Bryce Harpers and Joe Mauers

Along with three friends, I am coaching a Little League team of seven, eight, and nine year olds. All four of us are in our early twenties. Needless to say, we are the only coaches in the league without kids of our own. Our goal? Utter domination. Throughout the season I will keep Pitchers & Poets readers updated on the goings on surrounding the team.

Bryce Harper is seventeen years old. He will most likely be selected with the first pick by the Washington Nationals in June’s MLB Amateur Draft. As he continues to hit baseballs arguably harder than any other person his age ever has, his myth only grows. When he was sixteen, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His talents are so blatant that denying them would be akin to denying the existence of gravity.

Young Shawn Green is nine years old. He will most likely be picked first or second for soccer or football at an upcoming recess. As he continues to hit baseballs farther than any player on our team, his spot in our batting order only improves. To my knowledge, Young Shawn Green has yet to grace any magazine covers, but if he ever does, it will probably not be Sports Illustrated. One possibility is Chess Life, as he will be missing our game next Saturday to compete in a statewide tournament.

There is a catch with Bryce Harper. Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus recently wrote about fears surrounding his mental makeup. Every baseball professional who has scouted Harper, Golstein writes, “genuinely dislikes the kid.” One GM even calls Harper “the anti-Joe Mauer.” It is perfectly possible, as Rob Neyer points out, to be both a great baseball player and a lousy human being. And it is certainly possible that Harper will turn out to be a good person – after all he is only seventeen. Either way, like many other child prodigies, his story can be a cautionary one.

So far as I can tell, there is no catch with young Frank Thomas. His bat speed leaves much to be desired, as does his foot speed. His focus on the diamond is questionable at best. Sometimes he occupies himself between plays by digging holes in the infield, others by building dirt mounds. In the dugout, he enjoys climbing chain link fences and other such silliness. Yet young Frank Thomas can really hit. Line drives jump off his bat. He can also play guitar. He missed a game last week for a recital.

To get as good as Bryce Harper has, as quickly as he has, requires a determination bordering on the inhuman. Sacrifices must be made: other sporting interests fall by the wayside, social lives get put on hold, schoolwork becomes less than a priority and any other interests are relegated to the distant background. These sacrifices, for all their benefits (likely tens of millions of dollars of benefits), come at the expense of, well, a well-balanced humanity.

There appear to be no young Bobby Fischers in the bunch.

The Killer Bees roster is not short on balance. Young Shawn Green has chess tournaments, Young Frank Thomas has guitar recitals, half-a dozen more have soccer practices; all of them, it seems, have Pokémon in their lives. This is an extracurricular world, and Little League coaches are just living it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an essay on the mechanics of coaching: “This post is not about building character,” I wrote, “this is about building baseball players.” Well this post is about character, I suppose. Character is not something that can be coached – unless you are willing to engage in absurdities, which we are not. Character is something that goes far beyond what Little League coaches who see these kids only a few hours a week are capable of. So how do we address it?

First off, the way to address character is not by teaching it. Little League is not Sunday school. Our job is not moral instruction. By third and fourth grade, these kids have an idea of right and wrong. They know how to listen to their coaches and they know not to hit each other in the head with the baseball bats. That said, character is not something to ignore completely.

As coaches, we try to se a good example and encourage positive behavior. We try to be fair and consistent with the kids, we try to keep our swearing in check. And we try to commend them for cheering one another on, and supporting one another when things go wrong. But beyond that, how do we address it? How do we fulfill our league-assigned duty as Double Goal Coaches? The lines of sportsmanship are blurry, as we discussed after last week’s post on getting blown out. We want to foster a desire to succeed, partly so the kids will learn to cope with both victory and defeat (there is no avoiding failure in baseball). But we also want to teach perspective.

Of course perspective is easy when baseball is just one of a dozen activities every week. These are the joys of the short attention span. We won a very close, exciting game last week. For five innings, the Killer Bees were locked in. They knew the score, they knew the outs, they even knew the counts. But five minutes after snack was handed out, it was on to piano lessons, on to Pokémon, on to play dates. Win or lose, home run or strike out, it’s the same story.

There are no Bryce Harpers on this team. Nobody cries, nobody taunts, nobody hits 450 foot line drives. We are more easily distracted than easily set off, more oblivious than we are anxious. The Killer Bees, it turns out, are populated by a bunch of Doug Glanville and Ross Ohlendorf and Bernie Williams types. It turns out that we resemble Joe Mauer – a multi-sport superstar in high school and amateur musician –more than Bryce Harper.

Mauer’s well-roundedness has always struck me as a result of his varied interests, his awareness of the fact that the cliché is true: it’s only a game. Unfortunately, there are not, as Neyer points out, many Joe Mauers in the world of baseball. Perhaps that’s why displays that people playing baseball are more than ballplayers come as a pleasant surprise to me. Perhaps that’s also why I’ve been so surprised by the character of the Killer Bees.

The credit for this, of course, goes to the team’s parents and schoolteachers and other more durable adult role models. They are the ones who instill balance. For us, coaching character is as easy as instinct. Tell them they did a good job. Remind them that winning is no big deal, don’t worry about the score. The rest of it is taken care of by the sum of all their other experiences. It’s taken care of in the places where a kid like Harper may not have spent enough time. It’s taken care of at soccer games, at guitar practice, at chess club, and at the dinner table.

5 Responses to “Bryce Harpers and Joe Mauers”

  • By virtue of being in a leadership position with these kids, isn’t it impossible to avoid “moral instruction”? It’s just that your own character, as you say, is as easy as instinct. You don’t have to remember to teach it, as with teaching a kid to keep his head down while swinging, because you live it.

  • In a way, I suppose we reinforce it. But these kids enter Little League far more developed in their moral skillset than their baseball skillset. So while we may have to instruct them which base to throw to, or like you said to keep their heads down, we rarely have to instruct them what the difference is between right and wrong. It’s less teaching and more maintaining, I guess.

  • You say character is not taught, so you are saying it’s completely a question of a child’s nature? My personal belief is that character lies on the continuum of nature and nurture: that each person has DNA guiding their actions, but also the observances of the world around them. A kid doesn’t learn right from wrong without someone, at some point or at many points in their life, instructing or guiding them with what is right or wrong. And isn’t character a measure of how one reacts to a situation or lives their life or treats other people? And don’t we learn these traits as youngsters by observing how other people (parents, teachers, coaches) treat or interact with each other, and then choosing the way we want to treat or interact with others?

  • Let me preface this by saying I am nowhere near a parent. I wasn’t saying that character is a questioned of nature. I was saying that it I think that morality is absorbed passively as opposed to actively.

  • Nice post. As a sometime teacher of at-risk and high-risk kids, you’re exactly right. Even the “trouble-makers” of society generally have a good sense of right and wrong, and don’t want to do things to hurt others. Rather, a lot of them have been put in situations where they don’t have any good options, and have been consequentially punished for struggling to deal with those situations calmly and maturely.

    I think a lot of teaching character comes from providing kids a chance to succeed, not in stark terms like winning or losing baseball games, but in playing hard, in throwing to the right base the next time after doing it wrong the time before, in gracefully accepting hitting 7 instead of 4. You’re not teaching or even reinforcing morality, per se, in any of those situations. Rather, you’re giving kids a chance to show to themselves and others that they can handle adversity (and to a 8-year-old, being benched is big-time adversity) and respond to it constructively. That’s a skill that goes way beyond the baseball field, the soccer field, the chess tournament, or the band practice.

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