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Five For The Record: Participation trophies.

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I have a low tolerance for cliches, especially when they’re trotted out in an attempt to teach me something about the world I live in.

Tonight, after reading a motivational book for a work assignment, I’ve discovered another phrase I think belongs in the burn-pile of threadbare sentiments:

“Kids today get trophies just for participating in sports, and this makes them weaker of mind, flabby of spirit, and less determined to succeed.”

(Or some bushwah like that; phrase the consequences however you want.)

I think this idea might have a kernel of truth in certain specific situations, but it’s now reached the point where it’s dragged out as a ready-made in lieu of actual thought.

So, in a variant on my usual Five For The Record format — a more typical example can be found here — I take, fed up, to the keyboard to lay out five reasons why participation trophies are not leading our country down the path to hell and people need to find something else to whine about.

mcquaid

1: A question of value. Playing sports through the ’80s and into the early ’90s, I might have been in the first generation of kids to receive the much-maligned “participation trophies.” I remember them well.

There was the little trophy I got in youth soccer in second or third grade, for instance. It was made of plastic, it leaned slightly to one side, and it would not have been out of place in a gumball machine.

And then there were the “finisher” ribbons I occasionally received for high-school cross-country races. They were scraps of cloth that probably came 100 to a five-dollar bag.

My point: These rewards were cheap handouts. They looked it. I recognized it. So do kids today. Do you really think kids allow 10 cents of Chinese plastic to warp their value systems for life and turn them into mediocre adults?

Today’s participation trophies are a little fancier, but they’re still cheap. Or at least, the ones my kids have are.

And I can tell you from the layers of dust on ’em that my kids aren’t making deep, life-shaping personal connections with theirs, any more than I did with mine. (Keeping something on a shelf and taking it to heart are two different things.)

2: Philosophy. “No, no,” I hear people saying irritably. “It’s not the actual item the kids receive that corrupts them. It’s the philosophical idea that they get something for nothing, or praise for being mediocre.”

First of all, they don’t get something for nothing. They put in time and effort — quite a bit of both in some cases.

And second, as I just said, the “something” they get is generally not a whole hell of a lot. (There is probably some crazy hyper-affluent suburb where every Little Leaguer gets a World Series ring, but this is the exception and not the rule.)

As for the idea of kids getting rewarded for being mediocre, this is also an exception, rather than a rule.

Remember: Kids spend nine months a year in school, a setting where they are constantly graded, week after week. Most of them have a strong and well-developed sense of what it’s like to be evaluated, what it’s like to be found wanting, what rewards await success, and what punishments follow failure.

To a kid, getting a prize for being an also-ran on the sports field is not a defining example of how life works. Rather, it’s a welcome vacation from the constant grind of performance evaluation. And who couldn’t use the occasional break from that?

3: Incentives. I accept it as fact, not cliche, that American kids as a whole are overfed and underexercised, and that their health suffers — and will continue to suffer — as a result.

With that in mind, something that pats kids on the back and says, “Hey, coming out and running three times a week was a great thing to do!,” is a worthwhile prize. It’s certainly a more positive end-of-year reward than a pizza and ice cream party.

(Yes, I grant the fact that not every kid who comes out for a team works hard and gets good exercise. Just getting off the couch puts them ahead of millions of other kids.)

Same deal with commitment. Kids need to know that they can’t just ditch what they start if it gets tough. Something that says, “Thanks for showing up every week for three months, being present for your teammates, and sticking it out!” doesn’t send the worst message in the world.

Sure, you don’t really get a prize for sticking it out at work year after year once you’ve grown up. But our treatment of children does not have to be 100 percent geared toward preparing them to be adult wage slaves.

4: Deflated self-worth. Another occasional argument of the anti-trophy folks is that kids will hyperinflate their perception of their own skills because they got a trophy. In other words, they’ll think they’re good when they’re not.

Again, I’m working off a limited sample size here … but based on my experience and that of my kids, I’m convinced that children have a pretty damn acute sense of how good or bad they are, and how good or bad their friends are.

Rare is the kid who genuinely thinks he’s Johan Cruyff because he got a trophy at the end of the season. If there are swelled heads in youth sports, it’s probably the result of ongoing coddling by a parent-coach, not a participation trophy.

