The Wealth Gap and the Baseball Dream

Irvine, a suburb of Los Angeles, has one of the largest Asian populations among American cities, surpassing even the city’s white population. The incomes in both Irvine and its surrounding Orange County exceed the national average, and many wealthy people live there.

In this place with a population of a little more than 30,000, the public sports facilities are particularly enviable. There are 80-something public baseball fields, 12 of which are in the Great Park sports complex. These fields not only have perfect lighting for night playing, but also comfortable seating for spectators. The Great Park covers 1.9 square miles — nearly the same size as Yonghe District in New Taipei City. At night, people, schoolchildren and parents gather in the park to practice and compete. Brightly lit, the brand-new baseball fields are a lively sight.

Many retired baseball players have chosen to create teams in the surrounding areas, and children have the opportunity to participate from the time they are small until middle school. Because the market is so large, many people want to form teams and coach baseball here. And it’s not just retired players; the family of current Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado has numerous teams and even a league-winning team.

Although it sounds like this should be heaven for children who want to learn to play baseball, there’s still a threshold to access. In Irvine, it costs at least a few hundred dollars a month to join a well-known team and receive coaching, and that’s just the basic fee. Players must bring their own bats, shoes, gloves and protective gear, and uniforms must be custom-made. Team hopefuls undergo an assessment before they can join, and once they make the team, competition is continual, so some parents hire private trainers for their children, just as they would tutors for schoolwork. In other words, even though public ballparks are everywhere, living the baseball dream is no longer cheap.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of children in households with annual salaries exceeding $100,000 participate in extracurricular sports. By contrast, that percentage drops to 31% among children in households with annual salaries below $25,000. Achievement in sports used to be an important driver of social mobility, giving those from poor households a chance to change their fortunes. An athletic scholarship for college or a contract with a professional team was life-changing. As the gap between wealth and poverty grows, however, and resource distribution becomes more uneven, this kind of social mobility is increasingly difficult.

However, even though wealthy families have the resources to allow their children to improve in sports, they have new problems to face. In her book “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids’ Sports — And Why It Matters,” senior coach and writer Linda Flanagan mentions the chaos caused by so-called helicopter parents, whether being overly concerned with their child’s position on the team or causing conflict with the referees or opponents during games. Such behavior has already become the norm in student sports.

Parents are concerned about their child’s development. Therefore, on the surface, active parental participation in sports practices and games may seem like a healthy family activity, but it can potentially be problematic. Sporting events are endlessly competitive, and whether their children are winning or losing or performing well or poorly, parents can get worked up. When similar academic situations occur, such as on a math test, parents excitedly post on social media, celebrating that their child answered the first question correctly, and then shout about the test question being faulty when they get the second one wrong. This level of concern very likely causes a high level of stress. Flanagan believes parents shouldn’t attend their child’s events frequently, so that the child can have space for personal development.

A recent paper published by the National Institutes of Health came to a similar conclusion: The stress of parents attending sporting events negatively affects children. The paper recommends that parents use more praise and understanding for improvement instead. In sum, getting a grasp on the level of parental concern so that children can enjoy growing up is undoubtedly a new issue parents must face.

The author is a sportswriter.

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