Commentary

Wish list: Little League vs. pros

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Mike Philbrick and Scoop Jackson | Page 2

MIKE PHILBRICK: OK, here goes … I'll be the first to admit that when my favorite team wins it all I do my best to wear my feelings on my sleeve -- literally wear them. I buy the hat, the shirt(s), the DVDs. Why do I viciously taunt the fashion police with these violations? Because I want to experience that feeling for as long as possible. I want to freeze that "One Shining Moment." But, as I've learned again and again, those moments are like any decent vodka: It makes you do dumb things (did I really almost buy a Red Sox "Cowboy Up" shirt?) … and you can't freeze it.

On the other hand, my victories in youth sports are as frozen as Ted Williams' head. Nothing can change them. In fact, much like all stories from our youth, they tend to get better with age. That is why if there's anything in sports I could pass to my sons, it wouldn't just be the love of the game and the passion of being a fan -- but a title to call their own. Why? Because I will always root for the success of my own flesh and blood over a bunch of millionaire strangers. And for that, I'd gladly give up another Duck Boat parade.

[+] EnlargeDanny Almonte
AP Photo/Chris GardnerDanny Almonte -- Little Leaguer or professional. Discuss amongst yourselves.

SCOOP JACKSON: I hear you, Cowboy, but bigger than getting caught up in the euphoria of adolescent athletic innocence is the fact that along with wanting the kids to win is the desire people get for their child's victory as opposed to the love their child can get from just playing the game.

I've seen and been a part of it too often when parents and all other related, adopted, befriended family members are caught up in whether or not their child (or children) wins, instead of just finding solace in kids' -- and I stress the word "kids" heavily for this argument -- developing an appreciation for the sport that they are playing.

For kids, the role and rule should be (especially in team sports) primarily about their having fun and enjoying the sport that they are playing. Once you get to the college and pro level of sports, you are there to win. It's part of the necessary agreement when one signs on to be an athlete for the amount of time (via scholarship or contract) they've agreed upon. With that agreement comes the agreement to try to win. That is the essence of all sports when it gets to that level. And for that reason alone, I find it much easier to pull for my "favorite" college and pro teams. They are there to do exactly what I'm pulling for them to do. They are on the field, court, ice, mat, track, course, in the water, to be better than their opponents. I cheer for that. I honor that.

PHILBRICK: Right, right, right … we don't want parents from the first 45 minutes of "Hoosiers" in the stands or Vic Morrow coaching our kids. Yes, I've seen those parents in person, so I'm not going to say they don't exist. In fact, they're a great teaching tool: More than once I've said, "See that dude over there foaming at the mouth, kids? That's not how you win/lose."

You can't just teach them to love the game. Kids need the whole experience -- not just the right attitude to bring to the game. They also need to learn how to handle failure as well. (That's right, haters of school dodgeball, I said it.) If they learn that, they'll naturally gain the sense of pride, camaraderie and achievement that one earns with success. That's what we need to pass on to the next generation.

Oh, all this is going to be in Chapter 1 of my new book, "Why The No-One-Gets-Out Rule In T-Ball Has Guaranteed The Terrorists Will Win."

SCOOP: At some point in their lives, I know kids will get there … if they decide that is what they want to do. And once that decision is made, I feel it's at that point when we as "fans" can decide we can pull for one team or player to best another one for pure reasons of selfishness. But at the Little League level, it shouldn't be about that. I cannot put myself in the position to want my son's team to succeed at the expense of someone else's child's team or someone else's child. At that stage of their lives, it should be about the experience, not the victory. Not the outcome. And if I sit here and tell you that I'd rather support a team of kids winning a title than a crew of professionals whose careers will/can be affected by the nature of a win or a loss, I'll take the guys and gals that collect checks all day.

Now don't get me wrong, I'd love for my kid's Little League team to win. Don't get it twisted that I won't support him or his teammates the way I would Georgetown basketball, USC football, the Mets or the Pistons. But in this debate, I feel it's ethically more responsible to pull for the teams you have love for that have dedicated their lives to sports above the ones you just love. Sports for kids at the age we're discussing is not a life decision; and if it is for some, the child is often not the one who has made the decision. And winning simply becomes a tool to making that decision a valid one.