5: The parents, not the trophies. Which brings me to the last argument for participation trophies: It’s the coaches and parents that shape a kid’s outlook and chances for future success, not the trophy at the end of the year.

It’s possible for a kid to lose all his games, get a trophy, and still turn out OK — if his parents and coach send the right messages and frame the season, and the kid’s effort, in the right way.

It’s also possible for a kid to lose all his games, get no trophy, and get his psyche stepped on by his coaches and parents in a way that screws him up worse than any little metal ballplayer bolted to a fake granite base could ever do.

 

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The summer game.

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With the exception of a few Bach toccatas played by Glenn Gould, I haven’t barely listened to music at all for the past two weeks or so.

(I continue to download Grateful Dead shows as if they were gonna be illegal, but I haven’t listened to any of them yet. I conclude that a library of Dead shows soothes my proto-Asperger’s personality, the same way a library of baseball cards used to soothe it when I was a kid.)

I haven’t turned my ears off; I’ve just found something a little different to feed them.

I discovered the Old Time Radio Researchers’ Group Library a few weeks ago. It’s a library of old radio programs, available for listening and download.

I’m sure there are treasures scattered throughout the collection … but what hooked me is in the “B” part of the library.

Under the heading “Baseball Game Broadcasts, The” are two or three dozen old radio broadcasts of baseball games spanning 1934 to 1966. Most are World Series games or All-Star games, while some are just average regular-season contests.

I don’t know of any other site like this. Most historical sports broadcasts you find online are being offered for sale, usually at a healthy price.

But these, you can enjoy for free … and I have thrown myself into the library with a vengeance. I’ve shelved music entirely during my commutes, in favor of old baseball broadcasts I’ve burned to CD.

(I’ve stubbornly refused to look up the results of the games, preferring to let them unfold as they did in real life.)

The first game I listened to was a Phillies-Mets matchup from Sept. 4, 1966 — a rainy Camera Day at Shea Stadium.

I didn’t live-blog it (though I might yet do that for another game, if I get the time.)

I can’t resist sharing a couple of observations, though:

– It’s charming to hear Lindsey Nelson rattle off a list of bricks-and-mortar places where Mets fans could buy tickets, including Grand Central Station; Macy’s in Huntington, Long Island, at the Walt Whitman Shopping Center; and any Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. bank office.

I’m too lazy to check, but I wonder if the Mets still go to that length in the age of the Internet. I’m guessing probably not.

– The Mets’ long-running broadcast trio of Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy is on the job, but we only hear one at a time. Presumably two of them were doing the TV call while the third handled radio.

– We hear very little color about the players.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by today’s commentators, who seem to throw in all kinds of details — especially ones that support whatever narratives they’ve decided to load down the ballgame with.

But Nelson, Kiner and Murphy don’t really tell you much about the ballplayers, who are left in the listener’s mind as one-dimensional shadows wearing Mets uniforms.

They don’t mention that Bill Hepler and Billy Murphy were Rule 5 draft pickups from the Senators and Yankees … or that Hawk Taylor’s real full name was Robert Dale Taylor … or that Bob Friend, at various times, had led the National League in wins, losses, games started and innings pitched.

Maybe they were saving the details for the TV call.

Or, maybe by that point in the year, they figured Mets listeners already knew the team, and didn’t need to be told again that Jerry Grote was a hothead and Tug McGraw a prankster and Cleon Jones a native of Mobile, Alabama.

– One thing Murphy, Nelson and Kiner do well is to keep the audience up to date on out-of-town scores, especially those involving pennant races. It captures the bustle of the baseball world, even though it subtly reminds Mets fans that their team is nowhere near contention.

– I’m incapable of seeing, reading or hearing a nostalgic beer ad without trying to taste the beer in my mind.

This broadcast is brought to us by New York’s long-gone Rheingold Dry. I wonder if what Rheingold called “dry” was the same thing as the “dry beer” that was briefly the rage 15 years ago?

– It seems like every new Met who comes to the plate or is substituted into the ballgame is greeted by boos. Either the fans were sick of futility, or a handful of grumblebunnies were seated near the broadcast booth.

– This particular broadcast was taped off WGY-AM in Schenectady, N.Y., and local programming occasionally intrudes.

