Sometimes parents at ballgames forget that it's really all about the kids

March 30, 2011 

I've never really understood the draw of a fantasy baseball league. Maybe it's all that unnecessary math. Maybe it's because it is only tenuously anchored in reality. Maybe I just prefer the real thing.

But I realized a few weeks ago that I have my own fantasy baseball league. In my fantasy league, teams of 12-year-olds not unlike my son’s team compete on balmy afternoons on fields in Olympia, Tumwater and Lacey. I can practically see him standing on the pitcher’s mound.

Wait. That is him. I’ve re-imagined his team in my fantasy.

In my fantasy league, the baseball games proceed as they normally do. Each kid experiences some success and some failure. Sometimes a team wins, sometimes it loses. The difference, the big difference, what makes it a fantasy, is that the onlookers don’t interfere with the game, the players or the coaches.

For example, when a player strikes out, he looks up into the stands to see his father clapping and shouting, “Next time, kid. Next time.” His father doesn’t berate the kid, shame him or try to assign blame to the umpire or the pitcher.

Or when a ball scoots between the shortstop’s legs, he hears his mother shouting, “Go get it. Throw him out.” She isn’t petulantly throwing her hands in the air as if to disassociate herself from her offspring.

I became a parent rather late in life, and I remember being astonished for years by stories about parents misbehaving at youth athletic events. Now that I’m a parent at those events myself, I am surprised at the emotions they stir up in me, and in the parents of my son’s teammates.

I admit that I have on occasion let my emotions escape into the open air. But, I hasten to add, I have never chewed out a coach, never been thrown out of a game, never been banned from a league or ballpark for an entire season. Mostly I curse the umpire sotto voce.

But I try to remember that the games are about the kids. It’s not about me reliving my glory days as a softball catcher. It’s not about me celebrating my son’s successes loudly and wildly. It’s about letting him experience the good and the bad, about him respecting his coach, his teammates, and the other team.

He hears my voice encouraging him and his teammates, but it’s in those precious, private moments driving home that I let loose with effusive praise and wonderment at his skills. Of course, being 12, he dismisses everything I say with a barely audible, “Whatever.” But I know he wants me in the stands.

Problems with fan behavior have been growing over the past years. The National Association of Sports Officials receives hundreds of complaints each year of fans attacking officials. Recreational leagues across the country have adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards fan misbehavior. Coaches now routinely hand out pages of detailed guidelines for fan behavior.

The National Alliance for Youth Sports considers parent misbehavior so significant that it has formed a group called Parents Association for Youth Sports, which promotes positive parent behavior.

Some leagues around the country now require parents to attend a training session on being a spectator, and to sign a binding code of conduct, before allowing their children to play.

In my fantasy league, all parents would be able to silence their own egos at games, as I work to silence mine. In my fantasy league, no child would leave the batter’s box crying, no pitcher would be booed, no coach or umpire berated. Kids would learn to play the game, to respect the game, to value teamwork.

And maybe, just maybe, that kid who mostly rides the pine will step into the batter’s box and uncork one to left center, and we can all applaud while he dances on second base.

Chris Madsen, a software developer and writer who moved to Olympia six years ago from Maine, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at cetmadsen@gmail.com.

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