Wait, Am I That Baseball Dad?

The stadium scene.
June 19 2013 4:22 PM

Wait, Am I That Baseball Dad?

How baseball encourages bad parenting—and how you can support your kids on the diamond without driving them crazy.

Little league team cheering for runner.
Little league team cheering for runner.

Photo by Comstock Images/Thinkstock

For most of my son’s baseball game, the man in the red folding chair sitting behind me had been just a voice on the hill. Now he was my enemy. His son was pitching. Mine was batting. When my son fouled off the first pitch, the father was gleeful. When the second pitch was called a ball, he questioned the umpire. After a called strike, he roared: “He can’t hit you.” Impressive—he was trying to intimidate a 10-year-old batter. I wanted my son to get a hit to shut him up, or maybe a line drive foul to do so more directly. In the end, my son lined out to the shortstop.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In the heat of competition, I was ready to make that guy’s folding chair into a bowtie for him. He was an ass. But on the drive to 7-Eleven for the traditional post-game Slurpee, I had a creeping revelation. What if I was that guy?

After all, I was pretty invested in my own son’s game. If I hadn’t been, red-chair dad wouldn’t have irritated me so. I started to catalog my own sins. I had cheered hard when my son threw a key strike; the dad of the kid at the plate probably thought I was a jerk. When my son was at bat, sometimes I yelled “good eye” to compliment him for not swinging at an obvious ball. But sometimes I did this for the benefit of the umpire, who had called a ball bouncing off the plate a strike. When an umpire called a boy safe at second who was out by a distance that could be seen from space, I yelled “What?” so loudly that everyone stopped to look at me. Was I becoming the dreaded Baseball Dad?

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Surely not. I know the type. They lurk behind the backstop spitting instructions between each pitch. I don’t do that. They yell coaching tips to kids who aren’t their own. They appear in the dugout between innings with advice. Or they sanction their kids. “Move your ass,” yelled one dad when his youngster walked out to center field. At another game, a mother berated her son for blowing a play at third. Then, after the exfoliation, she yelled “Now shake it off.” As a father on our team pointed out, “She was the one putting it on!”

You can see these parents coming. There is a loose correlation between the quality of swag and the behavior. When the visiting 10-year-old travel team rolls their matching bags on to the field and their uniforms have their names on the back, that’s the first sign things are going to get intense. The five-person coaching staff barking like drill sergeants is another tipoff. The parents backing this operation are so invested that no subpar play is going to be tolerated. They are there to administer rebukes. At one game the parents arrived in unison like an invading army. They established a perimeter around the backstop and deployed their folding chairs, sunshades, coolers, and playpen for the siblings. All had shirts and hats emblazoned with the team logos. Some wore their child’s number.  On our team, the parents only had matching copies of the Sunday New York Times.

So, yes I’m not that bad, but there is something in the nature of baseball itself that can help drive parents to madness. As reader Jon Berry* put it nicely: “The ratio of potential conflict/dispute to action/movement in baseball is extremely high. Each pitch is potentially disputable; as are throws to first base; stolen bases; tag-outs; fair ball/foul balls. And everyone in the stands is focused on that one potentially disputable action.” The Catholic Church has no papal decree so complicated and misapplied as the infield fly rule.

It’s also a game that encourages you to yell at the umpires. That’s part of the fun of being a spectator. We do it at Nats Park, so why not at the local diamond as well? It’s hard not to chatter as an adult the way you did as a kid—the constant talk that kept you from being bored during the game’s pauses when you were a player. This means you’re running your mouth in a way that can be dangerous. (Also, it’s a fact: Many umpires need eyewear and should be encouraged to learn the benefits of routine ophthalmologist visits.)

Most of all, though, baseball draws parents to emotional excess because it lets you do what normal parenting doesn’t: cheer out loud for your child when they are under pressure and something’s on the line. The great lesson of baseball is that even the great players strike out. The key to the game, as in life, is to endure failure, adapt, and through grit hit more than you miss. It is a joy to be able to participate in this concentrated sneak instillation of the lessons of life, because most of the time you won’t be there. You can’t show up at the SAT to root for your child.  After they strike out with a girl or a boy you can’t appear and show them in front of everyone that you support them no matter what happens.

Excessive behavior is embarrassing to your child, it’s embarrassing to yourself, and it teaches your child all the wrong lessons about sportsmanship, character and grace. But even if you’re not risking those outcomes, there is a challenge to finding the line between unconditional love and intensity. Even if you stop short of acting like the horrible parent, there’s a finer line to walk. You don’t want to smother the experience for them with too much engagement. It’s their game—just as it’s their life. Know when to butt out. Jason Larocque, a baseball coach who runs the Win Within program in Washington, D.C., tells the story of his Dad who was there for his every game but never encroached. “He did it right,” says Larocque. “He was a former high school and college baseball coach who never once made a comment during my games, spoke to my coaches, or forced me to practice despite his wealth of knowledge.”

Now I don’t know if I can never make a comment during games, but I can dial it back a bit. And I have picked up some great pieces of advice from other parents. Don’t quiz kids about the game immediately after it’s over. It puts too much on them when they’re still processing the experience or finally taking a break from the pressure of it. Let them bring it up.

And if you do talk about the game, put a limit to it. One parent never talks about the game once he and his daughter have left the field. I can’t handle that, so I try to squeeze it in between 7-Eleven and home. Once we’re out of the car, I’m done talking. It’s up to the kids to bring up their sports after that.

My favorite advice is from a piece published on thepostgame.com about horrible Little League parents. Great college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great and that amplified their joy during and after a game. The overwhelming response: "I love to watch you play." It’s true: I do love to watch him play. Perhaps that’s the best brake on overdoing it. I wouldn’t want to send any other message that gets in the way of that one.

*Correction, June 19, 2013: This piece originally misspelled Jon Berry's name. (Return.)

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