Where the 'elite' kids shouldn't meet

Who really is invested in elite youth sports teams? Is it the kids or their parents?

Your kid is good, right? Really good? You don't want to brag, but he can do some things on the field that other kids his age won't even try. You played a little ball yourself, and you know the difference.

Make no mistake: There's someone out there for you. He's putting together a team, and he's got a pipeline to the best tournaments. He knows people. He'll have tryouts and he'll tell you what you want to hear. It's expensive, sure, but who can put a price on your kid's future? If he's got a chance to be the best, he needs to play with and against the best, right?

Judging by the direction we're taking preteen youth sports, it appears we have completely lost our minds. Gone crazy -- collectively and individually. It's become something of a hobby for me to read the local sports coverage of the three or four sub-20,000 circulation papers in my area, and I am here to report that the center cannot hold.

The days of simply playing ball with your friends is over. It's a different world out there for the preteen athlete, with "Elite" and "Select" commonly turning up in the names of our youth sports teams and leagues. We're having tryouts for 10-and-under traveling baseball teams, and we've got 10-and-under basketball teams traveling the country playing against other fourth-graders at God knows what cost to the parents' bank accounts and the kids' psyches. All in the name of ? what? Trophies? Exposure? A leg up on a college scholarship? The egos of the parents?

The exploits of these kids, which almost always include tournament championships, national rankings from some little-known organization and perspective-free quotes from the coaches, are dutifully and breathlessly reported. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the 9- and 10-year-olds in my neck of the woods are the most remarkable 9- and 10-year-olds anywhere. But then you could probably say the same about yours. You just have to know where to look.

I found a great nugget the other day: a notice for a 10-and-under baseball team that's having tryouts for its extensive fall tournament schedule. The notice included the following sentence: "The team needs competitive youngsters who are looking to play baseball at the next level."

Let's parse that for a moment. Someone needs to explain to me what the "next level" is for a kid who's 10 or younger. I dare you to define it. Is it 11-and-under? Maybe 12-and-under? And if so, are there really 10-year-olds who are striving to play baseball at the 12-and-under level? Wouldn't it just happen naturally -- you know, with age?

If you think that, you're behind the times. This is the age of the special child. This is the age of the parent who believes his or her kid playing Little League for the neighborhood team is beneath them both. (Despite the talent you see at the Little League World Series, make no mistake: Little League has suffered enormously at the hands of the folks who peddle dreams to the parents of the preteen set. Local independent teams -- most of them touting the supposed benefits of year-round play -- skim top players out of neighborhood Little Leagues.) This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.

There are palaces built just for the purpose of housing these tournaments. Big League Dreams is a chain of West Coast baseball complexes with multiple diamonds that attempts to replicate different big league ballparks. There's a bunch of 10-year-olds playing in Fenway, the 12s in Yankee Stadium and the 13s in Wrigley Field. (You haven't really lived until you've seen Wrigley's ivy-covered wall painted onto slabs of plywood. There are times you have to pinch yourself.) The fields are spokes that extend from the hub -- an air-conditioned restaurant and bar, where parents can sit inside and watch games away from the infernal heat.

Read the rest at ESPN.com - Article written by Tim Keown

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