Apologies to Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, but there is crying in baseball — just ask any parent whose son or daughter plays Little League. And the gripes aren't coming from the kids — it's Mom and Dad.
The sobs vary: Some cry because they've gone broke investing in high-end equipment and private lessons to groom their kids for the big leagues. Other parents scream because the volunteer coach doesn't know what he's doing. Jeff Garlin feels he's in another category: the levelheaded, non-egotistical parents who, like the title of the second film he's directed, are just Dealin' With Idiots.
“When I played baseball as a kid in South Florida [during the 1960s], sometimes parents came to the game — like two or three — and nowadays, maybe two or three parents don't come,” Garlin observes.
Though a satire, IFC's Dealin' With Idiots, out on July 19 in theaters and video-on-demand, shows how America's pastime, particularly for those younger than 12, has been marred by the egoism of their parents, who expect their little Johnny to pitch a no-hitter before he hits puberty.
Like the peewee beauty pageants on TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras, Little League sports overall have become increasingly cutthroat and costly in recent years. A New York Times article last year reported that a parent, hell-bent on preparing his child for the big leagues, could spend as much as $6,000 in a given year on fees, equipment and travel expenses.
“It's insanely competitive,” says Bob Odenkirk, who has weathered the calamities of girls softball and AYSO soccer in Los Angeles and plays nerdy baseball coach Jimbo in Dealin' With Idiots. “From the age of 7, the parents are trying to prep their kids to get college [sports] scholarships.”
Wallets are emptied for weekend hotel bills whenever little Johnny makes a traveling team, and for kissing up: If you want your kid to be in good favor with the coach or your fellow team parents, you'd better shell out for snacks for the whole team or, worse, volunteer at the ballpark's snack shack during practice and game times.
“It's a parent's job to bring snacks every week. That's crazy! When I was growing up, there weren't any snack bars,” Garlin says. “This whole parent-participation thing has gone way overboard.”
In Dealin' With Idiots, Garlin plays a character similar to himself: Max Morris, a popular comedian who decides to prep a documentary about his son's Little League culture by interviewing the mercurial parents who show up in the stands and on the field.
The film started with a 20-page outline, which Garlin wrote largely from his experiences with his sons' soccer and baseball leagues in Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and Cheviot Hills; he then had the cast improvise based on their own experiences. “Everyone had a story or, at a minimal level, something they witnessed,” Garlin says.
For instance, Steve Agee's character, Hezekiah, a father who watches his son's practices from behind a tree, stemmed from an incident Garlin witnessed at baseball practice. A verbally tyrannical father, after yelling at the coach, was ejected from practice; in subsequent weeks that father would sneak back and hide so he could watch his kid play.
“The holes they feel in themselves are projected onto the kids,” Garlin explains. “And by the way, it's everyone — it's the umpires, the people watching, it's all of them. They're not sane people. They're not good people.”
J.B. Smoove's Coach Ted and Odenkirk's Coach Jimbo also are examples of such archetypes. Coach Ted finds solace in Little League, as it makes up for those times he failed as a T-ball batter during his childhood. Off the field, Jimbo is the anal owner of a Kinko's-like shop, who remains eternally bitter about his brother stealing his high school sweetheart. But it's on the field where Coach Jimbo escapes, taking out his grudges on the young ballplayers with ridiculous advice: When Morris' son can't hit, Jimbo tells the kid he's better off getting hit by the ball in order to make it to first base.
Though Odenkirk points to his father as the prime inspiration for his cantankerous coach, he also drew from his experiences with his daughter's softball team when she was 9. “One season, the coach on her team made a point to have their daughter pitch and would not lift a finger to permit my daughter to pitch,” he explains. “The coach said to me that if I wanted my daughter to pitch, she should take lessons, that practice wasn't the time to learn pitching.”
His daughter took the extra time to improve her pitching, but the coach still didn't give her a chance.
Little League clubs typically have parents sign a good-behavior contract at the start of each season, but both Garlin and Odenkirk agree that those forms are disregarded.
On the flip side, parents' competitiveness and coaches' conflicts of interest have fueled an atmosphere of such stringent rule-following that the results can be nonsensical. Garlin remembers an umpire instructing a pitcher to start pitching just because the batter was slow to arrive to home plate. “By the time the batter stood at home plate, she only had the opportunity to face one pitch and, of course, struck out,” he says.
Garlin feels the biggest takeaway for children going through Little League isn't the skills they learn but the ability to keep their self-esteem intact amidst chaos.
“The movie was truly inspired by the sadness in my son's face,” Garlin says of his 17-year-old's earlier days in Little League. “Not that he witnessed what I witnessed, but he knew that it was pretty much all bullshit.”