Anyone who has played youth sports in their life has always had “that kid” on their team. The kid who was a little different from everyone else who is often an outsider. The kid who never had much to say, but when he did whatever was said was interpreted as “weird” to the other kids on the team. The kid who was made fun of by his teammates when he wasn’t around, or sometimes even when he was. The kid who was the weaker link on the team. You could see him struggle while playing and mentally beating himself up. He wants to make the play. He knows how to make the play. His confidence just isn’t there. He wants to impress his teammates and coaches and be accepted. He is often put in a spot where there is no action and is given no opportunity to grow as a player. They eventually grow tired of being mistreated and quit the sport entirely. They become very bitter about their experience and end up hating sports for the rest of their lives.
I played rec league sports until I was in sixth grade. I was always among the better crop of players in the divisions of both baseball and hockey that I played in. My dad had been my coach through most of these years and I can say I am more than lucky I didn’t have some batshit father who took rec league as if it served some sort of importance. My dad likes to win, but he is way more about fun than anything else. He is excellent at getting the most out of all of his kids and always made sure everyone who wanted to be there was given a chance. He is more of a motivator than an X’s and O’s guy. He paid the least attention to me and my higher level group of friends. I can recall playing a game at catcher during sixth grade rec league. We had one of our weaker kids at third base. There was a runner on second stealing third. I made a very solid throw to him and he dropped the ball. I didn’t scream at him or anything, I just showed very poor body language towards him. My dad pulled me from the game immediately and sat me down to remind me that this isn’t the place to get worked up over plays like that. I had never been one to yell at kids on my team. I’ve never been very vocal as is. I did however have a few buddies who weren’t afraid to yell at the weaker links but my dad would not tolerate any of that. I don’t even want to know what would have happened if I had pulled shit like that in front of my father.
Before my last year of playing rec league my dad didn’t coach me. He had decided to coach my sister’s’ softball team that season. Instead I had two coaches that were all about winning. I had one friend on that team and was kind of an outsider. I had a strange birthday which forced me to play above my grade level in rec league and below my grade level in select, every other year. I was a middle of the pack player on the team but was always shoved into right field. It didn’t help that my father and one of the coaches had gotten into a fight during the winter. I was constantly getting yelled at by this coach for the most ridiculous things and playing baseball became less enjoyable. I was actually on the verge of tears some nights. My one friend on the team was in the exact same boat as I was on this team as well. It got to the point where neither of us wanted to go to our games because of how we were treated. My friend and I essentially became “The Different Kids”.
My sixth grade year had been a huge turnaround for me. I was back with my dad and former group of coaches, I was back playing with my buddies, and I had one of my best summers in select league baseball after a miserable rec season. My batting had become so much better and my defensive game continued to be above average. We had an awesome year in rec league with great guys and ended up taking second place after losing in the championship game. I followed up the rec season with my best select season so far. I was evolving into a good little ball player.
A State League team in a city ten minutes away found me through a kid I played hockey with. I had an individual tryout and made the team. I was about to be on a team with all new people and playing in a much higher league of baseball. My hometown friends understood. It was a great opportunity to grow my game and it was also a lot more baseball I got to play. My first year with the team was excellent. I made friends with a couple guys on the team which was something I was worried about. Just about all of the guys had played together on this team since they were 8. They were in the popular crowd at school and were all one big group of friends. I didn’t fit in a whole lot with them as a quiet kid. It didn’t bother me a whole lot though. We didn’t win a whole lot of games but I personally had the best season of my life. I came into the highest youth baseball league in the state and batted .397 which was good for third on the team. I also led the team in extra base hits and stolen bases. My confidence was at an all-time high even after recently having to quit hockey due to concussion reasons. My coaches were huge fans of me and had said multiple times how great of an addition to the team I had been.
My eighth grade season with the team was a disaster however. I had suffered another concussion during the winter going into my eighth grade baseball season. This was my third substantial concussion and I had begun to lose control of my emotions and just not feeling myself. It was my first year without hockey which I was not taking well at all. The doctors actually didn’t even want me to play baseball at first. My parents decided to let me go out and play. I had the worst season of my life. I couldn’t hit a beach ball or field a routine fly ball. It was all in my head. My parents did their best to boost me up but it was unsuccessful. My coaches didn’t have a problem with me when I was hitting the ball and contributing to the team. Once I faltered I rode the bench. Once again I became “that kid” on the team.
