As I write this, millions of boys and girls around the world are beginning another baseball and softball season in more than 6,800 Little League programs.
In a time when competition for our children's time is intense - school-related activities, a rich variety of sports options, and even a variety of choices for youth baseball and softball - it's fair to ask why Little League matters in today's world. The answer speaks less to how children find ways to exercise, and more to the challenges that will face them as they grow up in an increasingly complex world.
Most of us of a certain age can remember childhoods filled with neighborhood activities that involved physical activity and interactions that provoke rich memories, even today. Our parents shooed us outside in the morning and called us back for meals. School activities were open to everyone, regardless of ability. Today, most schools are cutting back on physical education programs; kids are devoting more time to technology-driven activities that keep them inside, inactive, and apart from physical interaction with others their age. Many families are dual-income households, free time is at a premium, and activity schedules are regulated.
Childhood has become less about unstructured, collaborative fun and more about competition and pursuing individual achievement. In a world where parents are bombarded with messages about giving their kids an edge and developing elite skills, where you can find coaching and mentoring pitches that almost guarantee a path to scholarships and success, something crucial can be lost.
When I was a coach in Little League, my team played for the league championship. The players were nervous, so I took them out into left field before the game and tried to put things into perspective. I told them that in ten years, they would not remember what the score was. They would remember that it was a glorious spring day, the sun was shining, and they were playing baseball with their friends. It has now been more than fifteen years since that day, and these twelve kids, one of them my son, have grown into adults. I still see some of these former players from time to time in our community. Invariably, they still remember their time playing baseball with their friends. More importantly, they retained the life lessons that Little League taught them, lessons that help during the often difficult path from childhood to becoming successful adults.
Baseball and softball are team sports. You may be a star pitcher, but without the help of eight other players, you cannot be successful. As a coach, every one of the players on my team contributed substantially in winning at least one game. Some of them were gifted players; some of them were not. They were friends, classmates, and neighbors, before and after the game. During the course of the season, all of them learned to depend on the others, to take pleasure in the other's success and find ways to work together toward common goals. Some of them continued to play baseball through their teen years, others went on to other sports and interests. All of them took their experiences from Little League baseball into their adult lives.
Many people know Little League from the tournaments that conclude with the World Series in Williamsport in August each year. But Little League is so much more than this. Little League is open to everyone, regardless of talent, ethnicity, gender, or ability to pay. No one is turned away. There are and always will be opportunities for better players to play in highly competitive programs. But talented players can learn far more from Little League than from these elite programs. A truly talented player is one who helps make an entire team better than it would otherwise be; one who understands that contributing to team success provides more benefit than can be achieved alone. A child that learns these lessons has all the perspective and tools to be a success in life.
Little League's message is ingrained in the pledge recited before games - "I trust in God, I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair, and strive to win, but win or lose I will always do my best."
The world has changed since I was a kid, and it's unrealistic to expect Little League baseball to remain entirely as it was in the 1950s. Our sense of neighborhood and community has evolved as well. Children today face many more challenges and pressures than we did as kids. I am not involved out of a sense of nostalgia. I am involved because in a world where interactions are increasingly impersonal and indirect, Little League provides a place where kids can have fun, where they can learn important life lessons. It provides a sense of connection across generations, common ground between parent and child and a reminder of what binds us together as a community, and the source of our strength as a nation.