A local kids' team made it to the finals of the Little League World Series. It made me think about the value and emphasis we place on kids' sports, and inspired this column.
IT ALL BEGINS WITH A SIMPLE GAME OF CATCH
Date: Sunday, August 24, 2003
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B
Byline: HOWARD GOODMAN COMMENTARY
A game of catch.
That's how it starts.
A father throws a ball back and forth with a son. Or, increasingly, a daughter.
And he starts building a mostly wordless bond that links his memories of being young to his dreams for his child's future.
In our culture it's a primal bond, even as it's challenged by the kicking of soccer balls, or the swinging of tennis racket and golf club. For a few minutes -- before dinner, maybe, or in the quickly fading light before nightfall -- father and child step outside and reconnect by means of ball and glove.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
As if you didn't know, East Boynton Beach's Little Leaguers won the U.S. championship over Saugus, Mass., Saturday night. Today this appealing crop of 11- and 12-year-olds will be playing Japan for Williamsport's whole enchilada: the world championship. But long before they reached the televised pinnacle of the Little League World Series in those little jewels of baseball diamonds in the Pennsylvania hills, each Boynton kid started with a game of catch.
Some grown-up had to show a child how to throw a ball for distance. Someone had the patience to stick with it while the kid acquired a modicum of accuracy.
Someone had to show how to catch with two hands, to wrap it in the breadbasket. Someone had to warn against showy one-hand grabs.
A parent -- or a parent figure -- had to care. Had to think there was something worthwhile in the game and in sharing what he knows about it.
That happens, and maybe the kid picks up a spark. Maybe he embraces the game. Maybe he gets good at it.
Maybe, like the Boynton Beach kids, he gets very good at it.
That's the secret hope, I think, of every father having a catch with his son. Sure, there's intrinsic pleasure in the shared private moment, in the simple physicality of the movements, in the symbolic giving and receiving.
Still he dreams, if only for a minute, that the kid will someday get good at the sport. Major-league good, he allows himself to think in his most winged moments.
The same way he thought that for himself, back when he was a boy.
Doesn't matter whether it's ice skates, the French horn, the science fair, dance lessons, the school play or arts camp. A big part of being a parent is offering a child opportunities to roam in wider worlds. One of the great rewards is seeing the child take the opportunity and run with it.
That's the loveliness of the Little League World Series -- watching boys excel at skills their parents wanted them to have, succeeding on a scale far beyond any of their imaginings.
Not that there isn't something twisted about Little League at this level, with its wall-to-wall TV coverage and its anointing of celebrity on 12-year-olds.
There's a kind of JonBenet Ramsey queasiness in watching children as pint-size versions of adults.
But with the Boynton team, we've been treated to the game in the way we like to think of it -- where the kids work hard and play loose, where the coaches keep it positive, where the parents seem mostly supportive, not smothering.
You have to marvel at how easily the Florida kids have slipped into the role of long-shot heroes: the boys from the small town that never caught the breaks, who start winning, and keep on winning to reach heights that are a part of almost every boy's dreams.
At least, they were my dreams.
I felt them every time I put on flannels and cleats at age 12 and got to feel, for those moments, like a baseball player. I wasn't good. Hell, I stunk. If recollection serves, I never got out of the
One of the smallest kids on the team, I was assigned to second base, where the throws to first were the shortest.
Little League games for me were more anxious torture than fun. Still, I knew I couldn't miss them. Your peer-group credentials relied on being good in baseball.
I'd tell myself: I'm going to get better. I'll get taller. I'm going to concentrate and practice and make it to the Skokie Valley Majors.
Didn't happen. Like millions of other youngsters who test themselves against the game, I found that my best position in baseball was in a grandstand seat.
Decades have gone by, and baseball glory doesn't occupy the same space in the American heart and mind that it once did. Still, despite years of neglect and my attention gone elsewhere, I find that baseball dreams still have a home in mine.
So I ask my son, "Wanna play catch?"