I had taken a fly ball to the head after losing it in the sun in the outfield. It became the running gag on the team. I started to get comments in between each inning when a ball was hit to me. “You scared me out there.” Or when I missed a fly ball I’d get an “at least you didn’t take it in the face”. I had overheard a conversation at a tournament where my head coach was talking to a few of the better players on the team. “Man Steven is just horrible.” I’m not going to lie, I was. It was just so disappointing to hear that after being praised many times in my last season. I had become silent on the bench and began dreading coming to games. I wouldn’t even get in the lineup anymore and I became the laughing stock of the team. The guys I had befriended on the team stuck up for me and tried to boost my confidence which I still appreciate to this day. It didn’t work. My attitude got worse and worse and by the end of the season I wanted to quit baseball. I didn’t even go to the end of the season party because I was so sick of being made fun of.
Following that season I ended up doing a fall camp my parents suggested I do to get my confidence back. I didn’t want to do it as I wanted to quit playing. I had a bad attitude the entire six week camp and came out wanting to play even less. That was the end of my baseball playing career. A kid who used to find so much happiness in being on a baseball field had become very bitter and angry at the sport. I didn’t even watch baseball on TV for awhile I was so upset. Baseball had been my number one sport up until this point. I had watched the Brewers religiously since I was about six years old. I don’t think I watched a single game in 2013. I was so heartbroken and angry I didn’t think I would ever pick up a baseball again.
About a year later I had made friends with two guys on the high school baseball team. They had been trying to convince me to come to their winter warmups for over a month and I finally gave in and went. There was a lot of anxiety on the ride to the gym and I began to overthink how bad things could go. I was a disaster at the practice and was beating myself up the whole time. After the first practice I went to I decided I still didn’t want to play. The thought of me becoming the laughing stock of a team again loomed over me. Baseball is such a mental game. When you have no confidence in yourself you are not going to succeed. That statement can go for far more than just baseball or even sports for that matter. I regret not making more of an effort to try and come back as I never got to experience high school sports (which my parents told me would happen, listen to your mom and dad).
My story does have a happy ending however. I began to fall in love with baseball again in 2015 when I started to watch the Toronto Blue Jays after making moves for Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. I had started attending Brewer games once again. I had given a little bit of thought of going out for baseball in my junior year of high school but I decided I was too far out of the sport and worked during the summer instead. I am back to watching the Brewers religiously and I have been playing softball every Thursday night for the past two years. I even write about baseball on my silly website quite often!
Looking back I wish I would have had a better attitude about things and wouldn’t have given up as easily as I did. Unfortunately 14 year old kids are stubborn and emotional punks sometimes and I can say I fell into that category. I like to think I have matured since those days. I do still sometimes feel angry over how things went in my eighth grade baseball season. At the end of the day, middle school kids are jerks so I don’t hold grudges against any of my teammates. My coaches however who were grown men? Maybe a tad. It also didn’t help that the coaches would see my teammates constantly picking on me and wouldn’t do anything about it, and would sometimes even join in.
Coaching really is the biggest part in youth sports. You can really make or break a kid. They will remember you their whole life as a good or bad coach, much like a teacher. A good coach takes what they have and make it work. They do their best to form kids into smart players and quality people. No matter their social stature or ability. Young athletes who are willing to apply themselves to becoming better deserve equal treatment amongst their peers.
At the end of the day I began at the top of the totem pole. When you are amongst the higher group of players within your peers you don’t really think much of those kids who are struggling. Once I made my way down the totem pole I began to realize how shitty it was down there. It ultimately drove me out of baseball. Youth sports are meant to be a fun and positive experience for all kids who play. No kid should have to go home crying after a day on the field, at the rink, or on the court. All kids should be able to look back on those days and remember all of the fun times they spent together with their friends. Even the different ones.