I just came across a two-year-old article in Slate written by Josh Levin. Headlined “The Coach’s Son: The Menace of Youth Sports,” Levin tells of his own experience in Little League when the son of the coach got to pitch while everyone else – who “sucked just as much” – never got so much as a chance. He recounts the story of Snoop Dogg’s interest in his son’s youth football league, going so far as to trick out the team’s transportation and trophies: the kids rode around in television-filled minibuses and hoisted trophies from Tiffany to celebrate a victory in “Snooper Bowl I.” And, of course, son Spanky was the star quarterback.
Calling the kid Spanky is a discussion for another time, but like anyone else, I can attest to this sad fact of life. After managing in Little League, playing in Pony and Colt, and umpiring all three, I’ve seen the Coach’s Son shine far too many times. He always gets to pitch. He always hits third or cleanup. Everyone else takes a turn sitting the bench to give someone else a chance… but not him. And, as an umpire, those are the kids you’re supposed to allow to throw the bat after a strikeout or to argue balls and strikes. And for heaven’s sake, even if it’s plain-as-day obvious from the vantage point of some bum fishing in the lagoon behind the outfield fence, do NOT call a balk on the coach’s son! It’s not the kid’s fault you suck, blue!??
A lot of those kids love that life, and why not? But others…well, I just feel sorry for them. Apparently Daddy Dearest didn’t have the kind of youth-sports career he wanted, so he’s forcing his kid to make up the difference. The son practices constantly while his friends are riding bikes or playing PlayStation. (And it was PlayStation, with no number at the end, back then.) Ground ball after ground ball, soft toss after soft toss, pitch after pitch, the poor kid just could not find any time to do what he wanted to do. Those are the kids you like, even if they do get all the glory.
Now, that is not the kid’s fault! Something similar happened during high school sports. Instead of having coach’s sons dominating, you had coach’s favorites. One year in baseball, I hit the ball hard several times up but wasn’t lucky enough to record a hit against a top-notch pitcher. Apparently I should have tried harder, as I was relegated to the bench from then on while the coach’s chosen boy – a freshman – got to play every inning. (I’m reminded of Jacque Jones’ first season with the Cubs, when he hit nothing his first week until he homered with two runners on against the Cardinals on national television. What had happened if they gave up on him after one game? Well, aside from wasting a lot of money…)
Anyway, after “blowing” my “opportunity,” I became a pinch-hitter, and indeed collected some pinch hits. Pinch-hitting is a role I wouldn’t have minded playing in a different situation, to help the team, except the team sucked. What could it possibly hurt to give someone else a chance? It’s not like we were winning with the lineup we had. ??The worst moment of my high school baseball career was one particularly terrible effort by our entire team. (I think I made some solid contributions sitting on the bench all seven innings, but I digress.) After the game, the coach told us he was sick of losing and of terrible, uninspired play, so things would be changing! He promised the starters would sit for a while and watch, their effort so unsatisfactory, while the people who had been sitting and working hard in practice would get a chance to start.
Well, I’ll be damned if we didn’t show up to the very next game with the exact same line-up as before — not a single substitution. In football, our horrible team was not so horrible as to where the same people couldn’t sit every once in a while. Nope, I got to spend all week in practice as a wide receiver outhustling the starting secondary, catching more passes than the starters, and winning sprints just to stand on the sideline on Friday night. In JV games, I would finally play, and throw key blocks for our running backs that resulted in touchdowns, catch passes in traffic and pick up yardage, and make interceptions on defense. It was never good enough to get a chance to play for the varsity. Just about anyone reading this can point to similar examples in his or her own experience, I have no doubt.
Am I bitter? No. It was still as fun as I made it, so I enjoyed the exercise and competition in practice and watched, detached, as we got our asses kicked in every single game. While it would have been nice to play more often, it was enough to make it through the grueling two-a-days and weekly practices and wear that uniform with pride when I took the field after everyone said I wouldn’t be tough enough to handle it. Same goes for baseball. I took pride in showing up ready to play. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the influence of my coach: my dad, Tom.
He could see what was happening during the school year, and reassured me: “Don’t worry about that. Take care of yourself and take pride in your preparation, and I’m going to consider that a success every single time. I’m proud of you, son, whether you play or not.”?? My dad also coached me in baseball from middle school on through summer leagues, so I had a chance to be on the other side of things and be the coach’s son. Except…no, I didn’t. He is the exception to the rule. If my two brothers or I struck out or threw a bat, we’d sit. If we needed to come out and give someone else a chance to play, we all took our turns just like everyone else. We did not bat 1-2-3 in the order. We were not guaranteed a starting spot. We had to earn it.
He simply put us–and the whole team–in a position to succeed. We rewarded him with a winning record all while having fun at the same time. Every player on the team improved and got better, and it really was a team. We came together and enjoyed the summer. Dad didn’t tolerate bad behavior from anyone and didn’t play favorites. Under his coaching, I got to start in centerfield and hit leadoff, but only because I’d earned it in practice and in games. It would have happened if I was related to him or not. My dad was a coach, not an agent.??And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.??
Zach is a former sports columnist with the Hoopeston Chronicle and played two years of varsity/junior varsity football, missing his senior season due to a broken leg, but returned in time to complete four years of baseball. A switch-hitting speedy outfielder, under his dad’s coaching in his last summer season, he hit over .400 with his first – and only – career home run. He admits he probably isn’t very good anyway.