Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray each hit approximately 14,276 home runs in my neighborhood. Art Monk and Charley Taylor made about 10,000 touchdown catches apiece on the same pristine field. And Len Bias probably dropped 100,000 points on our local basketball court.
Of course, I was the one actually performing these feats (admittedly, often without a real opponent), but I acted each one out while imagining I was one of the aforementioned superstars. It was easy to slip off into a fantasy world where I assumed their identities while participating in sports and, in turn, I would often mentally substitute myself into their shoes while watching them do what they did in real life.
It was simply an overimaginative child living vicariously through the acts of others, and it was pretty harmless stuff — albeit a little strange.
But I’m guessing many of you did the same things. My father constantly regaled me with stories of Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown and Bob Cousy when I was growing up, and I can easily imagine him doing the same play-acting when he was a child. There he was, bald head glowing in the summer sun, as he and his friends got off their horses to play in the dirt streets while the red coats stormed into the colony ...
But I digress.
The point is that it isn’t completely unnatural to enjoy sports through the fantasy of achieving greatness — either through our respective individual efforts, or by slipping into a fantasy world where we either place ourselves in someone else’s position or put a greater value on our own talents and achievements. Either way, it’s fun, right?
There is indeed a time when this can become hazardous, and that’s when parents of athletes become the story. Go watch young people play organized baseball, softball, soccer, basketball or, for that matter, any sport. There’s a joy to the event when you watch the players — the kids play for the proverbial “love of the game” and run out every ground ball or dive for every errant pass. That, or the kids spend their time in the outfield chasing butterflies or doing somersaults. Either way, it’s great theater and promises to put a smile on even the most cynical face.
That is, until you start to hear the voices coming from the stands of parents living vicariously through their children’s efforts. Every call by an official gets ripped. Every substitution by a coach becomes a personal attack on a family’s honor. A harmless error by a 10-year-old becomes fodder for parents of other children to attack fervently.
To be honest, it’s disgusting. And it continues as the players get older. Go ahead. Go to a game at Indian River. Parents embarrass their children, the coaches and other parents by acting like insipid bores. They scream for their kids to get more playing time, or criticize the coaching or embark on the lamest trip of all — ripping umpires or refs for calls they make on the field. This is not contained only to Indian River, mind you, but it does indeed exist right here.
And who pays the highest cost for the actions of these parents? Their children.
I played organized sports for years. It became instant playground ammo when a parent would yell at a coach to put his or her kid in the game, and you’d feel pretty sorry for the kid whose father or mother just yelled at him for making a mistake. As a catcher in baseball, I just knew in my heart that we would not be getting any close calls on balls or strikes once the parents started yelling at the umpire, and I was screamed at more than once by parents for being too rough with their children during the course of a game.
Think that made me ease up, or hit harder?
It also makes a dangerous precedent for the kids of these parents. If a parent doesn’t teach his or her child the importance of humility, teamwork and dedication, then that child doesn’t get any of the benefits of sports. It simply creates another spoiled athlete who doesn’t know how to deal with the inevitable failure that strikes every athlete at some point or another. Look, I had quite a bit of success in sports, but I also struck out several times to end a game, missed an important free throw and dropped third-down passes. It stinks on ice, but it happens to everybody. A proper perspective can help an athlete on any level deal with it.
As for the high-school kids’ parents, it’s only worse. Do you think a coach that dedicates much of his or her free time to working with kids wants to deal with that garbage? Would you? Do you think the assistant coaches or umpires get into it for the money?
I love sports. I love playing them, and I love watching them. But parents can bring an immediate halt to any of the joy that comes with playing.
Nurture your children’s interest in sports if that’s what they enjoy. But please don’t crush it — or ruin it for everybody else with your behavior.