A sad question with a one-word answer

It’s hard to imagine where I’d be today without having had America’s nominal national pastime in my life.

I learned to read thanks to the baseball cards on the backs of Post cereal boxes. I played the game well enough to make the local Little League and Babe Ruth League all-star teams, before hard throwing, curveballing pitchers led to my playing days ending at age 16 or so. But my involvement with the game went on at the high school, college, and professional levels as a coach, writer, radio announcer and publicist for another three decades or so, and continues today as a Little League umpire.

Baseball helped me develop self-confidence, determination, social skills, and a strong work ethic. It also aided me in finding ways to deal with life’s periodic setbacks, and hastened my understanding of what makes a good teammate, both inside and outside of athletics.

That established, watching the game’s declining status at the youth level both locally and nationally has led me to an unhappy realization, which is that if I were a teenager today I’d have long since put baseball in my rearview mirror, assuming I had even bothered to get involved with it in the first place.

I started playing baseball for the same reasons I subsequently took up football and basketball: because virtually every other boy my age was doing it. Playing outside was an integral part of growing up in pre-cable TV, pre-Internet, pre- Smartphone days, a sort of informal socialization for pre-teenagers.

Today’s kids want to fit in with their peers just as much as my childhood friends and I did. But given the easy accessibility of instant-gratification- providing electronic devices, it’s no surprise that many of today’s athletic- minded youth consider baseball far too devoid of action. Lacrosse and ultimate frisbee are two sports on the rise that involve more movement and exertion, and for the disturbingly-growing number of one-sport athletes, there’s spring soccer and basketball to contend with as well.

Another often-overlooked cause of youth baseball’s decline is the troubling upsurge (and continuing expansion) of the youth sports industry. While those wealthy enough to afford travel baseball generally get better schooling in the game than what’s provided by the community volunteers who staff Little League teams, ultimately “travel ball” quickly widens the gap between skilled and unskilled players. And while it may eventually produce a few more elite level high school players, it also drives many potential late-bloomers away from the game.

Another disservice youth sports entrepreneurs provide is urging promising youthful athletes to play their chosen sport year-round. This does no one any favors, least of all the children themselves. There’s no way to estimate how many young people swear off other sports because some handsomely-compensated youth coach recommends (or insists) their young charges focus solely on soccer, basketball, hockey, tennis, or whatever athletic activity their benefactors have chosen to sink their money into. Rational people understand there are few future professional athletes in Maine, and the number who’ll ultimately be offered a Division I athletic scholarship is tiny as well. But while the majority of those involved in for-profit youth sports have enough integrity to not promise professional careers or college athletic scholarships to prospective clients, there’s no shortage of those who won’t bother to actively discourage any well- heeled parents with the preconceived notion that their particular youngster is potentially one of the chosen few.

So is baseball declining because of societal changes, misplaced priorities, greed, electronic diversions, unrealistic parental expectations, or the availability of other more attractive athletic options?

Sadly, the simple, accurate answer to that question is “Yes.”

Andy Young
June 3, 2023

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