Let’s face it: No one ever picked up a copy of “The Age of Innocence” and thought it a tale about Edith Wharton’s views on Little League. Youth baseball has long since transformed from an industry promoting purity to a high-tech business of commercialism and imperious parental expectations, the best examples being an annual World Series that ABC and ESPN spends millions of dollars to broadcast and coaches who overmanage kids more than Tony La Russa does the Cardinals.
They’re giving signs from third base to 8-year-olds now, which would really seem insane if we didn’t know there will be some TV producer in Williamsport, Pa., this summer demanding a sixth camera angle on Little Johnny after he strikes out and begins to cry.
But for as much as Little League’s virtue has faded, there still exists few better places to educate than those neatly lined basepaths on Saturday mornings. The sad part is, the extent of teaching used to confine itself to not throwing bats and helmets and not visiting the snack bar until a game’s final out.
It’s different now.
Barry Bonds and his historic chase have seen to it.
It’s one of the topics rarely raised as Bonds continues his notorious journey toward passing Hank Aaron’s major league home run record, this question of how to respond when children seek counsel on the Giants star and performance-enhancing drugs and the fuss being stirred each time he inches closer to 755.
It’s a touchy topic for many in youth baseball. The “S- word.”
“It’s difficult,” said Art Murtha, a Summerlin North Little League board member whose son, Joshua, plays in the majors division. “I don’t even know how I feel about it. The (home run record) is a tremendous accomplishment. Did he do steroids? I think so. But it has transitioned itself into a discussion with our kids, which is really important. We talk a lot about it, about how steroids help you and, more importantly, how they hurt you.
“My son is a baseball fan. He appreciates the feat Barry Bonds is chasing and the amount of hard work it takes to get there. I just don’t think he’s a big Barry Bonds fan.”
Kids are constantly reminded who the best athletes are and what they look like, which has pushed more and more in middle school and high school to experiment with steroids in hopes of beating out the person in front of them on the depth chart.
But the earlier education begins, the better our chances of preventing such harmful truths becoming more tightly linked to children and sports.
Adam Lychuk is 10 and took one for the team Saturday. Took one right off the helmet at a Summerlin North AA playoff game. Took one off the helmet and eventually scored the winning run for his Defenders II team, which beat the Muckdogs, 7-6. His father is an assistant coach.
“I’ve talked to him about (Bonds),” Paul Lychuk said. “We’ve talked about decisions and choices we make and the long-term effects of them. We’ve talked about just because other people are doing something, that doesn’t make it right. At his age, that’s something you can still teach.
“I’ve talked to him about a place in time when players were making decisions that weren’t the best, that Barry Bonds has still been a great player and has had a great career, but his decisions will stay with him forever, whether it is proven or he admits it. Either way, it’s going to put a damper on and tarnish (the record).
“I’ve told him that whether you look at it from a faith point of view in terms of forgiveness or a professional one in terms of being responsible for your decisions in life, these things will always affect how you are perceived.”
This is called a parent who gets it.
Baseball has changed forever. Its image is eternally stained. But whether or not Aaron or Bud Selig are in attendance when Bonds finally stands as the new home run king or whether the accomplishment is more celebrated or criticized are immediate issues whose significance will quickly pass.
You can’t say the same for how we answer questions about it from impressionable minds. They matter most.
“I hope Barry Bonds breaks the record,” Adam Lychuk said. “He’s a really good player. I think he probably took steroids … but I just like him a lot.”
Sometimes, you see that innocence from Little League again and wonder why it can’t be that way all the time. Then you see the manager giving an 8-year-old signs from third base.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS