Leaving Baseball (in a Good Way!)

It’s been over 18 months since I last published a blog post. I’ve received a number of inquiries over the past year. Why no more baseball posts? Am I okay?

Yes I’m okay.

I stopped posting partly because I was busy with a new baseball-related job. But then my son developed a new passion in life, leaving baseball behind. So what more could I write about baseball?

Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 entered the United States. One of many impacts of COVID-19 on my life is that I set aside blogging. I intend to resume blogging in 2021, but probably not about baseball. It’s time to bring closure to my baseball blogging.

In this post, my 56th and possibly final post about baseball, I share my thoughts about leaving baseball, going into much more personal detail than usual.

Destined for Baseball?

At the age of 20 months, my son saw a brief baseball video. Within minutes, he grabbed a broom and said, “ball, ball, ball!” Baseball was his greatest passion for the next 13 years of his life as he made his way through 10 years of rec baseball as well as travel ball. Though always behind in physical development compared to his peers, he could throw. Clearly he had a future as a left-handed high school pitcher. Depending on how his body developed and how hard he worked, it even seemed possible he could pitch at the college level.

We met and befriended many youth baseball players and their families along the way. Every year, some would quit the game.

For some kids, baseball was never much fun to begin with. Maybe their parents got them to try it for a year or two and they didn’t enjoy it. Maybe they tried other activities they ended up liking better.

Some kids liked the game for a few years, but then something would shift and they would leave the game. Maybe a coach they didn’t like. Perhaps the fear of getting beaned by wild pitchers after the shift to kid pitch at the age of 9. Maybe the fun got driven out of the game by growing coach expectations for discipline and/or too much travel ball.

By the age of 13, two-thirds of my son’s baseball peers over the years were no longer playing baseball. It was the big field, the 60/90 diamond. Some kids who had enjoyed baseball for many years thought the game had become too hard on the big field. Keeping up would require making the game seem more like work than play, so the remaining players had some combination of talent and/or work ethic.

My son was still smaller and lighter than his peers. His hitting results tanked when he was required to switch to heavier, deader bats. However, he continued to pitch well on both PONY and travel ball teams. He began to workout in support of pitching, both to prevent injury and increase velocity. By the end of 2019, a few months before the age of 15, he was working with a terrific physical therapist to prepare his left arm for his first year of high school baseball.

It seemed as if he was destined to be a lefty “pitcher only” baseball player in high school and everyone was expecting it—his coaches, his peers, his family, and himself.

Leaving Baseball

Though we didn’t realize it at first, the turning point was December 8, 2019. Traverse Fitness opened just a 10-minute drive from our house, and we went to check out their open house on Sunday, December 8, a soft opening of the largest Ninja Gym in California.

My wife and son were familiar with the concept as they had watched the past few seasons of the TV show American Ninja Warrior. On the show, contestants (ninjas) navigate athletically challenging obstacle courses, competing to reach the final course and win a cash prize.

It seemed kind of cool to try out some of the obstacles at Traverse Fitness. But it was more than cool. He immediately fell in love.

Within weeks he was going to the gym 4-6 times per week. One by one, he completed obstacles that were far beyond him when he first started. As his interest in Ninja grew, the amount of time he spent on baseball rapidly declined.

A month later he was questioning whether he wanted to continue with baseball. Mostly it was because he wanted all the time he could get for going to the Ninja gym. But it wasn’t just that.

For a while, he had not been feeling enthusiastic about what his midsized high school baseball program had to offer. He had friends a grade higher than him so he knew there wouldn’t be a developmental program for pitchers (typically, only the largest and most athletically ambitious high schools have pitcher-only programs). If he was going to continue to develop as a pitcher, he was going to have to do it almost entirely on his own, with the help of dad, private lessons, a private workout program (maybe Driveline?), etc.

As his passion for Ninja rapidly grew, his high school baseball concerns grew in importance in his mind. By mid-January, just 5 weeks after his first visit to Traverse Fitness, he decided he was not going to try out for the high school baseball team. His reasons were:

  1. Time consuming (likely taking away time from Ninja training)
  2. Not as much fun as rec ball
  3. Not enough learning in return for his time

He said that if any one of these three things had been different, he would have wanted to do high school baseball.

Are these good reasons to stop playing baseball? They were for him.

I’m fine with anyone who wants to cut back on one activity to spend more time on something they love more. That’s a good reason to quit baseball.

On the other hand, I freely admit that I would have enjoyed seeing him pitch in a few high school baseball games.

I Missed the Signs

I’m writing about this 11 months after he made his decision. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that high school baseball was not something he was looking forward to.

My son loves to pitch, but I think he gradually lost enthusiasm over the past few years for all the other stuff you have to do in order to get to pitch in games, such as:

  • travel
  • conditioning
  • arm prep in January
  • the warmup routine before throwing the first pitch
  • hitting practice
  • swinging a too-heavy, dead, BBCOR bat
  • practices geared mostly towards position players
  • etc.

