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Are your athletes starting to specialize too much?

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Young athletes seem to be more consumed with their sports than ever

By Steve Doyle

I hear Jim Wiley has been around baseball since he helped Abner Doubleday lay out the field for a game among Gen. Sherman’s troops.

That may not be true, but for certain he was playing fastpitch softball with the Shelby County Jets more than a couple of decades ago. I know, because my Granddaddy used to take me to see the Jets play.

Hoss, as he is called, knows more about the game and those who play it around here than anyone alive. And we were talking the other day about something that bothers him, and me, about the nature of hisgame and those who play it:

How baseball increasingly has become all consuming for kids who play it seriously, how it takes over their lives, their calendars and their bodies.

He was saying this because so many players on his American Legion team were breaking down with injuries. “They play too much,” Wiley said. “It’s a problem for them and for families. They don’t spend time, eat dinner, together.”

A family dinner is the last thing that seems to get in the way of kids who play baseball – and, really, most other sports – these days.

If you’re serious about a game, kids are told – and shown– early that total immersion is really the only way to success.

I was talking the other day to a teenager who is a very good baseball player, perhaps a star in the making. He also played on the basketball team at his middle school.

But, now, entering his freshman year in high school, he’s giving up roundball for total, firm commitment to hardball.

He’s going to use those winter months when he could be running and shooting for lifting weights, building his thin, developing body. He wants to be stronger to be more competitive.

I understand that and know he will do it responsibly, but are kids simply going too far? Are we as adults taking them too far? Does it really require so much time?

It’s like we’re suddenly emulating Latin American countries, where baseball is all consuming because it is seen as not only a sport but a ticket from abject poverty to the promise of the new world, the pros.

So here’s what we have , what Wiley was talking about, kids – some of them very young –  playing baseball every day from before the first thaw of spring until the too-bitter cold of fall. And now they spend the winter getting into shape, working on muscles, building strength for their sport, throwing indoors, perhaps.

Then they play on multiple, concurrent/consecutive teams, fall and spring, for their schools (sometimes at more than one level), their youth leagues and then for this broad new phenomenon called traveling teams.

Get this: There are traveling teams for 8-year-olds.

But, come to think of it, I was on a traveling team at age 9. A group of us boys from Simpsonville used to load up twice a week in Phoebe Lawrence’s station wagon and make the trip to Shelbyville for our little league games.

We had to travel that way because most of our parents farmed or otherwise worked – Mrs. Lawrence was a teacher – and the games were daytime, sometimes at 10 a.m. We wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise, and Bobby Stratton made sure we were on the same team every year so we could carpool.

But that’s not so much the issue anymore, because games primarily are at night, and there are many more levels based on a development system that starts with tee-ball.

Yes, it’s fun for those who truly love it, but what are they giving up? What happens to the truly accomplished kids who can excel at more than one sport?

The Chip Hiltons of our world – to drop the name of the hero of teen sports novels of my youth – would never have existed.

Heck, Shelbyville High School’s sports programs may never have existed, because so many boys in those days (sorry, girls, before Title IX) played at least two sports.

At Shelby County, we had a guy like Bill Busey. Starting quarterback in football, All-State guard in basketball, top-of-the-order-hitting outfielder on a powerhouse baseball team. He managed to split his seasons and still be good enough to be signed by Adolph Rupp at UK.

In fact, back in my day, basketball coaches virtually required their players to play a spring sport. If you weren’t on the baseball team, then you had to run track. Jim Simons was a top-notch high-jumper, and Mike Popp, all 6-8 or so of him, ran the 880.

This isn’t to say there aren’t multisport stars anymore. Tavis Elzy had a pretty good senior season at Collins High School, starring in football, starting in basketball and contributing points as a jumper and sprinter on a good track team.

But his abilities were based on pure athleticism. Many kids who see they have to work to overcome their deficiencies make sure they don’t get overlooked.

There’s also this: Coaches notice players and become familiar with them at many stops. You have to make sure they  see your face at every opportunity. Relationships can be as important as base hits.

No, this isn’t going to change. It’s an evolutionary process. As each generation commits more and more time, lives become dedicated to special interests, sort of like Soviet-bloc countries pursued Olympic gold for so many years.

We may never know if a 13-year-old who could shoot would have been a good high school basketball player. We may never know what greatness was lost.

But one thing I can find out from Hoss: Those guys from Sherman’s army probably did some other things, too, didn’t they?