At the age of 7, I put on my first baseball uniform as a member of Joey’s Children’s Wear of Teaneck Western Little League. From that day forth, I would continue to wear team colors — through high school, college and until I retired from Major League Baseball in 2005. Even in between seasons or off the field, I would find ways to adorn my baseball attire, from my Phillies Halloween costume in the early 1980s to my “acting” in the movie Summer Catch in the late 1990s.
Looking back, I realize that my first uniform housed a pristine state of what sports meant to me. I was able to see baseball as a blank canvas, the art of the game fusing color and imagination onto a field of green without boundaries. Yet with experience and time, I realized that an innocence had flaked off this uniform, layer by layer. Maybe it started with an unfair benching, a particularly rambunctious teammate’s parent fighting for his son or daughter, or an angry manager berating an umpire for a suspect call.
Today, as my molting comes to an end and I see that it is time for me to pass the torch to my children, I worry about the negative elements that are accelerating the process of an innocence lost. To respond to that concern, I joined the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (I am on their research committee) to study youth sports in America. What we found was both reassuring — and troubling.
The reassuring part is that our country loves sports, with the vast majority of kids participating. Coaches have wide and great influence over our youth. In fact, they have more influence than parents. But the data of our study also showed that there is often a parasitic relationship between winning and how a game is taught and celebrated. This obsession forges unhealthy expectations in coaches, in the professional aspirations of young athletes and in our efforts in how we invest in sports as a nation. Winning at all costs is costly.
This study also showed that early specialization — focusing on just one sport above all others — leads to diminishing returns for those who participate. Playing a variety of sports reduces the stress of prematurely having all eggs in one basket, which can lead players to desperate measures to excel and make them enjoy the game less. Having “fun” was important to young people — once they stopped having fun, they lost an interest in playing. And when parents fight in the stands, or coaches have to recruit to fortify a Little League team, or children are not allowed to enjoy sports because they are not “good enough,” fun often goes out the window.
My oldest child is only 3, so for now, I will enjoy the window that I am in before I inevitably sign him up for soccer and Little League. Right now, the only uniforms my kids will be wearing are their Halloween costumes — my son as James from Thomas the Tank Engine, and my daughter a color-rich rainbow. I hope that when the time comes, my daughter’s rainbow costume can symbolize what sports will be — something that everyone can enjoy at any level and that allows young people to fly high above the clouds of their greatest potential.