He told me a number of times that he wished he could pitch hours per day and in many games without getting injured, while doing a lot less of the other stuff on the above list. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

Since he made his decision to not play baseball in high school, he has rarely thrown a baseball, though he did have a little fun between May and July hitting home runs over a 210 foot fence with his (much more fun!) drop 10 Axe Bat. He still loves baseball in other ways, as he follows the goings on in the MLB closely and has spent many hours playing MLB The Show on his PS4.

His passion for Ninja continues. He loves the gym, the culture, and most of all the people. And, unlike baseball, it is an activity where he gets to spend most of his time doing the parts of the sport he loves most.

Ninja has been a lifeline during the pandemic because he became an assistant coach at the gym for camps and after-school programs. As an employee, he has had opportunities to train even when the gym was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

My son (facing left) helps move parts of Traverse Fitness outdoors during the 2020 pandemic

Working during a pandemic has been tough for many people. My son feels very grateful to be doing the Ninja work he loves while continuing his training.

As a parent, I am happy to support my son’s passions. My son is the type of person who has one major passion at a time. It was baseball for 13 years. Now he is training to be a Ninja Warrior.

After Baseball

So what will I write about next?

I really like data science. I expect I’ll be writing more articles like Handedness in Youth Baseball that tell a story based on data that I process, understand, and make visual. Topics will vary. But they probably won’t be related to baseball.

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

15 thoughts on “Leaving Baseball (in a Good Way!)”

  1. Hi Joe,
    This was my favorite post of all you’ve written. I had been curious about the reasons for the transition from baseball to Ninja, and this filled out the details via an interesting, well-told story. Wishing both of you the best as you hike along your next paths!

  2. Thanks for posting about baseball. I’ve had Cerebral Palsy since birth. Your posts let me share an experience I was never able to share before. I can’t begin to say what that meant to me. You’ve been a blessing in my life. I’ll always be grateful for your sharing the experience of playing baseball.

  3. Esther – My wife Karin thinks that many of our relatives and close friends would appreciate understanding what caused Milo to transition from baseball to Ninja after so many years. She mentioned that to me just hours before you comment . . . she’s onto something!

  4. Hi Joe,

    Thanks so much for the update. Discovering your blog was my entry into the process of a thoughtful (dare I say data-driven) approach to the youth game.

    I am happy to hear your son has a new passion, especially one with such a demanding physical component!

    Successful youth pitching seems to have become such a grind for young athletes. I have coached youth baseball and middle school softball. It seems that a lot of “team” success at these levels is built on the extra lessons and private-coach-led training for pitchers in both sports. Travel teams definitely offer more training, experience, and sport specificity but I think there is a bit of quantity over quality in terms of the time investment versus the ROI.

    As a fellow data engineer, I am looking more into how to reverse the equation and use tech to emphasize quality over quantity. Especially for new players – I am hoping to use things like bat sensors to gamify bat speed improvements while keeping swing volume low enough to leave time for more fun small-side games instead of never-ending practice sessions.

    But in my area, we see much the same what you describe – large percentages of participants, including travel team players, seem to leave baseball by high school. On top of the simple physical differences that drive kids away, I wonder if, like your son, so much of the fun of the game has fallen away for players that finding more joyful pursuits is to be expected . . .

  5. Joe,

    Your blog has provided me with valuable insight into how youth baseball works (and how it should work). I found your site about 6 months ago so I have been playing catch up. Your articles have consistently opened my eyes to aspects of baseball that I had not thought about in a data-driven and comprehensive manner. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to do what you have done over the past few years. Best of luck to you and your son as you embark on new adventures.

    Regards,
    Patrick

  6. Patrick and Tom – I really appreciate hearing from the both of you that you found my blog posts worth while. Though they were a labor of love, they were a lot of work so it’s good to hear stories of those who benefited!

    Joe

  7. Joe,

    I have found your blog to be a great resource over the past couple of years. I eagerly tuned in for your next installment. The info on training, bats, travel, etc sewn together with you and your son’s personal journey was wonderful. I am convinced that you should compile all the info into a book that would be essential reading for all youth baseball parents. I can’t tell you how many times I would hear coaches or parents discussing something about baseball(usually erroneous) and I would think back to your blog and know the real truth. My 14 y/o son is an avid baseball player and is fast approaching that critical junction you have discussed. He could be good enough for high school but we’ll see. Thanks for the journey and I wish you and your son all the best.

    Dave

  8. Thanks Dave – It’s very nice to your comment and a few others expressing appreciation for my baseball posts. The way I did it was a lot of effort, and I often wonder if it was worth all the effort. Seeing the comments roll in after this last post helps tilt the scales more towards, “it was worth it.”

