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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Children’s T-ball: A bad idea, or the worst idea?

Little kids want to run, jump, climb, roll around, not stand around waiting for a ball that rarely comes to them.

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T-ball’s origins are murky. Some people have it being created in the 1940s, others in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Maybe it was in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, or Mississippi. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would want to take credit because it’s the dumbest activity ever.

And I’m about to coach my seventh season. Sorry — “coach” my seventh season. (Psst: There’s no instructing.) I do it because my children keep asking me to and I love them, but apparently not enough because I keep letting them play the dumbest activity ever.

It’s not the kids — they’re great. So are the parents, some of whom have thanked me for ending games early, which isn’t the highest praise for a sport. And I’m lucky. I’ve actually never had to watch T-ball because I’ve always been in the storm. It’s like the upside of working in Boston City Hall: at least you don’t have to look at the building.

I get why the game exists. Parents want something scheduled for their kids. They want it outside, and for someone else to be in charge for an hour. I’m happy to take on the role.

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But nothing about it makes sense. Kids want to run, jump, climb, roll around. You know what a 6-year-old doesn’t want to do at 5:30 in the afternoon? Stand still and wait for a ball that will never come. Sorry again. Never is a mighty long time. That ball might come once a season, but just before it’s in that child’s hands, five teammates will tackle the kid. The ensuing tears are from both the dream being denied and sore ribs. But to make up for it, when kids aren’t in the field, we’ll give them a bat to swing around.

One problem with the game is the lack of flow. Youth soccer isn’t any more exciting (to be honest, it has a lot less scoring) but at least the kids can keep moving. Another problem: T-ball has tons of rules, a lot of them conditional. Do this, but only if this happens. Granted, we simplify things since nobody gets out, and sure, sometimes, we allow two people on a base at once, but the game asks you to keep a lot in your head.

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And these kids have already had a full day of school and listening to adults. All of the coaches are well intentioned, but we do what adults tend to do, which is get in the way of the fun, says Lawrence J. Cohen, psychologist and author of Playful Parenting.

The setup is also not what kids are used to. Kindergarten teachers will spend three months on how to line up, laying the foundation in small steps, speaking softly and concisely throughout.

That is not the way of the T-ball. We have one practice, followed by six games of, “Now run. Run! No, not to third. OK, now stop! Wait there. Come back, come back! It was a FOUL BALL.” If the players could fully express it, their feedback would be, “You’re not teaching this the right way,” says Laura Dudley, associate clinical professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.

But, is there a right way? In T-ball parameters, not really. Batting isn’t the problem. That’s the only chance to run free, and I’m not one to stop them. One year, it was home runs for everyone. Not batting is the issue. No child has ever said, “You know, I’m more of a glove man.” Kids can only stand in a field for so long. As Dudley says, “Once you lose their attention, they’ll do things to get your attention.” From my field research, that includes wrestling, climbing fences, stealing each other’s hats, and wandering off to pee behind a tree.

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Over the years, I’ve tried to jazz things up, keep the kids engaged. I had the I-formation defense where everyone lined up on the pitcher’s mound and got a chance to field, while I threw balls into the outfield for the kids to chase down. Even though one of my players told me, “I’m not a dog,” it worked until I got reprimanded by the league to stop.

Cohen says that he would dismantle the entire thing and instead offer unstructured time, based on the “AnjiPlay” approach, developed in China, and used stateside in Madison, Wisconsin, where the adults’ job is to bring the equipment and make sure no one runs into traffic. The kids figure out the fun, as they usually do when adults get out of the way.

He knows that’s probably too big an ask. When something isn’t organized — i.e., official — parents get nervous. Kids might lie down or sit on the side. They also might argue, something we love to stop with the always effective, “Stop arguing.” But kids need to learn how to work stuff out, be assertive, be followers. Stepping in isn’t a help. “We don’t chew their food,” Cohen says.

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Having an organized something isn’t all evil. It provides a specific time and place. The “Every Sunday morning at the park” invitation is sweet but too easy to back out of. Dudley adds that at minimum, T-ball is a chance for kids to have fun with other kids.

Not sure about that. We could do better in the name of tiring them out with, I don’t know, kickball, obstacle courses, tag, freeze tag, lawn bowling, miniature golf, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, bubble catching, jungle-gym-as-pirate-ship, and chasing stuff.

Bottom line: We already have the fields reserved, and I don’t think any tears would fall if T-ball was forever canceled. As long as you still got a shirt and there’s a pizza party at the end, my 7-year-old would be totally cool with the change.

Those are my dreams. Until then, I’ve got a season, my final T-ball season, to get ready for. Come on down to the games if you’re around, especially if you like team dances and back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back homers.


Steve Calechman is a freelance writer on the North Shore. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.