When Carol and I drive home from work, we take the scenic route through picturesque Hollis, avoiding highways, toll booths, and most of the annoying drivers. This town is the quintessential New England small town, with old slate tombstone cemeteries, a monument in the town square, white-steepled churches, expanses of farmland and orchards, farm stands, real rural New England stuff.
During the spring, when we drive this route to go home after work, we pass the public sports fields. There we see the Little Leaguers engaging in practicing or playing our National Pastime. This always brings a smile to my face. In the fall, we see the Youth Soccer types going through their paces. This always makes me wrinkle my nose, as if I had just trod in something moist and unpleasant.
Being an introspective twit, I wondered why I look so fondly on Little League baseball, but turn up my nose at Youth Soccer. It was more than just the fact that I've been a Little League coach or that I'm a Red Sox fan; something just hit me in such a way that I think baseball for kids is outstanding, while soccer makes me want to gag.
Now, I may not have been a soccer coach, but I've seen three out of four of my kids play it, and have attended many of their games, some practices too. Suffice to say, I got a good handle on what goes on. Let's look at a small sample size of what Youth Soccer is all about, shall we?
From what I've seen, the average kid in Youth Soccer goes out on the field, runs around for about an hour, never touches the ball, then the game is over. But everyone is told "good job!". At the end of the year, everyone gets a medal for the sheer physically taxing task of just showing up and having a pulse. There's playoffs of some sort, so yes, team skill and achievement is indeed recognized on some level.
But for the most part, as a kid, you can just suit up, go out on the field when the coach tells you, run around and flap your arms like a deranged chicken, never be contaminated by the touch of the soccer ball, and you'll be labeled a "winner".
Of course, if you're a goalie, or a really athletic and/or aggressive, you'll get more than your share of ball contact.
Now, let's look at Little League baseball.
You play a set position, and are expected to have at least some degree of skill and/or make an effort at that position. Sometimes, the ball will be hit to you. You will be expected to do something about it. Then, there will come at least one time during the game where the attention will be on you, as you and you alone stride up to the plate, and are expected to make a contribution. And everyone will see whether or not you've done so. You can't just run around the batter's box and flap your arms and cluck like a chicken (well, you can, but you'll look damned silly doing so). You will sink or swim, rise or fall, on your own merits.
Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly declare that Little League does a better job at building character and getting kids ready for what we laughingly call "the real world", than Youth Soccer does.
Youth soccer is this politically correct, self-esteem coddling, warm fuzzy-fest where kids get a medal and a standing ovation for just showing up and not voiding their bowels in their soccer pants or accidentally killing a spectator when one of their cleats flies off during a wild kick.
Little League baseball has this arrangement where everyone gets their chance to be in the spotlight, at least once, probably more. Sure, the kid may fail. But that's life. Sometimes, you fail. Sometimes, you succeed. You know, kind of like real life.
It's what you do after you fail that sets you apart from the crowd. Do you devote more time and practice and actually improve your skills? Or do you mope and quit because you're not getting showered with accolades for the simple act of having a pulse and a uniform that matches those of your teammates?
This is not to say that Youth Soccer is useless. Some kids can certainly get something good out of it. But all in all, when the final math is done, I think Little League builds more character, builds more team spirit, give more incentive for self-improvement, and still manages to be a fun pastime.
And at least Little League doesn't have annoying "baseball moms". A few psycho dads who try to relive their glory days vicariously through their sons, yes, but that's about it (and it's more than enough).
I close with an exhortation that does have something to do tangentally with the subject at hand. During my years of coaching Little League baseball, I saw many instances of a kid who'd hit the game-winning home run, or turn a fantastic play at short, or struck out the opposing team to win the game, then look expectantly over at the stands to find their parent(s), and find none there. The beaming expression of pride would falter, and I could see disappointment replacing it. And let me tell you, it would really rip me up inside. Lord only knows how much more torn up the kid was. Because I tell you, kids remember. Whether it's showing up for a youth sport, a dance recital, a scout meeting, whatever; kids remember. Even if you can't make it to every event (and with so many two-income families and a recession still going on, it surely can't always happen), even attending just some of them means so much to the kids. And it may not always be on a conscious level, but kids remember.