  9. Joe

    Thanks for all your great blog posts on baseball! Very informative and entertaining. Curious if you and your son had a favorite age/time in your baseball journey(s). Anything you would have done differently?
    Thanks Paul

  10. Hi Paul – Both good questions!

    Favorite age/time? There were a lot of special memories that have to do with specific plays. An example: the time he played 2nd baseman for an inning at age 13 – first time in over 5 years – and due partly to an out-of-position mistake made a spectacular play stopping a very hard hit grounder right through the middle that caused him to land on his butt – then made a one-hop throw while on his butt that turned into a double play. Or being the smallest kid on his all-star team at age 10 when he bunted for a single first time at bat. So infield pulled in his 2nd at bat and he hit it opposite field over left fielder’s head for a triple. Or – as a lefty with a great pickoff move – the time I was head coach with 3 lefty pitchers and I assigned him to teach the others his deceptive pickoff move – and then the next few weeks our team picked off so many runners it was hilarious! It’s stories like this that make for a lot of fun memories. But . . .

    If I had to choose a time when both he and I seemed to have the most fun, it was from the ages of 2-6. Many adults get (excessively?) serious about their youth baseball and that hadn’t started yet (he was part of a league ages 5-6 but Shetland level doesn’t keep score and it’s all smiles and giggles before age 7). Without the seriousness, it was constant nonstop fun.

    If I had to do anything differently – I think I would have more strongly insisted that he not play baseball for at least 4 months each year, and very strongly encourage him to use his body in other ways during that 4 month period – whether sports or some other activity. I did actually push for this – I just didn’t push super hard and didn’t much succeed at getting him to use his body in other ways. He played basketball a bit in the 6th to 7th grade time frame but that was about it.

  11. Thanks Joe!

    In similar vein to your last paragraph. What was you final conclusion on the whole early specialization vs multi sport path? Could the multi sport athletes keep up with specialists? Arm trouble for pitcher specialists?
    Cheers Paul

  12. Paul – The human body is complex, so it’s not easy to isolate just one variable such as early specialization vs. multiple sports, when at least 3 other variables have even greater impact:

    • natural athletic talent (among many different dimensions)
    • early vs. late development (maybe it doesn’t matter long run, but it is often the most impactful variable in the early years)
    • motivation (which leads to hard work)

    Furthermore, I have seen many cases of kids who seemed to have little talent or even exposure to some physical activity at the younger ages suddenly advance incredibly rapidly starting at an age somewhere between 12 and 16. My son is a case in point – 15 months ago at the age of 14 1/2 he fell in love with American Ninja Warrior. The only thing he had ever done that is remotely related is climbing in a gym 5 years earlier for just a few months. In just 15 months he has progressed crazy fast to the point where he can do any show obstacle (and has also developed the endurance to do a course run series of obstacles). He has the talent, the right body type, and he is super motivated and he took it up at the perfect time in his physical development to rapidly pick up new skills.

    All that being said – I think variety is better than specialization for a lot of reasons. As I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the only thing you get from specialization is a temporary leg up at the younger ages in skills which require lots of repetition. That leg up may last years through to high school, but eventually that head start becomes irrelevant. The downsides are numerous, with higher injury risk, less overall physical development of the body, emotional burnout, and lack of exposure to other types of sports cultures.

    That last one I just threw in there on a whim but I’ve been thinking about that some as my son says over and over how much he loves the people and culture of Ninja where people are so supportive of each other and everyone seems really nice. Baseball has idiosyncrasies to its culture that become more obvious for those who expose themselves to other activities.

  13. One small anecdote related to how fast older kids can learn (though this one is not even at the fastest learning age for organized sports which I believe starts around ages 12-15):

    Ball tracking is something that is very difficult for really young kids. Leaning to catch a fly ball at the age of 4 took many thousands of repetitions over the course of the prior couple years for my son. Possibly over 10,000 – it was many hours/week of practice. By the age of 5 when he joined the Shetland division of PONY – he could catch fly balls better than anyone. And you could see that the kids out there were all very slow to learn that skill because ball tracking doesn’t come easily at those ages.

    But . . .

    At the ages of 8 or 9, and even more so at 10 or 11, you see kids come into the game who have never played. And as a coach, you can teach them to catch a ball with just a few hundred throws. And by the time they get to over 1000 attempts, some of those kids surpass those have played for years in ball catching ability.

    At the ages of 13-14, the very best at catching balls – the center fielders – it had nothing to do with whether they had done tons of practice at the early ages. It had to do with their natural running speed, ball tracking talent, and emotional attitudes (fearlessness, confidence, etc.).

    Just one anecdote of many that supports my view that early specialization provides only fleeting advantages that won’t last beyond early high school.

  14. Thank you for all your posts. They have been informative, relatable and a source of solace in our baseball journey. Many similarities in your last post to our own experience. My son has left baseball behind to focus on his newly discovered passion for running. Like you, we are thrilled he has found something he loves!

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