All Star Mania – The Best of The Best, With Some Worst Thrown In

“It’s all about the All Stars.”

It’s the sort of proclamation you’d expect to hear from Fox Sports baseball announcers Jack Buck or Tim McCarver during their coverage of the MLB All Star game. Each year around this same time in early July, baseball mania reaches a fever pitch, as the best baseball players – arguably, in the world – come together for two days to entertain fans with 450 ft. home runs, 100 mph fastballs and two dream teams comprised of the brightest young stars of the future playing alongside the biggest names of the past 20 years.

The All Star baseball stage is a unique one in all of professional sports, if for no other reason than it’s the only venue which gets to enjoy the sports spotlight in the absence of any other competing sports events. With basketball and hockey seasons mothballed for the summer, and football still several weeks shy of training camp, All Star baseball is the only professional game in town for sports enthusiasts in early July. Even Major League Baseball itself shuts down for almost a full week to acknowledge and shine a light on its own event. Thus for this brief period each year, it truly is all about the All Stars. But that’s not where I heard that statement.

Little Leagues, Big Expectations

If you’ve ever coached Little League baseball, as I have for many years, you’d be familiar with the annual process of “drafting” teams. Before the beginning of each season a group of presumably well-intentioned volunteer coaches – aka parents – meet at their local recreation hall after work and pick team rosters from a general list of enrolled players. I have found that it can be a stressful experience since I’ve usually entered this meeting with a few personal goals in mind: 1) I need to draft my kid’s best friend, 2) I need to make sure I remember to draft my own kid, 3) I need to draft a kid whose dad is known to help out, 4) I need to avoid drafting the rambunctious kid, 5) I need to avoid drafting the kid whose parents are jerks, and 6) It would be nice to draft at least one kid capable of throwing a few strikes. The game is less painful when we keep walks-per-inning under 10.

Fortunately, my own personal experience with “draft night” hasn’t been all that bad. I’ve seen the occasional disagreement over the selection of players (e.g., “Mrs. Smith asked me to pick Johnny, so we can car pool together.” Oh, are you sure it has nothing to do with Johnny being 5’11” and throwing 72 mph fastballs?). But for the most part the meetings were uneventful and just terribly long.

But I remember one specific draft night, which was attended and coordinated by one of our town’s Little League Committee members. At the end of the three-hour meeting, as we were exiting the conference room and still joking about who had picked whom, this committee member leaned over to me and whispered, “These regular season drafts don’t mean anything anyway. It’s all about the All Stars.” Bingo.

The Boys of Summer

As big as the MLB All Star extravaganza is, the Little League All Star season creates a mania that’s, quite literally, in a league all its own. The media attention and commercialism surrounding the Little League All Stars is unrivaled in youth sports. The Little League website even termed it, “one of the summer’s most popular sporting events.” And they may be justified in stoking the publicity with that claim. After all, Little League and ESPN are in the 6th year of an 8-year contract that will televise 66 games on either ESPN or ABC in August. Those are pretty big stakes, especially for a bunch of 11-and-12-year-old kids playing America’s pastime.

So it’s no wonder that in small towns and hamlets all across America, the mania begins in earnest several months earlier when some of the more overzealous “coaches” – dads – are already entertaining visions of ESPN grandeur even before the first child has been assigned to a roster for the regular season; a roster, by the way, that’s filled predominantly with kids who will never even think about their town’s All Star teams, let alone play on one.

If any of your town’s youth sports organizations are managed by a mentality that believes “it’s all about the All Stars,” or that equivalent thinking, then it’s time to advocate a change in that group’s leadership. To say “it’s all about the All Stars” is to say it’s all about a few kids, and not all of the kids. And this flies in the face of what the experts and prevailing wisdom on youth sports suggest, which is that below age 14, it should be all about inclusion and fun.

Two All Star Games – One Blowout, One Blowup

This year’s MLB All Star game was played in Kansas City on July 10th. That game ended in a blowout with the National League winning 8 to 0. Ironically, on that very same day, another All Star game was played in Columbus, Georgia between two Little League teams vying to advance in the tournament. That game ended with parents arguing, then starting a fistfight, and then two dads being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. I guess to them, it was truly “all about the All Stars.” A little too much so.

The lesson for us all here should speak for itself. No, the majority of us are not so overzealous and unrestrained that we end up punching out the opponent’s parents at a Little League All Star game. But even the most restrained of us is probably dangerously close to losing perspective as we try and enjoy our child’s participation in youth sports. So just remember, even when you’re watching the Little League World series on ABC this August, youth sports should never be “all about the All Stars.”