In Sports Commentary

Looking back at the journey through youth sports.

Youth sports: Boys to men and back again

Hard to believe it's been almost 13 years since I wrote an OnMilwaukee column about my early experiences with local organized youth sports, when our boys were ages nine, seven and five at the time.

With our oldest son now 22, having just played his final "organized" football game for the UW-Whitewater Warhawks, I figure it's a good time to reflect on the youth sports journey that will always remain part of our lives and family experience. Fortunately, our young men will keep playing in adult sports leagues in baseball, rugby and ultimate Frisbee. Heck, my 85-year-old dad still watches his 54-year-old son play baseball at The Rock.

Back in 2004, I noted examples of big name homegrown athletes like Devin Harris, Michael Bennett, Skip Kendall, Chris Witty and Craig Counsell. While Harris still plays in the NBA and Counsell is managing the Brewers (more on that later), the others are either living overseas, still competing and had their share of legal troubles.

Since that time, we've seen others like Steve Novak, JJ Watt, Joel Stave, DeAndre Levy and Jordan Niebrugge progress to the pros. While I coached a player chosen in the MLB draft this year and have seen other high level athletes play youth sports, most kids don't make it that far, and some don't even play in high school.

I think that's one of the most important things to keep in mind when your kids are playing sports. No matter how good or how much potential a player might have in grade school, there's no guarantee they will eventually be playing at a high level – or even playing at all. Conversely, I've seen kids you would never think would be even decent athletes as little kids grow and mature into outstanding college and high school careers. The "Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team" story might seem cliché, but it's reflects an important real life lesson.

I also noted how organized youth sports were increasing in popularity and competitiveness, especially in the Milwaukee area. That is one aspect that has probably progressed too far in some ways. I helped start a youth baseball program in Wauwatosa in 2007 that is now flourishing with several tournament teams. The downside of that is that some kids who might be better served playing more at a lower level play less on the more competitive teams. I also dislike the trend of making ballplayers compete on larger fields with base stealing and balks at increasingly younger ages.

Personally, I've seen the best and worst of parents, but I mostly really enjoy the community connections we've made through youth sports. Getting to know people and follow teams on both the west and east sides of Wauwatosa has been extremely enjoyable. While there are strong rivalries between schools in communities like Tosa, Brookfield, West Allis or Waukesha, most families know each other and keep things friendly. One east side Tosa family will always be remembered for taking their post-game snacks to a level worthy of a cable-TV gourmet cooking show.

In a Milwaukee community often considered strongly segregated, youth sports provided our family and others the chance to break some barriers. Our North Central Little League experience was not only outstanding from the baseball aspect, but also very racially diverse. We played most of our games in city neighborhoods where the kids and families are the nicest and most hard-working anywhere. We also can't say how much we enjoyed playing games with the Beckum-Stapleton Little League, which has done wonderful work at its fields on 9th and Brown for more than 50 years.

Even with three boys, we've enjoyed the chance to support many girls' youth sports through our friends' daughters and their softball, basketball, volleyball or soccer leagues. I've started umping girls' softball games, which I thoroughly enjoy (even though I'd rather see girls playing baseball). While helping coach freshman high school baseball this summer, I saw a girl playing for one of the suburban high schools. She did a fine job and was accepted by the boys, which was great to see.

But getting back to Counsell. I had an experience while umping a local youth baseball tournament with my son a couple years ago that I'll never forget. While discussing a disputed call, the manager brought one of his coaches out of the dugout. The assistant coach was Counsell, who very politely and somewhat reluctantly made his points and walked back to the dugout. We didn't change our call, but it's nice to say we argued a call with a future major league manager.

While parents and coaches like me have made our share of mistakes at our kids' games over the years, the most satisfying moments are when an older kid or adult says that you did things "the right way," or that you actually made a difference in their lives when they were young.

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