Friday, November 08, 2013

Team Sports and the Mahopac Sports Association

Me, MSA rookie, 1977 at Lakeview School in Mahopac, NY, in the days before they gave out uniform pants.
A few days ago, over on the blog at the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Pearlman wrote a fascinating piece called "Why I Don't Want My Kids to Play Team Sports." It broke down his frustration with the way his brother wast treated in the Mahopac Sports Association in 1982, and the overall culture of youth team sports.

I won't minimize his take at all. It sounds like his brother, while probably not a talented athlete, was mistreated by an unfortunate coach.  Yes indeed, sports (and literally anything else in life) can have a bad impact on confidence and self-esteem.

Now let me tell you about a no-glove, no-hit kid from those same streets, albeit from the other side of town. While talent was an issue, heart, they say, was not. He'd run through a wall for you. Tell him to squeeze? He'd gulp, say "Who? Me?" and then do it.

His confidence could also be as fragile as a floppy slice of pizza from any of Mahopac's fine establishments.

There were times when he, too, had to ride the pine, waiting for his appointed chance. But he showed up to every game. He made it to every practice. He loved the uniform. Loved getting his number.

He tried to wear 2 a lot because his boyhood idol wore that in his later years.

I mean, it's a layup (wrong sports metaphor) of course that I'm talking about me.

I played in MSA for 11 years and hold those memories very close to my heart. I can tell you the highs and lows. I can tell you about my colt league season (my second year in MSA) when I couldn't see the ball and hit a robust .000.

That's right. Then I got glasses and never had the problem again, with my father promising to buy me a custom-made T-shirt as soon as I got my first hit of the next year. He made good on it, too, taking me to Tom Kat in Mahopac (in the old Grand Union grocery store) and we made a fake Yankees road uniform with "New York" across the front and my number 55 across the back.

I still have my trophies, because everybody didn't get one back then.

I can tell you in that same hitless colt league season, I took a called third strike to end a game. In an utter flood of tears, I promised I would never let that happen again.

I didn't. I developed a better sense of the strike zone, which made me a good top of the lineup guy because I walked a lot.

In a total state of fear (not the best way to survive), I always found a way to not make the last out. And I certainly didn't take a called third strike.

Yes, I could regale you with other great and not-so-great memories. Stealing home to win a game. Throwing runners out from right field at third. Making scoop plays and falling in love with playing first base when we needed somebody at that position.

I could take you - in detail - through the 1986 championship game, and how I scored the winning run.

I could tell you about the great friends I made, and the athletes I played against (including eventual Seattle Mariner Dave Fleming).

I could go on about my undying love and respect for Lou D'Aliso, the coach who had me on his team for seven of those 11 years, and never had to keep me. I still talk to Mrs. D all the time, and am trying to get together with the great coach, who was often a mentor for me.

Letting him down was like failing my dad. Slamming my glove down after a season-opening error earned me a quick talking to, because Coach D expected me to be a leader.

It was devastating, and it didn't happen again.

It wasn't a perfect experience. Goodness, no. But I loved it enough that when it came time for Sean to give baseball a try, I jumped in feet first and coached him for five years in Carmel. We both loved it.

Maybe it's more about the love of the game with me, and that why my MSA experience was such a positive one.

I encourage children to play team sports. I know, there's a nasty, ugly side to youth sports, but at its core, it should be about learning sportsmanship and developing the skills to play the game. They should be led by good, honorable people with no agenda, but that's simply a myopic view. For every Coach D, there's also the guy that Jeff profiles in his story.

In reality, and I've said that too many times, it's the adults who ruin the kids' fun. A bad coach. An overzealous administrator. Parents. Fans.

Its not perfect. Heck, what is?

But let's put it this way: On my bookcase is a framed picture that was given to me back in 1986. It's a team picture of Mahopac Towing, in our royal blue T-shirts (I was number 7). We're standing in front of the side of what was then-known as Mahopac Junior High School (now Mahopac Middle School). I can't identify everyone, but in that picture are me, Frank Viggiano, Steve Adamec, Ralph D'Aliso, and a bunch of other friends and teammates.

I haven't seen many of them since we left school, but I still have that picture. I still have the trophies. I still have the memories.

I wasn't a good athlete. But I had a wonderful experience in MSA.

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