At one point, a local voice briefly cuts into the broadcast to announce that the phone lines are down to a local fire company, and that listeners will need to call elsewhere to report emergencies. (There is no subsequent notice that the problem was fixed.)

At another point, WGY spends a 30-second break extolling the size and reach of its news department. It sounds like bragging, until you realize how much smaller that news department probably is now — if it even still exists at all.

– The Phils’ Chris Short pitches a 10-hit shutout — something we would almost certainly not see today, now that managers have deeper bullpens and quicker hooks than they did in 1966.

I could go on but that’s more than enough. Since this game ended, I’ve moved on to Braves-Dodgers 1950 and Indians-Senators 1939, which might also get commented on in this space at some point.

Or maybe I’ll get back to music someday.

Faded glory.

I don’t spend much time in high schools nowadays. The little time I do spend in my local school is generally limited to the auditorium, where the quarterly band concerts are.

One of my kids had his first youth basketball practice today, so I got to infiltrate the athletic wing.

I couldn’t recall having been there before. It was shinier and nicer-smelling than the high-school athletic wing of my youth.

(Most things I run into are shinier and nicer-smelling than they were in 1990. Curious, that.)

But one thing about the athletic area made it instantly familiar.

trophies

It occurred to me that every high school in the country could have the exact same trophies in its display cases, and no one would ever be the wiser.

Perhaps they all do, and these display cases are a quiet, chuckling in-joke among the athletic directors of the world.

(I bet you never thought of your local high school athletic director as puckish, playful or humorous. Maybe he’s playing a fabulous prank on the entire community, out there in plain sight.)

I also had the thought that, at some athletically challenged high school, the senior class might take the money for its senior gift and buy 10 “historic” awards to beef up the school trophy case.

C’mon. If you walked past a display case with plaques reading Runner-Up Hurricane Invitational 1982 and Regional Tournament Champions 1988 and Gus Kekula All-State Third Baseman 1973, would you have any idea they were fake and had been newly minted a month before?

Seems to me that a creatively minded senior class gift could jump-start an athletic tradition at their high school. It would be a better investment than a new sign or new granite bench in front of the school.

I kinda hope I’m not the first person who ever thought of this, and that someone’s actually done it. I’ll never know, though.

(Which is as it should be.)

I was on a couple of cross-country teams in high school that came away from meets with hardware. I wonder if those plaques and trophies are still on display.

My guess is probably not. My old school’s sports teams have gotten markedly better since I graduated. (Coincidence? No.)

I imagine the trophies of 1990 have long since been shouldered aside by garlands of more recent vintage.

That’s fine with me. High schools are no place for immortality, and I have no problem accepting that there is no trace of me left at my old school.

If I’d been All-State, like old Gus Kekula, maybe I’d feel differently.

On ice.

I went to see some college kids play hockey today.

This could easily be one of those blog posts that rants about how the NHL owners and players are all worthless greedheads, and how they are shooting themselves in the feet (if not the head), and how hockey played by unknowns for a crowd of 20 in a rink that smells like teenage socks is somehow purer and more righteous than that played in the NHL.

That would be bushwah, of course.

Grass-roots hockey is often sloppy and imprecise and frustrating to watch.

One of the players I saw today — I’ll spare him the embarrassment of identification — was so clearly deficient in passing, puck-handling and skating that I winced whenever the puck reached him.

The teams combined for 13 goals, one of them an own goal by a defenseman who chipped a bouncing puck the wrong way in front of his own net. That one made me wince too.

I’ve seen a couple club-level (sub-varsity) college hockey games, and there always seems to be one guy on each team who can outskate everyone else. That’s frustrating, too.

Seeing a big-league athlete take a game in the palm of his hand is magical. Seeing a bush-league athlete dominate just makes you think he should have gone to a school with a better hockey program.

All that being said, I enjoyed this afternoon’s outing. I expect I will go again, numerous times, between now and February or March when the local club squads pack it in for the year.

I would even go so far as to say that college hockey as played by the economics and engineering majors at Lehigh and Lafayette is one of the small undiscovered pleasures of the Lehigh Valley. It is low-key, spirited, and accessible. Free, too.

But, no lectures about how I don’t need the NHL when the humble local kids take the ice.

Amateur pluck has its place. So do the crisp laser-like passes and jaw-dropping finishing moves that only the very best can pull off.

One will hold me. But I still miss the other.