Twenty-four years ago, I graduated from Thompson Middle School in Middletown, New Jersey, and as was tradition back then (and may very well still be today) my classmates and I would sign one another's yearbooks with a short note reflecting back on memories of the past three years, and added well wishes for the next few in high school and beyond. Skimming through the pages of mine, still to this day, I am amazed to read the number of entries wishing me luck as a professional baseball player, in addition to the many ticket requests for when I got to the Major Leagues. I had just finished the eighth grade. Little did I know at the time that my professional career would begin some seven years later, because at that point, the bright lights of the Big Leagues were just a dream to me.
A dream… like just about every single kid has when they don their first youth league uniform.
Looking back to that eighth grade yearbook, clearly as a 12- or 13-year-old kid, I was talking - and probably talking often enough for people to mention it as much as they did - about wanting to be a baseball player when I grew up. It's very easy at an early age to pick any far-fetched, odds-against profession, and say, "I want to be this," or "I want to be that when I get older," but at one point or another, reality sets in for most and those dreams remain just that- dreams. For a very fortunate few, myself included, there comes a point and time when that dream becomes a realistic and attainable goal. Now while I am not sure of exactly when that was for me personally, what I do know is that it would have never happened without the support of my parents and coaches, as cautiously optimistic as they may have been.
To be honest, when sights are set so high to the point of turning a dream into a reality, there are going to be naysayers every step of the way. Being part naïve, part driven, and probably part stupid, negative talk from those who didn't have my trust did nothing but motivate me even more. Truth be told, the only people who I actually would have listened to had they told me I couldn't do it were the exact ones who never did. I cannot underestimate the importance of those close to you truly believing in you when setting your sights on something, whether it be in sports, or any other challenging facet of life.
I mentioned the cautiously optimistic support of those around me, because that's exactly what it was. By no means did those who I trusted above all others give me blinding support, without any idea of how difficult accomplishing such a lofty goal would be. While their support was unwavering, it was more along the lines of, "OK… if you want to do this, then you have to work harder than everyone else, and figure out exactly how you plan on getting there," rather than, "you're the best and it's just going to happen for you." They made me well aware of the things I needed to do, and the challenges that were going to cross my path, and as long as I was willing to go about it the right way, then they were going to be behind me, because this was my dream… NOT theirs.
And therein lies one of the biggest differences I have seen between today and what I experienced some 15-20 years ago when going through the same process of working to advance in the game. So before moving on, I'd like to ask one simple question:
Are those bright lights of the Big Leagues your dreams, or your kid's goal?
My name is Darren Fenster, and as a self-proclaimed baseball-lifer, I have lived a pretty cool life in the game, having worn a number of different hats over the course of my years on the diamond. From a playing career that garnered All-American honors as a shortstop for Rutgers University, in addition to twice being named a Minor League All-Star while coming up with the Kansas City Royals, to becoming Director of Baseball Operations, Assistant Coach, and Recruiting Coordinator at my alma mater before returning to professional baseball as a hitting coach in A-ball, to my current position as Minor League manager with the Boston Red Sox, I have enjoyed a wide array of experiences around baseball that have helped give me a very unique perspective of the many different sides of the game. In those roles over time, I have witnessed firsthand the change in the way both players approach the game and their futures, and the unrealistic, uneducated, and ill-informed support and expectations of those around the player, where many have come to believe that a college scholarship is a foregone conclusion, and that playing professional baseball is like signing up for a youth league.
The odds are staggeringly against you when it comes to moving up the ranks:
2,200,000 play in youth leagues.
455,000 play in high school.
48,000 play in college.
5,480 play at a Division I college on a baseball scholarship.
1200 get drafted.
750 play in the Major Leagues.
.03% of youth leaguers will play in the Major Leagues.
.2% of high schoolers will play in the Major Leagues.
Also consider this when looking into playing in college:
Every year, the maximum number of scholarships Division I baseball teams are allowed to offer is 11.7. That's not 11.7 scholarships each year for each new recruiting class of players, that's 11.7 divided among 27 players within a program. One of the biggest misconceptions out there is the full scholarship. They are about as common as a solar eclipse: for the most part, they barely exist. Baseball is not like football (85 full scholarships) or basketball (12 full scholarships), but rather a sport that is forced to divide up their scholarship allotment amongst an entire roster. So when you hear every Tom, Bob, and Harry brag about their kids getting full rides, well unless their last names are Trout, Harper, and Kershaw, well then I'd be willing to bet the only thing that is full is them… of hot air.
10.5% of all high schoolers will play in college.
That includes Division I, II, and III, all junior colleges, and NAIA schools.
1.2% of high school players earn a Division I baseball scholarship.
These are stats that your kids must see. By no means are they meant to deter them from going after it, but rather for them to understand the true difficulty in doing so. For the ones who will move on, those numbers will serve as motivation to work harder, and for the ones who get depressed after seeing them, it was probably never meant to be.
To many parents and coaches, those numbers will mean nothing and have little impact, leaving them unfazed in their conviction that their kid will have no trouble making it. To many players, those daunting statistics will barely even register, since in their minds, the odds won't apply to them, because they have been told how great they are by those same parents and coaches who have no idea what it actually takes to make it. And therein lies the problem…
There is a fine line behind blind optimism, cautious support, and downright naysaying that will kill any and all hopes, but there are a few things that can be done to create reasonable expectations and attainable goals for your kid's future in the game.
