A different perspective on youth sports

We recently donated a quantity of CoachDecks to the Wildcat Baseball League in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As a young boy, I played in this league, and then I worked for seven summers through high school and college as a Wildcat coach. I began to think about how different Wildcat is from conventional baseball and soccer leagues in which I’ve been involved. And I wonder if we could learn from what sets them apart.

Wildcat originated in 1959 when Dale McMillen (Mr. Mac) a Fort Wayne businessman and philanthropist, attended a local youth league baseball tryout and saw the disappointment on the faces of the children who were “cut” and would not be allowed to play. He believed there should be a place where any child who wished to play baseball could, regardless of skill, ability, race or creed. He provided the funding, and since 1960, the league has served hundreds of thousands of youth in the area. The only cost to join is a modest donation (less than $10.00) for a T-shirt and cap that all Wildcatters wear.

What makes Wildcat unique? First of all, there is no parental involvement. Each site, (usually at a middle school) is staffed by 4-6 employees – high school and college students – overseen by a Director; usually a local community school teacher. The staff begins the season with a few days of assessments, so that they can try to form teams as evenly as possible. Yet, regardless of ability, every child will be placed on a team. In fact, that is and always has been the league motto: Everybody Makes the Team.

Each team is scheduled for two games and a practice per week and the staff oversees their events, but don’t actually coach individual teams. Usually, two staff members handle a game. One will umpire and the other will be in the dugout with the team up to bat, keeping track of the scorebook and watching over the kids. Once the lineup is set at the first game, it stays that way for the season. Each new game, the batting order simply picks up where it left off the previous time to ensure everyone gets equal turns. Coaches frequently pause the game to provide individual instruction to players who need help. Because no adult coach is attached to any single team, there is no interference in the outcome of the contest. The kids decide if they should steal or bunt. You’ll never see a coach yelling at players or arguing with umpires. No one is forced to sit on the bench more than their share.

When I say there is no parental involvement, I don’t just mean on the field. Usually the bleachers are curiously devoid of moms and dads watching in the stands. Parents aren’t exactly discouraged from attending – its OK if they want to come out – they just usually don’t bother. Why? Maybe its because its so low key they don’t feel the need to observe like they might in a more pressured environment. No one is playing Wildcat to “get to the next level.” Most parents drop their youngsters off at what they know to be a safe place, and then come back and pick them up ninety minutes later. Many kids ride their bikes to games and practices.

The lack of emphasis on winning doesn’t mean the players are just out there to fool around. The league teaches good fundamentals, keeps standings, stages championship games, and each site even holds all-star games at the end of the season. (Yet the all-star participants are picked impartially, by staff with no vested interest; not by parents jockeying to make sure their kids are on the team). I have several Wildcat League Championship trophies up in my attic somewhere. But the biggest trophy handed out, and the only individual award, is one that anyone can win. It is the Perfect Attendance Award, (I also have a few of those). I can remember, when I was a coach taking role for a team at their final practice of the summer, checking off a youngster’s name and seeing him try to hide his smile. He knew that he’d made it. And he was thinking about that huge trophy he’d be getting at next week’s award ceremony.

When I talked with the current directors at the Wildcat League office, I learned that now they offer girls softball. We didn’t have that when I played or coached. Some kids who play Wildcat also participate in the more competitive local programs that hold their games in the evenings. These youngsters just want to get in more baseball during the day, which is great. For others, their Wildcat team is their one and only sports experience. And I think that is great too.

When Mr. Mac formed the league fifty-three years ago, we don’t know if he foresaw all of today’s modern issues in the youth sports landscape stemming from over-zealous parents and coaches, or if the structure he chose was just a coincidence. We do know he proudly referred to the Wildcat Baseball League as “the greatest thing I ever did.” To him it is a living monument embodied in each player who benefits from the program.  His motto reflects the spirit he wanted to pass on to our youth: “This day I will beat my own record.”

The vast majority of what happens in traditional sports leagues in North American is good and positive. The backbone of youth athletics is, and always will be, the parent-volunteer. But as Dale McMillen’s legacy lives on each summer on ball fields throughout a small city in northern Indiana, perhaps his greatest accomplishment can be to remind the rest of us what matters most – the kids who play the game.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

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