Doug Wolter: Youth sports are big-time for little kids

Cooper Jones, 9, (red shirt) and Elroy Nkashama (7) practice their bat and ball skills in Worthington on a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon. Organized youth sports are on hold, but summer's on the way. (Doug Wolter/The Globe)

I live only 16 miles from Sibley, Iowa, where I received my first organized instruction in Little League baseball. I don’t get back there much, but when I do I typically drive past Sibley’s central park and past the field where I used to play.

That field seems so much smaller now. It’s the way things change when you get old. Everything you thought was big and wonderful when you were 9 looks small when you become an adult.

Why is that? Do familiar places and things shrink as you get older? Or is it because something has happened inside our brains, exchanging our childlike wonder of the world around us with tiresome vapidity?

It happened to me in a dispiriting way last December, in fact, when I returned briefly to the old homestead in Allendorf and found it -- and everything around it -- so small-scale that I actually wondered, for a moment, if I had come to the wrong place. The house itself seemed so much tinier than I had remembered it. The front yard, which used to feel so open and so grand, seemed as if it had been squeezed from all sides into less than half the size I’d recalled it as a kid. Weird.

The old Sibley Little League field is like that, too. Were the bases really that close together? The pitcher’s mound, which seemed so smartly placed when I was in the fifth grade, looks almost on top of the hitter today. When I used to pitch there, it seemed plenty far away, but not far enough away when Mike Weston pitched against us.


Mike Weston. I don’t know what happened to him since high school, but he was a Little League phenom in Sibley. His fastballs whooshed by us like little rockets. We all felt good about ourselves if we could hit a Weston fastball -- anywhere. It was better than striking out.

Steve Wick hit a drive once that bounced across the street into the yard of my friend, Curt Stanton. It was a ground-rule double. It was the longest poke I’d ever seen in Little League, but it doesn’t seem like such a mammoth blast today, 54 years later. That’s because the field has shrunk. Not really. It just seems like it because I am so much older now.

These memories come back to me because it is late April and spring sports is dead because of the coronavirus. I’m thinking ahead to the summer and wondering what will happen with youth sports. A page on the Worthington Area YMCA website tells us that youth sports are still being planned for the summer, and I certainly hope that doesn’t change.

Kids need their summer activities, perhaps especially now that it’s so easy for them to stay indoors and play video games when they should be outside running around with their friends. Children will never know what they’ve missed if they don’t play summer sports. But if they participate, they’ll realize when they get older that they’ve learned valuable lessons there.

When I was a Little Leaguer, I wasn’t thinking about the lessons. I just wanted to play. Playing was more important than anything. Heaven forbid it should rain on a Little League night. If it rained, I was mad. Really mad. It was the worst thing that could happen to me. I thought that the world was going to end.

What a silly kid I was. But it’s important to be active. Maybe some of us adults have forgotten that since we’ve gotten old and so attached to our grown-up lives.

There is a nifty little book I have at home called “The Rules of the Game: Simple Truths Learned from Little League,” written by a former Little League player and coach. Youth sports, the author explains, not surprisingly, is a marvelous teacher of life skills.

Here’s a good excerpt from the book, as the coach recalls a Little League pitcher who is on the wild side. “Suddenly I noticed a flash of white to my left, and I saw Drew’s warm-up pitch hit the fence of the dugout, three feet over Chad’s outstretched glove. I moved silently down the bench, placed a batting helmet on my head, and returned to my seat. I said nothing.”


It reminds me of my very first Little League game. There were two pitchers on our team, myself and this other kid I’d never seen before. He pitched the first game, and he was wild in the way young pitchers often are wild. I recall standing at my shortstop position, fuming. I wanted him to be replaced. By me, naturally.

Alas, our coach made no pitching change. I was, of course, too young and stubborn at the time to understand that our coach wasn’t coaching as much as he was teaching. As it turned out, that wild pitcher became quite good at his craft as the weeks went by.

I must have learned something, too. That fall, I noticed my pitching teammate on the first day of sixth grade. He was in my class. We became best friends, all the way through high school.

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