CREATE A BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS.
Knowing what you want to do is great, but knowing how you plan on getting there is better. You have a starting point. You have a finishing point. What happens in between? Write down all the steps needed to climb toward the ultimate goal. Focusing on short term goals is much easier and much more doable than just looking at the end-all, and not having a clue of how to get there.
KEEP THE GAME FUN.
The game is supposed to be FUN. The younger the kid, the more fun we, as coaches, have to make it. Players and parents shouldn't even think or talk of scholarships or the draft until the sophomore year in high school, at the earliest. One of the more frustrating things to witness during my time as an assistant coach at Rutgers was going out to games where the players were more concerned with who was in the stands watching than they were actually going out and competing between the lines. Their joy of playing was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. On very rare occasions, I would get a chance to see teams who had been playing together for years, playing the game the right way, playing the game to win, and most importantly, playing the game for fun. It's disappointing that those teams are the exception in this day and age, and not the rule. Bottom-line: in order to advance in the game, you have to love to play, because the higher you go, the more time you will spend out on the field. If you don't enjoy it, then why play at all?
Be careful. In an age where baseball has somewhat turned into a pay-to-play sport, be very cautious with ANYONE who makes promises of scholarships or getting drafted. The only people who have that power are members of a college coaching staff, or professional scouts. Too many times have I heard stories of empty promises by private instructors or travel teams who sell their connections that will get the exposure the player needs. Here's the simple truth about exposure: if the player is good enough, he will be found. Period. Money can buy some of the most overblown evaluations ever written, and the majority of coaches will not invest limited scholarship funds on a player he's never seen. Just because the guy you've been paying since little Johnny was six for private lessons says he's the best player ever might not mean anything other than he enjoys cashing your checks. Consider the source before trusting it.
GO TO A GAME. GO TO A FEW.
As you get older, and college and professional baseball are legitimate goals, it is vital to get a feel for what collegiate level is best for you, and how talented those in the pro game truly are. There are various levels of the game just within Division I. Some conferences and programs could be viewed as comparable to low-level minor league baseball, whereas others are barely a step up from high school. I cannot tell you how many times we got calls from coaches, players, and parents saying how their kid is a perfect fit for us (when he wouldn't even survive the first day of walk-on tryouts). We would respond with the question, "Well, have you ever seen us play?" Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer was no. Well then how on earth do you know that little Johnny is perfect for us when you have no idea how good we are?
HONESTY IS STILL THE BEST POLICY.
As noted above, the guy who's been on your payroll since little Johnny's 3rd grade is not an unbiased party. Coaches of their own players will almost always give rave reviews, where the spotlight can be on him or his team. Search out an objective third party coach and ask for an honest evaluation. An opposing high school coach who may have seen some of the best players in the area over the years would be a great reference. Maybe there is a professional scout or player who can watch you play and note the things that must be improved upon in order to reach whatever level you are looking to get to.
GET AWAY FROM THE GAME.
With the explosion of travel baseball and private training facilities, while the game itself has not changed, the approach to it, has. We have moved into a culture of specialization and sport-specific training year-round, and it is saddening to see that the three-sport athlete is all but extinct, while the kid who plays two is now an endangered species. Players now have access to work on their game twelve months of the year, and had I have the same resources available to me when growing up, I'm sure I would have become one of the Joneses as well. But that's not necessarily a good thing. Major League Baseball players- the very best in the world, who play from the start of spring training in mid-February well into October if they are lucky enough- DON'T play 12 months of the year. From that very last day of their season in the fall, they will pack up their gloves and bats, and not pick up a ball for a couple months. So if the most well-conditioned athletes in the entire sport don't train year round, then how on earth is it appropriate for kids ages 8-18 to do so? If you have your kid pick one sport too soon, and you'll risk him playing none before all is said and done. It's amazing how much more they will appreciate the game when they don't have to play it every single day.
My story is unique, and by no means would I expect anyone to follow the same path as I have over the years to get to where I am today, as we live in a completely different world. But there are definitely experiences that SHOULD translate to today's player, and first and foremost it all starts with having a love for the game and a passion to play it. For me, while growing up, playing baseball was 100% about having fun playing a game, and it remained that way even when it became my job. I couldn't get enough of it because I loved to play, not because I wanted the exposure to college recruiters and professional scouts. One of the best compliments I ever received as a player is the one that I enjoy giving most now as a coach: you show your love for the game by the way you play it.
In my current position with the Red Sox, I am fortunate beyond belief to be working with some incredibly talented players, from completely different walks of life, with completely different paths into the game, but all with the same goal that I had just a short time ago: to get to the Big Leagues. Beyond their athletic ability, there are three things that stand out with those who do move up and eventually make it: they absolutely love to play the game, they want to work at getting better each and every day and they will compete at all things, at all times. The simplicity of those three things is really amazing. If you don't love the game, you aren't going to make it. If you don't work hard, you aren't going to make it. If you don't compete, you aren't going to make it.
Now, let's think about this one again…
Are those bright lights of the Big Leagues your dreams, or your kid's goal?
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Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Boston Red Sox Class A Affiliate Greenville Drive. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.