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January 5, 2014

Obsessed parents can turn ‘Dream’ into nightmare

DUNCAN — When it comes to youngsters being interested in athletics, “The Dream” can be a good thing — a motivation, a driving force for excellence and achievement.

But when parents become consumed by turning their child’s dream into their own, “The Dream” can turn into “The Nightmare.”

Here’s a true story.

It was an impressive debut. In the summer of 1981, a 13-year-old pitcher made his first appearance in the local Babe Ruth League by throwing a no-hitter.

Bigger than most kids his age, Mike overpowered hitters with a fastball that had unusual velocity and a sharp-breaking curve ball. In the initial outing, he hit four batters and walked five, but no one hit the ball out of the infield and Mike finished seven innings with 17 strikeouts.

During the game, Mike’s dad, Jerry, paced around behind the backstop. He flashed signals to his son, chattered incessantly and at one point instructed Mike, “Throw a ‘brushback’ at this guy and back him off the plate!”

Up in the crowd, Mike’s mom sat with a Jugs Gun, clocking the speed of his pitches and making notes on their location. Both parents also spent a lot of time loudly critiquing the umpire.

After the game, Jerry approached me. I was in a fourth year as sports editor of my hometown paper in Illinois, and knew Jerry fairly well. We’d played high school and summer sports against one another, although Jerry hadn’t been a standout in any.

I anticipated a friendly chat, but Jerry began the conversation by saying, “I expect there’ll be a big write up in the paper tomorrow, won’t there?”

I tried to answer, but Jerry didn’t pause to take a breath.

“You ever seen a 13-year-old throw like that? I’ve had him on ‘the gun’ at over 75 miles an hour,” he said. “I’ve been workin’ with Mike since he was 4; taught him to throw a curve ball when he was 6.

“When Mike went to camp last year at Indiana State (University), the coach said he’d never seen a kid Mike’s age throw harder. He said the kid’s got a a good chance for a scholarship some day.

“He’s gonna be the best we’ve ever had around here.”

I made the mistake of mentioning a lot of experts didn’t think kids Mike’s age should throw curve balls; that youngsters should throw low-impact, off-speed pitches, instead of firing lots of “benders” that can damage elbows and shoulders.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that crap, too, but Mike’s special,” Jerry said, his brow tightening. “They won’t say that when he’s in the majors. You know, major league scouts are always lookin’ for left-handed fastball pitchers with a good curve.”

Over the next three years Mike’s folks spent thousands of dollars sending him to baseball camps around the country. They hired a private pitching coach to work with him, and although Mike was a pretty good all-around athlete, Jerry insisted he give up all other sports.

Mike quit the local summer league and joined an “elite” team in a larger city, pitching in 25 or more games each season.

Mike also made the high school team as a freshman, but there were problems.

Jerry was always around; showed up at every practice and stood behind the backstop during games, giving the kid signals. Mike pitched every second or third game, but Jerry argued with the high school coach — loudly, and in front of other players — that his kid should pitch every game.

Then everything changed. During the first game of his junior season, Mike heard a “pop” in his left shoulder. The coach realized something bad happened and started to take the kid out, but Jerry ran onto the field, screaming, “Don’t you dare! He’s OK! You didn’t warm him up right before the game!”

The coach pulled Mike anyway, but after the game Jerry backed the coach up against the dugout wall, yelling that he should have let Mike “pitch through the pain!”

Well, Mike never pitched another inning — his rotator cuff and the cartilage in his left shoulder were torn. He quit baseball, dropped out of school as a senior and with no other skills, no other interests and no direction, he drifted into living on the edge.

Ten years later, I was in my hometown and ran into Jerry. We chatted a while and I asked how Mike was doing.

“Oh,” he said, “Mike got his GED and he’s workin’ for me at the feed mill.”

Then Jerry grew sullen and his voice turned angry.

“You know,” he said, “Mike was the best pitcher we’ve ever had around here.

“If that stupid high school coach had known how to handle Mike, he’d have made the majors and he’d probably still be pitching today. That guy ruined Mike.”

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Duncan mayor Gene Brown and vice mayor Dr. Mike Nelson share a comedic moment during Tuesday night's city council meeting.