I’ve been meaning to post this thing forever; it ran two weeks ago in the NYT’s sports magazine, Play.
It’s a story about a 12-year-old pitcher — “arguably as close to being a professional baseball player as a 12-year-old can be” — on an elite travel team in Florida. The story’s quite long, but equally readable, and is about lots of things — the blurring boundaries between child’s play and adult expectations, the care and feeding of a promising young athlete, etc. To say it pressed every button I had would be an understatement, starting with the opening paragraph:
Jarrod Petree has spent his whole life throwing. The first things he threw, according to his mother, were assorted toys and a fair amount of food from the highchair. Before long, he moved on to throwing balls. Some babies, of course, are throwers. But from the very start, Jarrod had an especially determined arm. At least this is the view taken by his father, Tim, who played Division II baseball at the Florida Institute of Technology in the late 80’s, graduating only a few years before his son was born: the kid basically arrived on earth wanting to throw.
The kid’s parents don’t come across as drooling villains, but it’s hard not to notice the rationalization, the Earl “Training a Tiger” Woods School of Self-Justification, isn’t it? “We had no choice in this! He threw toys and food from his highchair! Clearly he was born to be a pitcher! It’s our job to guide him to his goals!” Uh-huh. I had a baby who vigorously threw food from her highchair, too, and I never mistook the impulse for a burning desire to play major-league baseball, but then, she was a girl and I wasn’t a college baseball player, either. So there you go.
Again, these parents don’t strike me as bad people. It’s my devout wish that they read this story and saw themselves whole for the first time — well-meaning parents who have nevertheless set in motion a program designed to chew up their son and spit him out before he’s old enough to buy a beer:
Because of his arm, and because of his team, Jarrod has a list of things that he won’t do, or can’t do, by decree of his parents, who are usually thinking ahead to the next baseball game. He will not, for example, jump on a trampoline. When his friends from school hold their birthday parties at a rock-climbing facility, Jarrod does not go. He does not play pickup basketball at school, and if it is the week before a tournament, he sits out of gym class. If he goes swimming in the backyard pool, he’s careful not to get sunburned or tired out. He is not allowed to skateboard or ride a scooter.
“Nothing with wheels,” Tim told me one day, outlining the policy. “We don’t even really let him ride his bike that much.”
“He rides his bike,” Lori interjected. “Just not a lot.” Then she sighed, adding, “I know we sound psycho, but we’re not.”
Keeping a 12-year-old off a bicycle? Who would find that psycho, mom?
I know there are children out there who are preternaturally talented in many things — music, art, sports. I’m sure it’s a struggle, as a parent, to find the balance between supportive encouragement and just plain pushiness. As adults, we know what these talents can mean in one person’s life — the riches, both monetary and otherwise, they can bestow. If you could choose a life of wealth, fame and world travel for your child, vs. one of being a crime-lab specialist or phys-ed teacher (Jarrod’s backup career choice), who wouldn’t go with Door No. 1? How do you find the right path there?
Of course there’s a dark side, alas:
Overuse injuries — particularly in the elbows and shoulders of young pitchers — are indeed becoming epidemic. Orthopedists often blame coaches and parents for failing to monitor how many pitches kids are throwing and for not giving them time to rest their arms. They also view breaking balls — particularly the curveball — as placing undue stress on the soft growth plates in the arm, which do not harden until a child reaches puberty. Glenn Fleisig, the research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., has studied pitching mechanics for more than 10 years. He and his colleagues have come up with two basic recommendations, both of which are widely ignored across travel baseball: young players should take at least four months off per year, and nobody should throw a curveball before he’s old enough to shave.
Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the medical director for the Cincinnati Reds, specializes in an elbow-ligament reconstruction procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery, named for the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who first underwent it, in 1974. There was a time when the surgery was reserved for aging professional pitchers, says Kremchek, but today, with young players pitching more games over extended seasons, the average age of his patients is quickly lowering. “I’m seeing 15 to 30 kids a year who are younger than 11 years old and in need of surgery,” he says. “It’s unheard of.” He maintains that there is currently a shortage of skilled pitchers in Major League Baseball because too many promising young players have self-destructed “trying to get to the Hall of Fame when they were 10 or 11.”
By the way, Jarrod throws curveballs. Is there parental rationalization at work? Why, of course: Tim insists that Jarrod, who has been honing his curve since he was 10, throws a less taxing form of the pitch in which the curve originates from his wrist and not his elbow.
I wish the kid luck. Lots of it. He’s going to need it all.
While we’re on a sports-bloggage theme, I liked this Michael Miner column in the Chicago Reader, about how lame-ass American newspapers cover soccer:
As the World Cup gets under way in Germany, American journalists are talking to their readers as if they were unbaptized children. We have Hundley going on about war-torn Angola “carrying the pride of an entire continent,�? the “joyful samba�? that’s the Brazilian style of play, and even the “sons of immigrants and the sons of suburban soccer moms�? who form the up-and-coming American squad. We have Steven Stark and Harry Stark explaining in the Inquirer that one can see in the Italian team “some of the attributes that gave birth to the Renaissance�? and in the English team “what helped give rise to the industrial revolution and the wasted cities it left behind.�? If soccer’s not the church you worship at, all this is ecstatic gibberish. Or hilarious overwriting.
Note well: Every person I know who follows soccer does so by reading an overseas newspaper or watching satellite television. And the country gets more soccer-fied every year. While American sportswriters yammer about the Renaissance.
So how was your weekend? Mine was lovely. I bought a Swiffer. It was thrilling to use on my new wood floor, and restored my faith in Swifferdom. (To recap: The dusters work beyond your wildest dreams, but the WetJet is a waste of money.) Is there a cleaning product I’m not a sucker for? Yes. The battery-operated toilet brush. Show me a person too squeamish to scrub out a toilet with the old-fashioned long-handled brush and I’ll show you someone who has some Germ Issues. I don’t have germ issues. I expect bacteria to bloom everywhere, and it doesn’t bother me. I make war on gunk, dust and dog hair. If it’s visible, it’s my enemy. I don’t have time to worry about the invisible stuff.
We also saw “Cars.” Loved it. Every year, Pixar shows the rest of the animated moviemaking world how it’s done. Every year, the rest of that world fails to learn the lesson. One of these days, maybe.
And so the week begins. Last one of the school year. Ah, me.