My good friend Chris Jackson, who, like me, has a son on the Fairfield National Little League 11U team (11U stands for kids age 11 and under), likes to needle me for constantly sniffing around for the dark side of this story: some hidden cost that’s secretly accruing, like an invisible toxic cloud, welling up inside a kids’ sports story that would otherwise seem too good to be true.
Stop looking for the pathos, Chris tells me. Sometimes a good thing can just be a good thing.
I’m looking for the downside because this Little League team’s astonishing summer season - their dominating blast through the state of Connecticut, then a pancaking of the rest of New England, and finally, this Sunday, besting Pennsylvania 7-3 to claim the championship of the entire Eastern seaboard, from Maine on down to Maryland…this story seems to be not only a good thing, but the best thing, a story with literally no downside, where the best-tasting ice cream you’ve ever had in your life is somehow fat- and sugar- free.
I’ve worked in sports television for over 25 years, which means that I deal day-to-day in sports’ darker truths: the exploitation, the concussions, the PED’s of it all. So when I see a sports story that seems to be painted exclusively in the sun-dappled colors of apple-pie Americana, my instinct is to squint at it, and look for the hidden damage. A story with no downside usually means I’m not getting the full story.
Let me now turn all that on its head. It is precisely because I come to these Little League sidelines somewhat cynically, semi-expecting these kids to be secretly miserable, browbeaten into uniform by overzealous parents, or pushed to the brink by coaches who are just a little bit too intense…I am happy, relieved, and even a little bit bewildered to report that in fact the opposite is true. What I have seen (and I have put in the time on this story, people), every minute of every day, is a group of kids who would rather be on this baseball team with each other than anywhere else on earth.
I can’t really stress that point enough. Some of these boys are a bit more neurotic than others; some are tougher on themselves after a strikeout or booted grounder. But for every single one of these eleven boys, from dropoff to pickup, this baseball team has been not just their happy place, but their euphoric place. They play for hours and hours, every single day. And I don’t mean practice. I mean play, in the very best sense of what may very well be the very best word. They play, all day every day, not because they are told to, but because they leap to it; unconscious; aglow.
There is even (I could be imagining this, but I don’t think I am) a sense of perspective within these little grass-stained kids. They understand that this moment is fleeting. They know that this team is not to be taken for granted. Somehow, gratitude is baked into their joy. They inhale every second they can get with each other. They pester us to get dropped off early, and they beg us to be picked up late. Just a couple more pitches; just another half-inning. They carpe every last MFing diem. Their resting facial expression on these fields is exactly as you see in these pictures. Not just after winning the title, but constantly, in the little moments, velcro-ing on their gear, or yapping in the dugout: that wide, hanging-jaw, dog-on-the-beach smile, running after a tennis ball, on the precipice of a laugh all day. Throw me another one! Come on! One more!
And not because someone is telling them to. Their parents - far from being red-faced Friday-Night-Lights-y psycho hollerers, pushing their kids towards some unattainable asymptote of perfection…swear to God y’all, these parents are just there, doing the munching popcorn meme, watching their kids do the thing they love most in the world. I’m telling you, if there were even a single parent on this team who were actually, even secretly, kind of a dick to his kid, that parent would have been excommunicated a long time ago: dressed down, cast out. Hasn’t happened. These parents coax and cheer and chauffeur their asses off, and they are all guilty of spending a criminal amount of money on single-use plastic beverage bottles (myself included). But they are not stage parents. They do not set the bar for their kids’ sky-high standard of play. They bear witness to it.
Which brings me to the coaches. Surely these are the heavies of this story, right? Sure these three guys - Jason Takacs, Dave Dobbs, and Mike Bertot - are actually kind of messed up inside, closet hardasses with daddy issues working out their own personal bullshit on our kids’ hides, right?
I’ve been looking for it, I promise. I come from a family of kid-coddling, psychologist/pediatrician, sunstrokey indoor Hebrews. We are an anxious, swarthy tribe, genetically engineered to overprotect our kids from even a semi-challenging breeze. But I have seen nothing - nothing - from these coaches except the stuff you want most from the people you leave your children with all day.
All I've seen is patience. Kindness. A good sense of humor. There - Is - No - Anger. Ever. Zero, none, period. Instead of agita, what these coaches give our kids is a perpetual sense of perspective, a bone-deep behavioral calm, passed on in each and every exchange with each and every kid. You will work hard here, but when the day is done, it’s all over, and it’s all good. This time we had together today was a blessing, and now it’s time to go home.
These three groups of Fairfielders - kids, parents, and coaches - came together this summer to create an experience that has got to be one of the best youth activities happening anywhere in America right now, if not the whole damn world.
That’s some fairly tall hyperbole. And yet I feel strangely confident in stating it as a fact.
How do I know this?
Well, I guess this brings us to the X factor of this story. The part that I haven’t even talked about yet.
The running of the whole damn table; the domination of pretty much everyone we faced.
The state of New York began this season with 13,385 Little League teams. By the middle of last week only one eleven-year-old team was left standing. They were from Great Kills, Staten Island, and they were outstanding: the best that the state of New York had to offer.