PHILBRICK: I quote the 20th-century philosopher W. Axl Rose when I say, "You're crazy … you know you're crazy. Oh, my!" So at the end of a season, half the kids should get a "best attitude" trophy, while the other half gets "best hustle." Or maybe at the end of the game, the kids all can put on mood rings, and the ones with the sunniest dispositions will be "in first place" and the other team will be "tied for first place." Is that what you're saying?

Adults are ruining the process -- and not just the crazy, yelling über-fan parents. I coached kindergarten hoops and T-ball this year, and the first question each kid had for me is "Coach, did we win?" See, they already know about competition, so why are we trying to hide the result in the name of some sort of sensitivity that they clearly don't want or need?

They want the Full Monty of emotions and experiences. Everyone does. That's why every year in pro sports, veterans agree to less money and a reduced role in order to win a ring to call their own. Now, I know my kids are, unfortunately for them, linked to me genetically -- so that scenario as a pro isn't a viable option. So I'm still sticking with the gang that celebrates and commiserates with orange slices and ice cream cones.

SCOOP: And that's the gray area of sports where it gets ugly. That's where it becomes hard to even root for some teams and kids at events because of the two sets at play. One set is the support base that wants the kids to have fun and enjoy and appreciate the sport; the other set is the support base that is looking to push their kid or that team toward the next level. And what happens is, because there is no separation between the two, those groups often find themselves on one team -- with separate agendas.

In this day and age, corruption and winning go hand in hand. Once you start cheering for winning at such an early age, you are basically asking for forms of corruption to creep down to the level of play that you said earlier was so innocent.

Because believe me, once parents, coaches, schools, leagues and kids get a taste of winning -- and see the response it generates, along with the interest it ignites -- then those who make sure winning happens on a regular basis will not be far behind. When that happens, there goes the innocence of the sport and the kids you once cheered.

PHILBRICK: Those paragraphs were so depressing they should have been sponsored by Cymbalta …

We're still the parents. We're still the teachers of perspective, manners and all that stuff. Ever been to a restaurant and seen a bunch of mega-naughty kids? They're acting that way because no one ever told them to stop. If you're kid is throwing down his glove after a loss or taunting the other team after a win, that isn't the system's fault; it's your fault. This is all part of the full experience I mentioned before, and if I can be a part of teaching my kid how to win with grace, lose with dignity and raise a well-earned trophy at the end of it all, then I will have not only done my teaching job for the season, but for the rest of his life.

Unless he opts for free agency and signs with another family -- then all bets are off. Oh wait, that's your guys.

SCOOP: OK, the fact that you called Axl Rose a philosopher either makes you crazy or somewhat of a genius. I can't decide. But let me deaden this for you. Explain why rooting for your college or pro team is better into a perspective so that even you, O ye of Little League, can understand and appreciate.

• Yankees vs. Red Sox
• Ohio State vs. Michigan
• Duke vs. UNC
• The Red River Rivalry
• The Final Four
• BCS Bowls
• Lakers vs. Celtics
• UConn vs. Tennessee (Geno vs. Pat)
• The Big East Tournament in the Garden
• SEC Football
• Fresno State in the 2008 College World Series
• AFC and NFC conference championships
• FIFA World Cup
• The Cubs vs. history

You know this list can go on like a Stevie Wonder speech at the Grammys. You also know there is no way on any level of "kiddie" athletics where you can find the passion and intensity of historical relevance that can match any of the events or rivalries mentioned above. With finding and supporting and rooting and watching and following and choosing to defend and honor a team you've developed a love (sometimes hate) for over years is something that stays with you for life. There's a vested interest that comes with rooting for your team year after year after year after decade that does not nor could ever exist with being Superfan for your kid's grammar school squad. The kid grows up, he/she moves on. So do you.

Plus, there's a level of ignorance that can be displayed when rooting for college or pro teams that can't be on display in front of kids. You can't bring a keg to a Little League game. You can't wear body paint to a biddy basketball game. Plus, bar fights over favorite teams are always better than parents' fighting at the Little League neighborhood championship.

Mike Philbrick | email

Grantland contributor
Mike Philbrick is an editor for Grantland.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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