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Youth baseball should be fun first before worrying about wins

  • Written by Joe Boyle

When I was a kid, we were still playing baseball at this time of year. I recall that youngsters who excelled on the diamond were selected to all-star tournament teams usually late in June or early July. I was fortunate to be on some of those teams in the major division (ages 11-12) pony division (ages 13-15) and the traveling league (ages 16-18).

I recall regular season games went right through July. All-star games would continue in July until we were eliminated. We would play 20 to 22 regular season games or so during the summer. Teammates would leave for a while due to family vacations.

I played in the Longwood Manor Athletic Association in Chicago's Washington Heights neighborhood. Games were once played at Oakdale Park at 95th and Genoa and later moved to Mount Vernon Park at 105th and Morgan, which is now Jackie Robinson Park. I spent a lot of time at those fields and later at Brainerd Park at 91st and Throop.

Summers were dedicated to playing baseball with football practice beginning in late August. But there is a difference in our baseball seasons back in the 1960s and early 1970s in relation to today. Many more kids are now playing for traveling teams as well as playing in their own leagues. These kids are now playing with more skilled players on a team that competes against other suburban communities and clubs throughout the state and elsewhere.

In some instances, some of these kids are playing solely on traveling teams and skipping competing in local leagues entirely. And I have to admit that concerns me.

I don’t begrudge anyone who wants the best for their son or daughter. If parents believe their children can play at a higher level, that’s great. However, too many kids are playing in these traveling leagues exclusively and that eventually waters down the talent in local baseball organizations. I think kids should play with kids from their neighborhoods and local schools. They should have fun while learning about the importance of teamwork.

When I was growing up, you had star players alongside kids who struggled. But I think it is a good learning lesson for everyone. Baseball is unique that way. In our league, managers were encouraged to play everyone so that they can learn about the game and improve. Some of these kids would eventually develop into good ballplayers through hard work and the fact some managers took time to work with them.

It seems today at some levels there is too much of an emphasis on winning. That’s why we now have these specialized traveling league teams. That can be great but what does that mean for kids of average talent who do not get the chance to play with some of these gifted players?