Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Very Young, and Very Competitive beyond Play

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Very Young, and Very Competitive beyond Play

Article excerpt

Up close, Trent Grondin can only be described as a sweet kid: Shy and polite, even when his folks aren't around, he likes Super Nintendo and the hit song from "Titanic."

At the specific distance of 44 feet and elevation of 6 inches, however, he may be the most terrifying 10-year-old in Texas. From there, his 72 m.p.h. fastball crosses the plate in 0.454 seconds, smacking the catcher's mitt with the leather-slap thunk of a 12- ounce sirloin heaved from an eight-story window onto concrete.

That's the same time it takes a 91 m.p.h. fastball to cover the major-league distance of 60 feet, 6 inches And that's the reason young Trent is the talk of the Sam Bass youth baseball league in this baseball-crazy city of 48,000. The quiet boy's thunderous arm is perhaps the supreme expression of the Sam Bass league. Far from the pastoral sandlot stickball of American folklore, Sam Bass is hard-core baseball. Yet many critics of such leagues across the country worry that they have gone too far, replacing an emphasis on character development and equal playing time with an all-out blitz for competition. The push to push young athletes harder, sooner, has given rise to a whole new breed of leagues and traveling teams nationwide. While supporters say they're just giving kids what they want - an opportunity to improve their skills - opponents counter that the leagues lead youths down a path where few succeed while giving them a skewed system of values. For his part, Terry Grondin, Trent's father and commissioner of the Sam Bass league, makes no excuses about Sam Bass baseball. "In this league, we 'spect results," says the self-described "baseball addict" with a close-cropped goatee. "We 'spect our kids to go to the top tournaments ... every year." It's an attitude that is increasingly common, says Dave Destler, editor and publisher of Junior League Baseball magazine, based in Canoga Park, Calif. Decades of research by professional teams, coupled with advances in communications and technology have resulted in an explosion of knowledge of the mechanics of the game, he says, creating better trained, more competitive athletes at every level. But this professionalization of the lowest levels of amateur sports has its detractors. Sociologist David Hunt, who studies the interplay of extracurricular activities and schools at Northwestern University's Policy Research Institute in Evanston, Ill., views it as the lowest rung on a value system that disproportionately rewards athletic greatness over other achievement. "Kids are being pushed toward sports at an earlier age," he says. "For most people, it's putting a lot of emphasis on something that ends up being only a trivial or entertaining part of their lives. Perhaps they should be emphasizing other things, like interpersonal relationships and academics. …

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