Our boys from Fairfield National beat them 9-0. New York never mounted so much as a threat. Our three-hole hitter, Jimmy Dobbs - remember that name - stepped into the batter's box in the fifth inning and crushed a home run with such screaming force that their entire team's body language changed. It was like they had been kicked by a horse. The force of Jimmy's hit was as unfamiliar looking to these New York state champions as a live Tyrannosaurus wandering out of the woods.
Pennsylvania put up 9044 teams this season; Maryland 1670, Rhode Island 1414, Vermont 830. They all sent the best of their best against us.
Fairfield National finished the tournament 5-0 against this run of state champions, outscoring them 43-3.
There’s a whole ‘nother column to be written, if not a short book, about just how scarily good this group of 11-year-old Fairfield boys is at baseball.
Now, part of me wants to say that this story isn’t really about winning. It’s about everything I’ve been going on (and on) about - the kid-led passion and the supportive parents and the perfectly-calibrated coaches and all that jazz.
It’s about the spirit, right? Not the W's and L's.
But let’s face it.
That would kind of be bullshit.
Here’s the truer thing. And there’s no way to write this without sounding like a cliche. But this team, and this summer season, has shown me a deeper sense of what winning really means.
In my work in sports television, I’ve gravitated towards documentaries, instead of producing live games. Why? Because what’s at stake in a documentary is real: real lives, real obstacles.
What’s at stake in a game is sort of pretend. Right? It’s make believe. Who cares, at the end of the day, what some kid swinging a stick does against another kid throwing a ball?
Well, duh: turns out I care. I haven’t really given a damn about the Mets or Jets or any pro or college team since I was a teenager. But I’ve cared about these eleven-year-olds' little game of make believe more than just about anything I’ve ever cared about in my life.
Goes without saying that I'm not alone. These other parents and coaches, let alone the kids themselves, care about this team to the point of being unable to hold another conscious thought in their heads while the game is going on. During these games: there is only the game. Before the first pitch, our stomachs are twisted into knots. When our boys are down, staring up at a serious challenge, it is all we can do to keep our eyes on the field - the staging area of our sons’ totally make-believe conflict. And then, when the heroics come, as they did time and time again this summer, I mean, Jesus Christ, you should have seen these boys, turning double plays with the bases loaded, tripling each other around the basepaths at just the moment the pressure seemed to great to overcome…the emotional release in those moments brings forth a spout of joy unlike just about anything in the world.
What is it about winning that matters so much?
Why is it the fuel that holds this experience together - without which, as difficult as it is to admit, the whole experience falls apart?
Because it’s not the winning we're really rooting for.
It’s the excellence.
We want so badly to see excellence in our children. When we do see it - when we see them demonstrate strength in the face of adversity, when we see them practice something until it gleams - we are provided with one of the deepest, most satisfying, most profound visions that our eyes can deliver to our drooling little animal brains.
That’s the deep, Darwinian root cause of our screaming, savage, sideline joy. To see our children fail; then learn; then rise; and then at that same task succeed...it doesn't matter what the field of play is. That's why it doesn't matter that baseball is only make believe. It can be ballet or spelling or Odyssey of the Mind. It's the cycle of resilience - to see our children begin to understand that the application of courage and persistence to their behavior delivers better outcomes. That's what we live for.
What made these kids so goddamned good at baseball?
It wasn't a blood-lust-y desire to beat the other guy. It was actually their love of the game, and their love of playing with each other, that drove them to a level of greatness that, quite frankly, took them by surprise (as well as the entire East Coast baseball community).
All that love-driven begging to be dropped off early and picked up late...all that love of taking extra grounders and extra rounds of batting practice. It was their perpetual belief in practice as play. That’s what did it.
They turned their love into greatness. A full summer’s worth of love-hours inspired them to bite off a seriously nontrivial chunk of Malcolm Gladwell’s canonical 10,000 hours.
These kids are eleven years old, people. You know what happens when you do something all day every day when you’re eleven? You get really fucking good at it. Teenage John and Paul didn’t play rock and roll for twelve hours a day in Hamburg because they were trying to become famous. They did it because they loved to play.
So, too, did our little Fairfielders. Joy-led and puppy-faced, they played themselves into a euphoric state of excellence that dwarfed - and I mean dwarfed - the state of excellence we saw from the other teams we faced. We were happy that our kids defeated these opponents. But we were euphoric that our kids played with such extraordinary excellence.
The scoreboard - the wins, the titles, the East Coast championship - was an outgrowth of what we all really wanted, which was to see our children pursuing greatness. Which they did, driven by love the whole damn way, which is the real reason this story has no downside. Score one for you, Chris Jackson. Turns out it doesn’t matter what field our children stand on when they aspire to greatness. It doesn't even matter if the game is all pretend. Turns out the pursuit is all.
Fairfield National Little League 11U's East Coast championship is a measurement not of victories, but of effort, an extraordinary, community-wide effort made by every parent, coach, and kid who ever drove a carpool, cut up a watermelon, swung a bat, or stood up and cheered. You all played a part in this effort. You should all be proud.
August 9 2019
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[P.S. Huge kudos to Elena Crosley for taking all these amazing pictures!]