In the spring of 1969, I signed up for Little League baseball as a nine-year-old, which back in those days, was the earliest a kid could play for an organized team. I thought I was ready to compete in the 9-12-year-old league, but it was not meant to be.
I wanted to put on the 'tools of ignorance,' but the catching position was manned by a pair of siblings, ages 12 and 10, respectively. Rod and Conrad played 100% of the games behind the dish, while I was 'stuck' at second base or right field; the latter would be known as the spot to place the worst kids on the team.
After a season with a batting average of less than .100 (go ahead and laugh), I was determined to come back the following year and have people compare me to Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, who was my idol. I was also a huge fan of first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who played for the Giants, Cardinals, and Braves back in the late 60s/early 70s.
So, during my 10-y-o season, I beat out Conrad for the starting catcher job for VFW Post 2534 and made the All-Star team. I repeated that honor for the next two years and for the two seasons that I played Senior League.
What made the difference between the nine-year-old that could barely catch a ball and a ten-year-old that was the best catcher in the league?
Practice, and lots of it.
My buddy Dave would throw dozens of pitches to me every day, and we would both become proficient at our respective crafts. He would learn to throw a curve ball that no one could hit and would strike out double-digit batters every six-inning game that we played.
That summer, and for the next few years, we had a group of 8-10 kids that would play baseball every day between May and October. John and Mike's parents owned a plot of land that was basically three lots' wide. The house was in the middle, and two ballfields were carved out on either side.
No, they weren't official ball diamonds, and ground-rule doubles were called on every other play. But the key is that we played, and had fun, and with nary a coach or adult in sight.
Ironically, when I was 12, a 'bird-dog' scout for the Cincinnati Reds watched one of my games and talked to me afterward.
'Who's your favorite player?' he asked.
'Johnny Bench,' was my reply.
'Keep it up, and you might follow in his footsteps,' the scout said with a smile.
The 12-year-old played for a few more years and then decided that partying was more important than playing sports.
But that is not the point.
Back in the 70s, kids played sports every day because they loved to do so and didn't need coaches to guide them every step of the way. We improved our skills by working at them every day; no one needed to push us.
It was only after we reached junior high or high school that the additional coaching helped us to become more proficient at the game we loved.
Did we have fun playing sports as kids? Hell yeah.
But the fact that adults let us play and learn before becoming our mentors was key into allowing us to having a life-long love affair with the games we loved to play.
Today, coaches want to get involved with the kids as early as five or six years old.
How much fun can it be for a little kid when the game is more like work to them than a game?