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What Gets Lost as Little Leagues Get Smaller

On a windy April Saturday in Hamden, Connecticut, where I live, I watched a blur of kids test their baseball skills, in preparation for the Little League season. My son was among them; I’d volunteered to be a coach this year. On the following Monday evening, I was to join the other coaches to pick the teams.

I’d had one previous experience with the drafting of players. In 2011, while writing a book about the inner life of an N.F.L. team, I’d watched the New York Jets prepare for the draft. That year, Jets scouts traversed the country, observing and meeting college players and talking with coaches, professors, acquaintances, and sometimes law enforcement. They prepared five thousand thick reports on twelve hundred prospects, searching for hidden truths and the secrets of young souls, overvaluing those things that they most valued about themselves, and crossing their fingers.

In Hamden, my “scouting notes” were on the level of “fast” and “fun.” Hoping to elevate my drafting acumen before Monday night, I went home and called some of my old subjects from the Jets for advice. The former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who now runs a football think tank that he founded, warned, preëmptively, “You’re gonna go with your heart instead of your head.” The team’s former defensive coördinator Mike Pettine, who later became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, said, “Pick kids that love baseball—not playing because of Dad. Avoid kids with overly involved parents.” Anthony Lynn, a running-backs coach who subsequently spent several years as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, recalled his own “Friday Night Lights” childhood as a star athlete in small-town Texas, where his closest friend was named Rocky. Lynn made it clear that he still held it against his town’s Little League that he and Rocky had not been teammates. “White Sox drafted me,” Lynn said. “Astros took him. I was in tears. First draft we ever had in our town. We showed up outside the school. Everybody was waiting. Afterward, we were bawling. Lot of crying.” Lynn had very specific counsel. “You draft team chemistry,” he said. “I was hell on the White Sox coach that year. I wouldn’t pitch”—that is, until his coach’s wife brought baked goods one day. “She won me over with brownies,” he said. “We made the playoffs. I pitched and talked shit to my best friend, Rocky, the whole time!”

Listening to Lynn reminisce in this way brought back to me similarly atmospheric features of my own years in uniform, growing up in New Haven—not quite the baseball itself so much as surprising things people said and did at the games. There was the batter who religiously crossed himself before he hit, leading one pitcher to do the same, just so they were even. The way we talked more at school in anticipation of upcoming games than we did after the score was decided. The interesting-sounding businesses—a hot-dog wholesaler, a tropical-fish store, a carting company—that sponsored teams, lending them a mystique that made us, at eleven and twelve, feel halfway complicit in their missions. The distinctive ways people found to wear their uniforms. (The best player in our league kept one pant leg high up, at his knee, the other lower, at his shin, and soon others adopted the fashion.) The kid who borrowed my prized new wooden bat and immediately broke it, while hitting a single. Later, he approached me, and I expected him to apologize, but instead he said, “If the bat had been better, I would have hit a home run.”

I’d grown up with a single mom, and I used to notice all the dads in the stands watching their sons play. Mostly, we kids knew our neighborhoods. But, through baseball, I met kids whom I otherwise wouldn’t have, kids from all over New Haven. The games opened up the city, revealed how things and people were.

Hamden, which, in the nineteen-thirties, became the home of Thornton Wilder, who wrote “Our Town,” was once a picket-fence streetcar suburb of New Haven. It was home to many Yale faculty members, but it also had blue-collar neighborhoods, interior villages, ample farmland, and a kid named Donald Hall, the country’s future Poet Laureate, who later published a prose collection titled “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons.” In the fifties, Hamden was remade in the model of white suburban exodus by new highways and parkways. Hamden was both its own town and a transitional place, not exactly a distinct entity so much as a continuation of New Haven, one among a region of towns and suburbs that gave way to the countryside. It was then almost totally white; it had the state’s first suburban shopping center and, as of 1953, a youth-sports league that called itself the Hamden Fathers’ Baseball Association. (The paternal nomenclature remains.) One son of Hamden at the time was Joe Castiglione, whose congenial tenor has been familiar to Boston Red Sox followers since 1983, when he became the team’s play-by-play radio broadcaster. Describing balls and strikes or relating the sweetness of the strawberries he buys at his local market, Castiglione sounds like someone talking across a back-yard fence to his neighbor.

Hamden has continued to reflect America’s changing suburbs: these days, twenty-seven per cent of its residents are African-American, and around one in seven were born in a country other than the United States. Many residents of Hamden are engaged, as much of the country is, in community self-examination. Grappling with any single issue, such as zoning reform or a desire for more affordable housing, is complex; at public hearings, school meetings, and online, speaking of one thing inevitably leads to discussions of other things, like education reform, and the city’s budget difficulties, and problems of employment and opportunity and taxation—an interrelated thicket of process that is as spirited and fraught as the times. The town’s vibrant culture of small businesses, from Kelly’s Cone Connection to East Side Flooring, is still represented on the uniform shirts of young baseball players. The demographics are diverse, yet the town is segregated by neighborhood. In this way, Hamden reminds me of the New Haven I grew up in, a pulsing, varied city, where people tended to stay in their own homogenous communities. But there were ways not to do that, to get to know a little bit of everybody, and one way was Little League.

In our draft room were the league’s affable commissioner, Carl, and my fellow-coaches, who answered to Doc and John and Mayor Curt. (He really is the mayor.) The evening was a simple, completely inexpert exercise in apolitical comity. None of us knew all the players, so, in the later rounds, there was information-pooling on the level of “He’s my best friend’s kid” and “His favorite color is green.” Everybody shared Pettine’s aversion to dadly over-involvement, and could recall past paternal cases of sign-stealing from behind home plate, fathers arriving at games in altered states and screaming contumely for six innings, and even a man who accosted his son’s coach to say “My kid is playing way too much. We’ve gotta win!”

During years past, Hamden had filled two complete and abundantly rostered leagues. Now we were drafting to field four teams in one league. Quite a few of the better young players from our growing town of sixty thousand people no longer play in our league. They were already committed year-round to another sport, or they had opted to play travel ball.

All over the country, local town leagues, not only in baseball but also in soccer and basketball and other youth sports, face diminishing enrollments, as more and more kids sign on to the country’s thousands and thousands of travel programs—intensive experiences that feature expert instruction from former collegians, a lengthy schedule of games against opponents from far-flung locales, excellent facilities, shimmering uniforms and uniform-adjacent swag, and a pre-professional seriousness about the game that preaches hard work and devotion to practice. Also available, in the interest of these creeds, are skills clinics, private lessons, special strength-and-conditioning days. Youth sports is a booming business that brings in fifteen billion dollars per year. For many parents, the financial and time commitments are transactional, investments in the grail of a college athletic scholarship or, who knows, maybe even a career in Houston or Chicago with the real Astros or White Sox.

Travel sports seem of our time, not simply in their aspirational striving to purchase an edge, to get ahead, but in the way they create inequity and separation within the culture. Most people don’t have thousands of dollars to invest season after season in a nine-year-old third baseman. On a municipal level, most towns cannot compete with the lush facilities of the travel enterprises, which are often situated in wealthy white suburbs.

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