Every dad coaching in Little League has a son or daughter on the team who can run bases around 90 percent of the other kids on the field.
At least that’s always held true for Raul Alejandro, president of the 53-year-old South Scottsdale Little League.
“The coach’s son normally is the better player,” says Alejandro, a former ballplayer himself who also serves as assistant coach on a juniors’ team that includes his son. “Let’s put it this way: I’ve never seen a dad want to be a coach of a team where his son was a horrible player. Never seen that! You never see a dad whose kid can’t catch a ball say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be the coach!’”
Makes sense. After all, the coach’s kid is always the best advertisement for a school’s athletic staff. “How many times do you go to a game and see a kid playing really well and someone says, ‘Yeah, that’s the coach’s son’?” Alejandro asks. “Traditionally, if you have a dad that’s willing to be a coach, and his son’s on the team, most of the time that kid’s probably going to be the best player on the team. Because his dad spent the time playing catch with him, hitting the ball and doing all the other things that build a good player. A dad who sits in the stands and doesn’t have the time or the athletic ability to help out their son, you’ll see it in their kid’s playing. It’s pretty obvious.”
On the other hand, we’ve all seen instances, too, where a marginally talented coach’s kid — whether because of being forced into sports against their will, over-estimated in their potential or simply pushed into helping a frustrated parent vicariously live out their own sports fantasy — is given a little too much playing time on the field, sometimes to the detriment of the team.
“I saw a girl at a softball game recently that, truly, I could have beaten in my old age,” says Amy Newtson, a 58-year-old Tucson mom who coached both of her boys in Little League baseball and her daughter in softball, and who now teaches softball around her home in Marana.
“She was just standing there, with her glove on her knee, and she really wasn’t participating at all,” Newtson says. “When I started griping to the woman next to me, she said, ‘Coach’s daughter.’”
Newtson says youth baseball coaches fall into two categories. “There’s the one who was the real big star in school, and then there’s the wanna-be, who never quite got to fulfill their dream. And they’re the worst, because they want their kids to pick up where they left off. And often the child couldn’t care less, and she ends up trying to get back at her folks for forcing her into this. They’re still too young to speak up, but old enough to act out!”
Good or bad, it’s often the coach’s kid who leads the starting lineup. And lately Little League parents, fed up with what they see as “Daddy Coach” (and “Mommy Coach”) favoritism stranding their own kids on the bench, are starting to act out themselves. Drop in on a weekday evening game at any Valley Little League field, and you’re likely to feel like an extra in the climactic scene of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, when an entire Astrodome crowd joins William Devane in a goosebump-inducing chant of “Let them play! Let them play!”
“You definitely see that Bad News Bears effect, where the dads get out of control and start yelling from up in the stands,” says Alejandro, with a laugh. Some go the high-tech route. “Now they’ll get on a blog and start spouting off, even naming names of kids they don’t think should be playing while talking about why their own kid should be pitching or playing shortstop.”
Raul Alejandro, coach of the Rockhounds and president of the South Scottsdale Little League, speaks with his sons Dominic (in uniform) and Gabriel (holding clipboard) during some downtime in one of their games.
The problem with that, he says, is that these same parents are also dead set on seeing their teams win — a feat which can only be accomplished if the best players, often the coaches’ kids, play as much as possible. Little League rules, established to encourage fairness, state that every kid must play at least two complete innings on the field during each game, and coaches are encouraged to rotate positions. But, says Alejandro, it does nobody any good when a kid who’s not ready to pitch is pulled off the bench and thrust up on the mound at a crucial juncture in a game.
“Parents will always complain when their kid isn’t in the starting lineup,” he says. “But the worst thing that can happen is when you pull a kid off the bench to pitch and they are walking batter after batter. You’ll see that kid break down crying in the middle of the mound, feeling so bad that he just can’t throw the ball any more. That will do him more harm than anything else.”
In his 35 years as a coach and athletic administrator at various junior highs, high schools and colleges, Bruce Brown says he’s seen no bigger changes in sports than the ones that have occurred at the youth level.
“In my lifetime — and I’m 65 — youth sports has gone from youth controlled to adult controlled,” says Brown, who today runs Proactive Coaching, a Washington state-based training program that conducts seminars for coaches, athletes and parents nationwide. “It’s gone from, ‘Let’s go get our buddies and play those guys down the block,’ to kids having adults tell them where to stand, when to swing and how to play. And I think those crucial leadership abilities are lost when adults are calling all the shots.”
Brown believes increased parental involvement in youth baseball has also rushed the stages kids traditionally go through on their way to becoming a “good sport.”
“The first stage of being an athlete is the joy stage,” he says. “‘Man, I just love playing. I can’t wait for practice, I wish it wasn’t over.’ Maybe it’s just, ‘I love the sno-cones afterward!’ But it’s that stage where a kid can’t wait to be at the game.
“Next is the technical stage, where the kid feels, ‘Somebody older than me is teaching me how to play this game.’ And we lose some kids at that transition, through coaches who make the game too complex. Then comes the competitive stage, where the scores start to matter. And they start to matter to people other than the kid, who begins to realize performance determines their playing time.” Brown says about 72 percent of kids drop out of organized sports around this time. “All of a sudden their value as a person gets tied to their performance.”
Rene Salazar, president of the Mountain View Little League in Scottsdale, believes in building leaders among the kids themselves.
