There is much resistance to this. When people tell me I am wrong to say that all high school students should be allowed into Advanced Placement courses, their favorite argument is: “Not everyone can play on the school teams.” Sports such as football, basketball, baseball, softball, swimming and track are so competitive, because of the lure of college scholarships and other factors, that 14-year-old participants are pressured to choose just one and play it all year.
The two- or three-sport athlete, common when I was in high school, has become one more of grandpa’s boring stories about the old days.
There is still hope. High schools are experiencing a surge of teams in which students with and without disabilities play together. Those activities have many different labels: adapted sports, allied sports, unified sports. They are open to anyone who wants to play and have fun. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the most popular sports in this category are basketball, bowling, soccer and track.
Many rural and urban high schools let anybody sign up for the traditional sports. In many cases, such schools strain to recruit enough players to fill a roster. They may cut kids who misbehave, but not if they just don’t play well.
It is in the suburbs, where I live, that some students who would like to wear the school uniform are told they aren’t good enough. The suburbs are also where Little League is strongest, in part because of its open-to-all traditions and some rules that I didn’t understand until I saw how they worked in games.
Pitch-count limits and runs-per-inning limits may offend purists, but they reduce the chances of games between mismatched teams becoming massacres. The most talented pitchers can’t take over a game. In the South Pasadena Little League, they must shift to another position after three dozen pitches or so, or they’ll lose a chance to pitch again soon. In the 10- and 8-year-old leagues I have been watching, a team cannot score more than five runs in an inning. New innings can’t begin after 75 minutes of play for 8-year-olds and 90 minutes for 10-year-olds.
I saw one undersized 10-year-old strike out the first three batters he faced on nine pitches. We fans applauded, but we knew his appearances would have to be limited or nobody would get any hits. He didn’t mind. He liked trying out other positions and giving a chance to friends who similarly saw themselves as future Clayton Kershaws.
Younger and less experienced players were often clumsy, but they learned and contributed. I watched the smallest and youngest player on one team slowly figure out how to get walks and score some runs.
Kids such as him love practice. They get to catch, run and throw with no pressure. Batting is particularly popular. They hit easy pitches from coaches. Then they go to the batting cages, in our area located outdoors next to a dog park. They focus intently on hitting hard tosses from two machines, one named Drysdale and the other Valenzuela.
Good coaches understand the joy of practice and wearing the uniform, even if playing time is limited. John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., won more games — 489 — than any college football coach. He earned four national championships. He never cut anybody. Research indicates sports participation enhances leadership, time management and other skills useful in college and the workplace.
Among those youth sports organizations with an open-to-all philosophy, none have been around as long as Little League. It was founded in 1939 by an oil company clerk who had lost his job and did not want any families to have to pay to participate. That Little League rule still stands: “At no time should payment of any fee be a prerequisite for participation in any level of the Little League program.” Fees can be requested, the rule book says, but “it is recommended that no fee be collected.”
That, sadly, is not what happens in most Little Leagues. Many high schools also ask parents to pay for extracurricular activities. I sense that schools will not demand fees from families that can’t afford them, but the issue troubles people who want youth sports to be for everybody.
Joe, like his parents, became a journalist. He wrote a piece in 2008 based on his examination of registration forms from more than 400 Little League organizations. “I found only a handful of leagues that do not charge a fee,” he wrote. “Most of the fees were around $100. I could not find a single registration form disclosing the fact that a fee was optional. Several suggested the fee was mandatory.”
Solving this problem is hard because paying fees is a private matter. But it would be nice if more people in charge of youth and school teams realized that play can be a meaningful learning experience. Not letting eager children participate makes little sense.