No, I wasn't lost in the season premier of "Mad Men," although I was watching it.
Instead, I had one eye on the television screen, and another on my son. He was sitting a few seats away, fretting, waiting nervously, hitting refresh on the laptop browser, which had pulled up a website for Mankato Area Youth Baseball Association.
It was tryouts weekend. The boys had done all they could do on the field -- they'd taken their cuts in the batting cage, shagged fly balls, fielded grounders. And now all that was left to do was evaluate the players and post the results online.
By the time Sunday night rolls around in this scenario, the boys are at the mercy of the coaches and the individuals doing the evaluating. They can only hope they'd done enough to impress people. Of course, some stuff is out of their hands. You can never know what bargaining goes on behind closed doors, how much bias there is in the mind of the man with the clipboard, or how often a decision is made about a kid based not on what happened on the tryout field but on a coach's gut feeling. (My guess is that there might be a little bit of that, but not much.)
So they wait for the posting of the teams. In Mankato, traveling baseball is the realm of something called the Mankato Royals. So my son, like dozens of other kids in the Mankato area Sunday night, was watching there website, waiting for the posting of the results, hitting refresh every few minutes, desperate to see what team he was on, and fearing he wouldn't even see his name at all.
This is the place where I return to my "simpler times" idea.
Years ago, when he was playing T-ball or in-house baseball, there were no tryouts. You didn't have to go prove yourself or stack yourself up against other kids and have your skills judged. (Cue the opening guitar notes from John Fogarty's "Centerfield." Put me in, coach!) You just showed up and played the game you loved. Kids played every position. It didn't matter who won. Parents were chill, sitting in lawn chairs and not getting angry at the umpires. And when it was time for the next game to start, you cleared the field, hopped in the car and headed for Dairy Queen -- Blizzard or DillyBar, it didn't matter, it was a great night. Right?
Now the stakes are huge. If you don't know much about Mankato youth sports, here's a primer. Traveling teams are kingmakers on the spectrum of who is cool and, more importantly, who isn't in the halls of a middle or elementary school. And making a Royals team is about as good as it gets, status wise. It's all the kids talk about at school. There's a running dialogue of who made AAA, which kids don't belong there, and can you believe so and so made it and so and so didn't? They question the results, wonder about the wisdom of the coaches, express curiosity about the motives of the people who put the kids on their respective teams.
Parents text each other and send e-mails. Some parents, the ones whose kids didn't make one of the three traveling teams, have a rough few days ahead of them. There are tears. There is rage. Some of it is justified, most of it is not. Sometimes these parents take it upon themselves to confront the system, to call or email or even show up in person to get answers about why their kid didn't make it. It's sad, really.
Having said all this, I believe tryouts are good for our kids.
We've had tryout results nights in our house that have been sheer elation. The first year Sam tried out and made a AA team was one of the best nights of his life. We've had some that have been the opposite. We've had some tears. We've had some anger. And it's on those nights, I believe, that my son has grown more as a person. And isn't that more important? To the kids who make the top teams every year, I tip my hat to you. You're really good ball players, the best in Mankato. But I'd offer this: the lessons learned after you've struggled to make a team and failed will serve them better in life than the good feelings someone has who always makes a team. I'm not trying to take anything away from those kids. In fact, I'm guessing any kid in Mankato, if given the choice, would rather have the physical gifts that would make it easy for them to make the top teams than to have to struggle. And many of their parents would probably want the same thing.
But from where I'm sitting, I'm actually really happy with how the tryout experience has gone for my son.
Like his father, Sam wasn't blessed with the body of an elite athlete. Short in stature, he's had to work hard to be as good at baseball as he is. That hard work has paid off for him. There hasn't been a year that he hasn't made a traveling team. And with the exception of one year, he's had fun every year. And, in addition to the success he's had, he's had some setbacks. Last year he played his first year of A traveling ball after two years of AA. He was disappointed. He felt he'd failed. Then, something beautiful happened. He had the most fun of any of his years of baseball. He played ball with a great group of boys, they won tournaments, and all the parents got along. He made new friends, and learned a few things about some kids he thought he knew better. It was a great year.
This year, he's back on that A team. And like last year, he was disappointed initially. But he got over it quick, and he's excited for another year of baseball.
Trying out for a traveling baseball team has taught him the value of working hard, in dealing with adversity. It's taught him that, when things don't always go your way, you must choose how to proceed. When life throws you a curve ball, you have to figure out how to adjust. In Sam's case, it looks like he's adjusting splendidly. And that's a great skill to have in life.
I hope some other kids, and their parents, can learn to adjust, as well.