We, as Americans, like to believe we’re in a meritocratic society, one where gumption, skill, and diligence can compensate for all but the most grievous errors of caprice and circumstance.
And, as such, this is troubling.
Jericho Scott is a nine-year-old who throws a baseball 40 miles per hour. Chances are, excepting Latarian Milton, he’s the only person of that age who can manipulate a body other than phlegm with that kind of velocity.
And, given that fact, I’ll bet that baseball is a lot of fun for him. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be the kid in Little League who could blow away anyone who dared step into the batter’s box, a living, breathing Kelly Leak or a legitimate Danny Almonte?
Well, now Jericho doesn’t want to be that kid.
The controversy bothers Jericho, who says he misses pitching.
“I feel sad,” he said. “I feel like it’s all my fault nobody could play.”
It’s because of, as far as I can tell, a combination of complicated Little League politics and the continual coddling of a nation of youngsters who we expect to compete with the world at large in the classroom and the workforce but will not let compete unfettered on fields of play.
There’s a mention in the story of Jericho being banned because he didn’t want to join the defending league champions, sponsored by the employer of a league administrator. If so, and it’s plausible, it’s sickening that adults would dictate the jersey a preteen child wears to pitch for what seem to be either marketing- or chest-thumping-based reasons.
But there’s also the problem of speed. Though there’s no record of Jericho plunking a batter, either unintentionally or intentionally, the league attorney, Peter Noble, cites other parents’ needs for their kids to be protected from speed:
“He is a very skilled player, a very hard thrower,” Noble said. “There are a lot of beginners. This is not a high-powered league. This is a developmental league whose main purpose is to promote the sport.”
Noble acknowledged that Jericho had not beaned any batters in the co-ed league of 8- to 10-year-olds, but say parents expressed safety concerns.
“Facing that kind of speed” is frightening for beginning players, Noble said.
But the defining quote of the story comes from Scott’s mother.
“I think it’s discouraging when you’re telling a 9-year-old you’re too good at something,” said his mother, Nicole Scott. “The whole objective in life is to find something you’re good at and stick with it. I’d rather he spend all his time on the baseball field than idolizing someone standing on the street corner.”
She nails, in that paragraph, the point of recreational sports for kids, and the point of talent.
The examples laid out in literature and cinema depict grim dystopias where talent is squelched. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” puts the eponymous character in shackles of scrap metal and freights beautiful ballerinas with masks and sandbags. Pixar’s “The Incredibles” features a superhero family who must assume their roles as the Parr clan to live out their days after the world turns on its defenders.
These two examples, certainly, give themselves fine moments for the protagonists, in Harrison’s dramatic aerial duet with the ballerina and the Incredibles’ team effort to stymie Syndrome, but it’s worth noting that neither comes without a cost. (I won’t ruin either story, but feel free to find out on your own.)
But I’ve got my own example: myself.
When I was a gangly eight-year-old, I expressed interest in and joined a recreational soccer league. I ran and kicked and did all the fun things eight-year-olds’ soccer permits one to do. My team went undefeated in our league that year; the next, because of age rules, half the core moved up, and half on to another team, which recorded a 6-2-2 mark, if memory serves.
The next year, it was closer to a .500 venture; the year after, there was a slight uptick to whatever qualified us for postseason play. In my final season, which I played mostly in net, we went winless and scored fewer goals than we played games.
Over that time, I played in blistering heat, the muddy remnants of hurricanes, late fall Florida cold snaps, and driving, biting rain.
I practiced no fewer than a hundred times, ran countless miles, made innumerable saves, and whiffed on more than one potential goal in the box.
I scored four goals, including one hat trick given to me by divine mercy. (Okay, it was Divine Mercy; they weren’t very good that year.) I made saves that made crowds cheer, never the most technically sound keeper, but usually fearless enough to make up for it. I dogged offensive players and protected the back line with every part of my body I could coordinate to throw into a tackle.
One season, I fractured both bones in my left arm and wore a cast for six weeks. My ankles, I’m sure, still haven’t recovered from the dozens of unnatural twists they took. I played one game with a knee swollen from fire ant bites, the result of my youthful exuberance in retrieving a ball by kneeling in what I did not recognize was a colony. I remember letting one ball roll through my legs into the net, while no one was within 20 feet of me.
But the seminal, final memory of my soccer career pops up all the time.
Perhaps it had something to do with it being my final game and having a vague sense of leaving a legacy. It’s possible it was a product of being on the road, 45 minutes from home, and trying to prove something in front of a partisan crowd cheering on their team on a field baked to a crisp by the noontime Florida sun. And I would guess it was partly inspired by my want to impress my then-girlfriend, who saw me play soccer for the first and only time that day.
But in my final game in that red jersey with the black flames on the sleeves, I played the game of my life in goal, getting my talent-challenged squad to halftime with the score tied by sheer dint of will; in the second, despite having my bare hand (I played without gloves) stomped by another 13-year-old about as big as I was, I parried more difficult shots than I had all year, exhorting my team from the back line and pushing the ball up for counter-attacks with quick, precise throws, and we scored again, which made our loss sound close when we told our parents later that afternoon.
After the game, after one last lap to slap hands with the fans, my coach made a point of telling my team how well I’d played. So did the other team’s coach. So did some of the other team’s players. So did some of the spectators from both sides.
It was an inspired performance, and those were gratifying compliments; the experience is something no one can ever take from me.
What has happened in New Haven endangers that moment not just for Jericho Scott, but every child in that Little League, and every child who plays recreational sports.
If we prevent Jericho from playing, we disservice a child who just wants to play baseball and a mother who loves to watch her child excel. But we also cheapen the seasons of every other helmeted tyro who wants a piece of Jericho’s fireball; we, by trying to level the playing field and keep kids safe, reinforce a growing culture of protectivism and prevent what teaching and learning can be done when up against towering odds, or in the wake of a loss.
There’s a kid in that league who won’t be able to prevent a Jericho Scott no-no as the last hitter in the final frame. Maybe he’ll face that blur and not quite get his sweet spot on the ball; maybe it’ll tip, and he’ll step back in with an 0-2 count and wave at that last pitch of the game.
And maybe he’ll be just like Matthew Cerda in ten years. Maybe he won’t.
Either way, he will be fine.
I was never going to set the world on fire as a rec soccer player. I wasn’t ever fast enough to play midfield, strong enough to play backline, or agile enough to be a great keeper, and I was, and still am, terrible with my left foot.
But I wouldn’t trade one single second of it for anything. I cherish those memories, of just being able to be who I was, a smart kid on a soccer team who could play well positionally, had no problem shouldering or shadowing big players, and could make both teammates and coaches crack up with well-timed one-liners to the sidelines.
I had fun.
And, without knowing it then, I learned from that fun.
I learned how to celebrate in moderation, how to lose with dignity, how to work with other people towards a common goal and how to take pride in my individual effort. I learned how to make friends, how to support the unsteady and deflate the haughty.
Though it should be pointed out this was largely reinforcement of the skills my parents taught me, it still set in place habits I have to this day, and it gave me a physical activity I enjoy and can use to exercise while having fun. I gained more from what I thought was just a diversion from school than I did from most books.
And so, I know what the solution is. I know it’s not even difficult.
Let them play. Let them all play.