Finally, Brown says, there comes the mastery stage, when the kid starts looking seriously at playing college ball. “Ideally, what great coaches do is they take that strand of joy and they pull it through each of those stages, where there’s still a love and a passion for the game,” he says.
“But here’s what’s happening in the U.S.,” Brown continues. “The technical stage and the competitive stage are getting shoved down to a younger and younger age, to the point where kindergarten kids are playing ball and measuring themselves against the scores in the newspaper. And the joy stage lasts about a week!”
Amy Newtson says part of the problem is that schools have turned baseball into a moneymaker, and that parents have turned rearing a star ballplayer into an elite status symbol.
“Parents have this fever now to try to get their son or daughter a D-1 scholarship,” she says, referring to the Division I level of intercollegiate athletics within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). “Even though, ironically, they’re spending more on softball and baseball each summer than the education would cost them in the long run!”
Newtson says the really serious sports parents today shun Little League and push their kids into “travel ball,” a more competitive, year-round form of baseball where pre-teens enrolled on high-priced independent teams travel to surrounding states to play tournament championships in replica fields, like the $53 million Big League Dreams complex in Gilbert.
“They’re spending upward of $15,000 a year, when you take into account the flying and the lessons,” Newtson says. “And the D-1 schools are scouting kids directly off the teams at these tournaments. It’s become more of a business than a game.”
Naturally, with so much pride and money riding on their kids’ performance, it’s not surprising that parents balk when their son stays in the dugout while the coach’s kid dazzles the scouts. “If a kid only gets picked by a D-2 or D-3 school, they feel defeated,” says Newtson, “because their parents are grooming them to become a top scholarship athlete.” The poor parents who can only afford to get their youngster into Little League already feel disadvantaged, and can put incredible pressure not only on the coaches to let their kids play, but also on the kids themselves to shine every time they get up to the plate.
“I saw a kid have a complete meltdown at a Little League All-Star game,” says Alejandro. “I mean, he was screaming, and his dad was screaming back at him from the stands — complete meltdown. And that was a kid on an undefeated team from North Scottsdale. They were a primo team, but he just couldn’t handle the pressure. At times like that, you really feel sorry for the kid.”
Just outside the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., a loving tribute to the late Peanuts creator in his adopted hometown, sits a Little League-sized diamond known as Charlie Brown Field, where Schulz himself is known to have played and where youngsters are invited, free of charge, to strike up their own impromptu baseball games year-round. It is, quite possibly, the only baseball field in America where parents are happy to see their kid drop a fly ball, reminding them of all the invaluable life lessons in persistence, disappointment and humiliation that the Sunday comics’ most lovable loser learned week after week on the pitcher’s mound.
“The idea was just to have an open field where kids can come and play,” says Kitty de Brauwere, assistant to the cartoonist’s widow, Jean Schulz. “There used to be lots of places like that. Nowadays it’s a little more difficult for landowners. But this is just a baseball diamond in an open field that any kid can come and play on.”
Rene Salazar has taught his son Michael to support the other kids on his team. He has been known to ask his coach to take him out to allow his teammates a chance to play.
At Charlie Brown Field, de Brauwere says, parents are content to disappear from the frame while their kids play, their coaching reduced to good-natured imitations of the unintelligible “Waaw-waw-waw-waaw” heard whenever
an adult would speak on the strip’s animated TV specials.
Rene Salazar, president of the Mountain View Little League in Scottsdale, believes that’s still the way most young children hear adults while they’re first learning to love the game of baseball, and thinks the remedy for Daddyball over-coaching is to just let the kids learn from each other.
“We hit them with all this advice, but it’s like asking kids to drink out of a fire hose,” Salazar says. “They can only take in so much.”
Instead, Salazar believes in building leaders among the kids themselves, and encouraging the stronger players to inspire the weaker ones. His own son is like that, he says. Michael Salazar of Desert Mountain High School is quite possibly the highest ranked, most decorated Little Leaguer in Arizona: a seven-time All-Star who, since the age of 10, has won four state championships and, in 2008, helped lead his team to victory in the Junior League World Series held in Taylor, Mich.
But what makes Salazar most proud of his son is the way he supports the other kids on the team, and how he will happily step out of the limelight to let the other players shine.
“One of my all-time favorite movies is The Sandlot,” says Salazar, referring to the classic 1993 family film in which the best ballplayer in the neighborhood, Benny Rodriguez, stands up for the bullied new kid, Scotty Smalls, and helps Smalls earn the respect of the other players.
“What did Rodriguez do for Smalls?” Salazar asks. “He became his friend, he loaned him a glove, he gave him a chance. And that one time he hit a home run and caught that fly ball, he became confident, and he became part of the group. That’s what your job is when you’re the best player on a team.”
Salazar admits he doesn’t have a lot of patience for Daddyball coaches who let their own kid overshadow everyone else on the team. “I get a little bugged by the hothead coaches who always think their kid’s the best — because I have one of those kids!” he says, with a laugh. “I mean, my son hit a home run in the Little League World Series, and the whole world saw it on ESPN. But to this day, if he sees other kids not getting to play, he will go to the coach and say, ‘Coach, if you want to pull me out and give somebody else a chance, I’m OK with that.’
“The best thing you can do, if you have a gifted kid, is to make him an example of a good sport,” Salazar advises. “Make him a leader that the other kids will look up to and want to be like. Teach him how to win, but also how to lose, and how to give other kids a chance to contribute and play. Let me tell you: he will get more respect for that than for being the star of every inning.”
Photos by Ross Mason