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For many kids, sports is serious business indeed. With pressures from parents and coaches beginning early, it's . . . : All Work, No Play

A CHILD'S WORLD: What shapes the way we grow up., One in an occasional series.

May 07, 1992|RON BERLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 40-year-old coach runs a tight ship. During baseball season, there is not a night he doesn't coach or scout a game, and he expects a similar commitment from his players. The Travelers began indoor practice in January. They moved outdoors for two-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week workouts in March. They started playing in April, and from now until mid-August, they will work at baseball six, sometimes seven, days a week.

Matsie's emphasis is very much on winning. The players learn that immediately.

"When we won, (Matsie) loved it. When we lost, we'd get upset and he'd get very upset," recalls Joe Chambers Jr., who played for the team three years ago. "He was a tough coach. He'd get pretty mad if you made an error or struck out."

Last season, it was not unusual for the Travelers to play four games on Saturday, followed by another four games on Sunday. On occasion, they played school-night doubleheaders that kept them out until midnight.

"I know kids who were doing their homework in their cars," says one parent. "That's the only time they had to do it."

"Sometimes it's like a job," says player Neil Williams.

But few players or parents complain because Matsie improves the players' games, sometimes significantly.

"Take (12-year-old first baseman Kevin) Maher," says Holy Cross High School varsity baseball coach Frank Mariani, who attended some of the Travelers' games. "At the beginning of the season, he looked awkward. He was like a truck getting out of the batter's box. But now he's got some speed, and he's swinging the bat. Matter of fact, I'd like to recruit some of these kids."

That is the dream. "I told my son (before the season), 'This is boot camp,' " says Neil Williams' father, Larry. "I told him, 'This is one year out of your life. You'll get the fundamentals you'll need (to play high school ball).' "

That dream, though, comes at considerable personal cost. Because of the hours they put in on the field, the players effectively forfeit their social lives. Early on, they discover that they have no time for movies, for hanging out, even for visiting their oldest friends. They simply have no time to be 12-year-olds.

"At this age," says Kevin Maher's mother, Paula, "kids like to have sleep-overs. But that stopped in our house because of baseball. Kevin needs his sleep so he can be ready to play the next day. Groups of boys come to our front door asking if he wants to come out to play, but he hardly ever can--again, because of baseball. It's a good thing he's made friends on the team, because his old friends have given up on him."

Larry Williams agrees. His son, he says, "doesn't have time to hang out at the mall with his friends."

Neither does Davey Knickerbocker. He says that last summer, he didn't see his closest friend from the time school ended until mid-August. "I called him," he recalls, "because for the first time, we had two days off in a row. He thinks I'm crazy for playing so many games. A lot of people think I'm crazy."

The question arises: What is too much? Are 160 baseball games or 11 straight months of hockey excessive for a 12-year-old?

Some parents and coaches argue that even without travel teams, their kids would be playing ball every day. They also point out that sports keep their children out of trouble and off the streets.

"If the pressure was so immense," argues Vince DiVarco, whose son plays for both the Eagles and the Travelers, "all these kids would be having big-time problems. But they're not."

"I've never gotten from my players that they missed out on too much in order to play baseball," Matsie adds. "I see them going on to high school and doing well. So I don't know what is too much."

The two have a point: In nine years, just three players have quit the Travelers.

But the issue appears more subtle than that. The numbingly long seasons cause many children to lose their enthusiasm. The grind of baseball day after day wears them down and the games lose their meaning.

Twice last summer, for example, the Travelers played Park Ridge, Ill. "The first time we played them, early in the season, they looked real good," recalls Park Ridge second baseman Joe Farinella. "But when we played them again two months later, they didn't look the same. They looked tired. They weren't cheering or anything."

Even Matsie admits that "during the week, it's hard to get (my players) up for games. Sometimes their attention wanders. It's the weekend tournaments that get them focused."

Child psychologists are wary of such exhaustive schedules and of the unyielding pressures that accompany them. They question whether teams such as the Travelers provide healthy environments for preteens.

"Play is very important to children developmentally. But when an activity turns obsessive, it is no longer play. It is work," cautions Dr. Van Dyke DeGolia, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.

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