Field of Dreams ... and Nightmares

Life as a 21st-century suburban coach and parent is a brand new ballgame for an old-school dad

"Okay, parents! We had a great practice! The kids are having fun and they've gotten to know each other. I have their uniforms and we're ready to start the season. Let's have a blast!"

One parent raises a hand, like a fourth-grader who needs to go to the bathroom. "It says here that we'll practice once a week and play one game a week. Do you think that's enough practice? What about extra work? Can we get the batting cages or set up other sessions?"

"Um, hello!? These kids are five years old! This is T-ball!" I explained, "The goal is to have fun, get them to run in the right direction and not pick daisies in the outfield."

I am a writer and editor, a husband and dad. And yes, I am a jock. My dad was a jock, my maternal grandfather was a high-school football and basketball coach, my siblings are jocks. I was a camp counselor. I am comfortable with a whistle around my neck and a clipboard in my hands. I have a head full of advice and aphorisms. My voice carries.

But I was born in 1961 and I am flummoxed by how kids participate in sports today. I grew up in Palmerton, Pa., a town where we played baseball from the last day of school until the middle of August, when we'd have to split our time between backyard baseball and pee-wee football practice. My pals and I wedged our mitts onto the handle of our bats, slid our bats through our handlebars and pedaled off to find a field or the biggest yard that could handle the game. No helmets, for the bike ride or the game. Wear sneakers, or don't. Just don't make a stupid out or you will watch the game from the sidelines tomorrow.

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No sports drinks. We drank from the nearest hose when we were parched. We played from nine to lunch, and then went to the pool for a couple hours. Then we'd wolf down dinner and home-run derby 'til dark, when we kicked the can or played Ghosts in the Graveyard until it was time to go home for a grudging shower and to prepare for the next day. We mended broken bats with penny nails and electrical tape and wheedled spare change from our folks that we pooled for a new baseball or candy we'd grab at Krexie's at 3rd and Delaware. No trainers, no coaches ...

"Um, Coach?"

Snapped from my momentary reverie, I find myself — to borrow from the bard Springsteen — standing in the 'burbs of Jersey. I am addressing friends and neighbors: an uncertain amalgam of preppy, distracted Wall Streeters; yoga-clothed moms running homes like the corporations they left; caffeinated, self-loathing hipsters shocked that they can't get back to Brooklyn as often as they'd like. A couple of down-to-earth folks who returned to their hometown look around with a no-bullshit, true-Jersey look in their eyes.

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It's Type A, Boomer and Beyond, all the way. They're looking at me like their lives depend on it; all while their kids blissfully make the whirring sounds of light sabers as they duel with their $200 Dimarini titanium-composite bats. Of course, most of those assembled learned their baseball by jumping on their bikes for all-day, every-day baseball. No parental intervention. Hell, our parents didn't know where we were half the time. Those kids who enjoyed their freedom to play, fight and talk their way out of breaking Mrs. Johnson's garden gnome with a monster home run? They've become the Blackhawk Down parents, so the inquisition begins:

"When will my kid get to pitch?"

"Well, they hit off a T, so nobody is pitching."

"His personal trainer says my kid's got a better arm than this 11-year-old he works with in Saddle River. He's going to play shortstop, right?"

"You mean the kid over there making sand castles on the infield? Sure, why not!"

"Some days, he wakes up and he's a lefty. Other days, he wakes up and he's a righty. Is that a problem?"

"Umm, okay, buy him two gloves, put 'em in a gym bag and he can surprise us."

Nine years later, I am Coach Dave, managing ridiculous expectations through soccer, basketball and baseball seasons. I will report on what's transpired and provide snapshots in the de-evolution of athletes, parents and, yes, coaches, as a generation tries to figure out how to use youth sports to get some unsuspecting institution of higher learning to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars so they can add a 10,000-square-foot closet/workout room in their master bedroom suite.

Looking for anything resembling clarity? You'll have to read between the lines as I try to cover all the bases in a brand new ballgame.

Tags: Parenting