last baseball game of the summer, and likely the last game of his youth.
When my kids were really young, we had the same idea many other parents had. We were gong to have well rounded kids. Along with limited screen time, and embracing the arts, all of our kids would be participating in a sport throughout their entire time in our house.
My son, my oldest child, initially went back and forth between soccer and baseball, but he eventually fell in love with baseball. He loved playing it, going over stats, and flipping though his baseball cards. His favorite player was former Boston great David Ortiz. He's currently a big fan of Minnesota Twin Miguel Sano.
He started at t-ball. I remember trying to help the coaches, all father's of players, as we realized how hard it is to explain baseball to a 5 year old. You realize you have to strip the game down to the bare; hit the ball and run to the right, over to first base. If you're in the field, once the ball is hit, run to it, and throw it to the first baseman. I couldn't help but laugh when after the first hit, every player, from the catcher to the outfielders, all ran for the ball, leading to a 5 year old Battle Royale, all wanting to throw the ball to the first baseman (who was also fighting for the ball).
My son got better, learned the basics, and went into Little League. Coaches were touch and go. One year he was on the worst team in the league. Most of the kids looked up to my son, as he was the only one on that team who knew how to play. That was a hard year. The next year, he had really good coaches and they won the title, something he still cherishes.
In his final year of Little League, he had a coach, Brian Zimmer, who saw real potential in Charlie. He saw a power hitter, a kid who with a little work could play to high school and beyond. Charlie hit his first home run that year, and made the All Star team.
Thirteen years old was the time where the ugliness of kids sports became undeniable. Some kids, whether they deserved it or not, were predetermined to always make the best teams; either the kids with undeniable talent who were going to play in college and beyond, or the kids of the parents who were a) wealthy or b) volunteering for the sports organization their kids played in. Their kids didn't have to try out. Their names were written into the rosters with sharpie. It was at 13 where money and connections decided on who got the opportunity to go to the next level, and who was labeled an also ran.
Not surprisingly, it was also where many kids walked away from the sport. These leagues would cost up to a thousand dollars, a major sacrifice for 95% of American families today. You can't convince families to pay a ton of money to never have their kid make the top squad. The attrition rate of kids away from the sport was a consequence of the select few being put on a specific course. The team, and the league overall, existed to make sure a handful of kids got their college scholarships, at the expense of the sport itself.
Charlie, undeservedly, was always on the level below, but he loved to play so we made sacrifices.
Charlie always deserved to be playing on the top teams. His disappointment eventually turned to an understanding his 'demotions' had nothing to do with his ability. EVERY season, we'd have 3/4ths of the upper echelon team's parents scratching their heads, asking why Charlie wasn't up playing with them. Regardless of the non ability reason my son was kept down, it was a jerk move on behalf of the parents who made those decisions. The only person they really hurt was Charlie, a kid who only wanted to play baseball. Like I said, he eventually accepted this had nothing to do with his abilities, but I'll never respect any of those clowns and their self serving machinations.
Still, we got to watch him play, and boy did he love baseball. He would cheer on the other players from the dugout, get frustrated when he struck out and celebrate when he got a big hit or made a big play. His mom and I would always smile when we catch him looking over towards us with a 'did you see that' in his eye.
He hit a lot of homers, pitched a three pitch inning, had three games with two homers (but never a grand slam), made a lot of great plays, primarily at 3rd and 1st. He gunned out five runners from the outfield as they tried to advance. He picked off at least 25 runners at 1st and 3rd over his career. And man did he hit the ball a mile.
He played Junior Legion one year, but that's when he himself no longer wanted to be part of these heavily competitive teams. He tried out for a second year of Legion. He was the only kid to hit the ball out of the park on the tryout days, but knew at least 8 kids who were guaranteed to be on the roster who weren't even at the "mandatory" tryouts. He knew at best he'd be bench player. He made the decision to play High School ball in the Spring and a far more relaxed, less expensive, and fun City Ball in the Summer.
He was so proud of being the first kid on any team to officially homer at the new Hopkins High School field. He hit that ball a mile, somewhere around 390 feet. He had a huge smile on his face as he rounded the bases.
He played Fall Ball last year for the final time, and at the post season banquet, the coach told him Charlie could easily play college ball, Division III. Charlie informed him he was going to the U of M. He might do the walk on day (if they have one) but likely this is the end. He's happy with it. He's choosing to not play anymore, and choosing your path is always far more satisfying than having life's choices thrust upon you.
Tuesday's game was a loss, with him striking out twice. For the season, he hit .289, on base percentage was .460, slugging percentage was .657, with an OPS of 1.117. He also hit three home runs and finished with an 1.355 ERA from when he pitched. He ended the game with a smile.