As we cross the seasons of life, we make observations on our journey. The longer we live, the more experience we bring to the table. Sometimes our observations become nostalgic longing for the “better days” of the past. Other times, our assessments indicate that a structural shift of some kind has taken place.
I get to watch a good deal of baseball these days. I am a baseball umpire, after all.
In this age where quantification is king, my qualitative assessments about baseball skill may not impress members of the scientific crowd—the research types. However, it has been clear to me during the 13 games that I’ve officiated, from middle school, up through junior varsity that today’s players don’t throw as well as similar age groups in the past.
While highly unscientific, I recall that when I was 13 or 14, among my baseball-playing peers, well over 50 percent of them had arms that I would classify as average to above average. I might even say the number was 75 percent. I can go around the diamond at Lisbon High School from the 1979 team that won the Class B State Championship and say that the number was 100 percent. We didn’t have one player on our starting nine that had an arm that was below average. We had a couple of guys who had arms that I’d qualify as “cannons.” If I take my son’s Greely High School team that he graduated from in 2002, this was also a group that was comprised of players that all threw very well.
Back in the day, if you were facing a middle school pitcher, they were apt to throw hard, but lack control. They often lacked the fine-tuning of mechanics and polish that would come when they had better coaching at the high school level. Of course, we didn’t have AAU or travel baseball, like the kids have today. Still, I have been nonplussed by the arms I’ve seen this spring. My non-scientific, qualitative assessment is that 50 percent of the players I’ve seen at my games, had arms that were average, or below average. I’ve seen one player, an 8th grader, who I would say “threw hard.” Only two of the catchers threw well to second base. Most had trouble getting the ball to second on a steal attempt without there being a noticeable arc on their throws. What’s even worse for me, having had a high school coach who was a fanatic about throwing mechanics, is that far too many players exhibit improper throwing technique. I’m an umpire these days, not a coach.
Lest I be accused of being overly negative, I am not saying that today’s young players aren’t talented in other areas. I’ve noticed that the hitters seem to be advanced in some ways, compared to our own, imitate-our-favorite-player method of learning to hit.
But why the weaker arms? Perhaps it’s just a down cycle and things will bounce back. I doubt it, however. The reason that I’d come up with is that kids today don’t throw the ball enough. They pitch, but do they throw? One expert agrees with me on this. With technology at their fingertips, they’re less likely to be out playing catch or even playing pick-up games all summer long. In fact, I never see a group of kids playing baseball in the middle of the day, unsupervised, on a baseball diamond. The summers during my middle school years, we’d have the Legion baseball coach run us off the field, because he had raked it and lined it for that night’s game, and we were out there, ruining his work. No big deal. We just went to another, less plush diamond, and resumed our summer ritual of playing, arguing, and throwing and hitting the baseball.
A number of years ago, Bill Fairchild, then the baseball coach at Oak Hill High School, told me that “kids today never do anything without adult supervision.” He was encouraging his son and their friends to do that by having a field behind his house and making it “off-limits to adults.” It must have worked, as the baseball in the area where Bill lived (Monmouth) had a strong run for a good decade. Maybe even more important—these kids learned to solve their disagreements without parents jumping in and gumming things up.
The only time I ever see kids out playing sports of the pick-up variety is when I pass the basketball courts in Lewiston, at Kennedy Park, and the courts near Deering Oaks Park in Portland. I see many young men that I’d guess are from some of the African countries that have settled in both places, playing basketball, or in Portland, soccer.
I realize that kids today have more options than I had growing up. I had my bike, a paper route, and pick-up baseball or Wiffle® Ball to occupy my time. My friends and I didn’t have a computer or a smart phone, and we weren’t being shuffled off here and there to some AAU tournament. If we ever complained of being “bored,” we were told that there were plenty of things to do, like raking or mowing if we needed “something to do.” In fact, a few the entrepreneurial types mowed lawns for money in the summer.
I’m not sure that was a bad thing.