Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The need to win

I accept as a casualty of my age that I am more prone to believing that elements of our cultural past have lessons for our cultural present, but there is no way for me to avoid the conclusion as I've read this week's outstanding Star Tribune series on the money in youth sports. Fat cat boosters and parents who want their children to win have transformed the nature of the game. Advocates still tell us that high school sports, in particular, can teach children valuable life lessons. Here's the life lesson we should learn from the series: Don't let adults run youth sports.

Over the course of three days, the series has drilled a constant message from the "haves" and the "have nots." It's unfair, it has said, that some teams have more money -- and thus resources -- than others. The sadness of the series is that few people involved have noted the cultural calamity of our need to win.

There are only three things that people have said to me over these years that I have not forgotten. After I graduated from college and was looking for work in a fleeting period in our history when we weren't fighting other counties' wars, my father said, "If you want job security, join the Army."

An ex-colleague, at a reunion party for a radio network where I once worked, casually remarked, "Man, we were glad to see you go."

And a coach of a summer club hockey team said to me, "because I want to win."

I played high school and college hockey, and that sounds more impressive than it really is. I made my college team because I was the only player who could skate backwards. I beat out 30-40 other schoolmates in high school to be the last guy on the team. I didn't play much and when I did, the game was usually over. In my sophomore year, my team was 0-19-1, having tied the last game of the year. I didn't play much; my undistinguished career featured eight years of organized play, no goals scored.

To my knowledge, the only picture of me in action is this one. I'm number 5. Playing the bench like nobody's business.

In my junior year, I was recruited to play a summer league team. A family acquaintance was the coach. Because the team was mostly made up of my high school team, I, again, didn't play much. Midway through the season, we held a lead against some team I don't recall, it was late in the game, and I wanted to play. This was a summer recreational league.

"Can I play?" I said to the coach.

"Not now," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because I want to win," he said.

I never went back for another game.

I have few recollections of any of the games my teams played now. But I recall with ease, the pick-up games on a pond across the street with my pals in the neighborhood, and my hockey-loving older brother, who died a year ago. A neighborhood hockey rat didn't have shin pads -- "Termite" was his name (we had nicknames for kids back then) -- so he taped comic books to his legs.

Youth sports were the park & rec games in the ballyard behind my house (since turned into a soccer pitch, but that's another story). It's been more than 45 years since I stabbed the vicious line drive shortly before it hit one of the Shaw twins' face. I can still see the expression on his face. They're both dead now; someone said drugs were involved.

But there was a joy to being a kid playing youth sports and we have ruined that joy in the name of teaching kids life's lessons.

The ballparks in my neighborhood now are mostly empty. The kids are playing down at the big sports complex in front of the same sorts of parents I became, who lament that the traveling teams from Edina have better uniforms. After some games, as I recall, the coach -- whose son usually was the starting pitcher -- navigated a sea of parents wanting to know why their kid wasn't playing.

He didn't say "because I want to win," but he didn't have to. Winning was the point. Winning is still the point.

A few weeks ago, the Twins made a big splash out of showing a 20-year-old movie on the scoreboard. The Sandlot embodied the childhood games some of us are lucky to remember. On Twitter, an acquaintance objected to the fuss people were making. "It's not Citizen Kane," he said. And, he's right; it's not. But Citizen Kane never reminded us of the role of childhood games before my generation grew up to ruin them.

No doubt the takeaway from the Star Tribune's series will be that the "have not" teams should get more money. Here's an old man's idea: Give all the teams no money. Point to the field, and tell them "go have some fun on your own."

That's a quote they'll remember forever.