It’s totally presumptuous for me to compare myself to Derek Jeter. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet him and his family and to provide some research assistance for his Turn Two Foundation, but any comparison should stop there … almost. Last fall, I also stepped off a baseball field in the Bronx, and took off the only uniform that I’ve worn in my adult life, for the final time, with a heavy heart, albeit with little fan fare.
I’ve had the great fortune to coach rec league, little league, juniors and seniors baseball and softball. I’ve seen my daughter go from an unassured softball player to captain of her high school team and now on to play in college. As a coach, I’ve watched my now 17-year-old son pitch a no-hitter, hit walk-offs and celebrate with his longtime teammates, three district titles, a section championship and the best record in the 2014 16U New York State Championships. It has been easy to lose myself in the thrill of vicariously actualizing my own long-diminished skills through the success and development of the young men and women that I have coached over these years. With the 2015 youth baseball tournament season now underway, it’s bittersweet to realize that my coaching career has ended.
As a sports marketing researcher, I’m a student of the human condition, but I’m also honest enough to acknowledge that part of the joy of coaching youth sports is to satisfy one’s own competitive spirit … to revel in putting a beat-down on the next town over and to take pride in the accomplishment of your own kids. But it’s more than empty rhetoric to suggest that in an age where kids are over-programmed and spending less time being physically active in front of a screen, it’s gratifying to share a passion for baseball and the life lessons and positive values that it instills. From an admittedly commercial/ sports marketing perspective, youth sports may be one of the few remaining relatively fertile grounds for grassroots activation.
As I think back upon all of the great memories that coaching has provided, some of the more poignant ones come from hopefully making a difference in the lives of these kids. There was the softball player from a recently broken household, asking her mom, if I could be “the new dad”; the kid who after going “o-for” the fall season, hit a no-doubt-about-it homer; the long-time “surrogate son” calling at all hours during the off-season to talk baseball and college plans. And in my last game as a coach, how fitting for a kid that had shown great effort, but struggled mightily at the plate to provide one last great coaching moment.
This young man was not one of the regular tournament players. I had never coached him before, but his positive attitude and willingness to work hard were infectious, and we had created a great connection throughout the season. We were down badly in the second game of a doubleheader in the seventh and final inning, when the batter before him drew a two-out walk. I normally offer encouragement and perhaps a quick strategic observation to hitters as they approach the plate, but this time, perhaps the fact that there was one out remaining in my final game as coach, had gotten the best of me, as I told the kid, “Shake off the other at bats. You’re not going to be the final out of my coaching career.” The batter after him struck out to end the game on the losing side of a rout, but not before this kid blasted a 300-foot double over the center fielder’s head. His ear-to-ear smile as he looked my way from second base reminded me what youth sports is really all about, and demonstrated its raw power across multiple dimensions.
In sports marketing we often worry about resonating with the next generation of fans. Both the research that my company conducts across sports as well as personal experience continue to demonstrate that the real secret sauce of engaging a passion for a sport or property is through human, personal connections that are inherently timeless. That’s something that all sports marketers should remember, this All-Star tournament season.