close-up of a boy swinging a baseball bat

In full swing

Ashley Sexton Gordon

“Welcome to the Jungle” blares out of an ice-chest jambox as the batter approaches the plate. His eyes reveal grit and determination. He spits, or maybe he coughs. I can’t tell which. But he’s angry and nervous and more than a little tired. It’s late on a Sunday night and this is his fifth and final game of the day. The bases are loaded, there are two outs, and all he needs is a hit and his team wins the tournament and claims the ring. It is all on him.

And he’s 12.

After two strikes, his mother stands up and starts pacing behind the bleachers. She can’t watch. He hits two balls foul. “Way to stay in the game,” screams a parent. “Now you’re ready,” says another. “Hit the ball!” wails his dad. “Focus!”

His grip tightens; he narrows his eyes and swings at the next pitch. The hit is a pop-up to left field and both sets of bleachers go silent for a moment. Prayers are murmured. Then shouts ring out: “Miss it!” “Drop it!” “Call it!” “Catch it!” The left fielder’s mom clenches her jaw, grips her bag of peanuts, and does the sign of the cross. The left fielder runs, then dives, and the ball falls into his glove as he hits the ground.

The ball bobbles.

Or it doesn’t. There is confusion on the field

“He didn’t catch it! The ball hit the ground first!”

“It’s a catch. Game over!”

Parents are up in arms. The umps are comparing notes. The coaches are arguing, and the ballplayers are waiting.

After much deliberation, Ball Caught is the final decision. The batter’s mom falls to her knees behind the bleachers, her bedazzled game shirt wet with tears. One player starts sobbing. Another throws his glove. Meanwhile, the winning team has tackled the left fielder with a victory pileup in the outfield. This game has almost all the drama of the Robert Redford movie The Natural in it, minus the batter knocking out the lights and running the bases in slow motion under fireworks.

And this is happening every weekend in every ballpark throughout the United States.

Youth sports can be emotional.

But this kind of drama is not limited to tournament baseball. Just stroll on over to a cheer competition, sashay into a tournament soccer event, or saunter around to a gymnastics meet and you will find fiercely competitive parents squawking at their kids. It’s a new generation of organized sports.

Don’t get me wrong. I think team sports are fantastic. There is no better way to learn camaraderie, dedication and persistence than through practicing hours a week with likeminded peers with the same ultimate goal in mind. It teaches discipline, for sure. And since our children can no longer stay outside unsupervised safely until the streetlights come on—like past generations did—all their sports have to be organized. No sandlot street ball here.

But with organization comes the parents. And some parents are a little cuckoo, let’s face it. A few moms (I’m sure it’s not you) are pinning their lifelong hopes and dreams on little Ellie nailing the landing in a double full basket toss. A few dads stay up late into the night reliving the final plays in Will’s Little League game, wringing their hands over bad calls and reenacting what could have been. Household happiness is determined by the win or the loss of the day.

Of course, you and I know this is utterly ridiculous. But who is going to tell the rest of mass humanity that we have lost our marbles by allowing kids who don’t have enough sense to brush their teeth without reminders to dictate our joy? It’s just a game after all.

But some of these games come with trophies. And the tournament rings have a fair share of bling. It is dazzling. Sometimes blindingly so, especially when your son’s eyes sparkle with glee.

Oh, what the heck. Play ball.