These changes are taking their greatest toll on baseball, that languid American pastime we still associate with community. When Cincinnati Moeller High baseball coach Mike Cameron was developing such major leaguers as Buddy Bell, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr., he usually had 90 kids try out for the team. In recent seasons he's gotten half that many, and those who do make the team rarely spend their summers playing sandlot ball. The decline in baseball coincides with the boom in soccer, whose coaches expect kids to begin travel-team play just as ballplayers report.
The temptation of a scholarship drives a lot of families," says one father, whose twin boys each play three sports at a small high school in Vermont. "My sons enjoy the renaissance sports experience I cherished as a kid, but it could cost them the opportunity to play a varsity college sport. I guess that's the price of our competitive 'evolution of the species.' " Even nonscholarship Ivy League and Division III schools—which once celebrated well-roundedness as a virtue—are encouraging the trend toward specialization. "Despite support for the notion of the three-sport athlete, many colleges aren't looking for the well-rounded student anymore, but the well-rounded class," says Dan Doyle, author of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting. "That means X number of male soccer players, X number of female softball players, etc."
So travel-team coaches thrust contracts in front of nine-year-old girls, asking them to pledge to put soccer ahead of every other sporting pursuit. The girls sign them, with an approving nod from mom and dad. "You see these parents who want their kids to be champions but want it to be a stress-free, enjoyable process," says Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist based in Washington, D.C. "That's not possible. Emotionally, what a child needs and a child champion needs is the same."
During the months he spent following the football team at Odessa (Texas) Permian High for his 1990 book Friday Night Lights, author H.G. Bissinger heard cautionary words that haunt-ed him throughout his season there. They came from a father who saw, Bissinger writes, "the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw the inevitable danger of adults' living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than that of the high school athlete."
The brief transit of the schoolboy idol is a bittersweet archetype of American culture, the stuff of Springsteen songs and Updike novels. Yet we ask these athletes to come alight sooner, and burn brighter, than ever. Over the next month SI will feature four snapshots of where high school sports stand today, for better or worse. This week you'll meet two boys from Louisville, both with the chops to excel at three sports and the will to ignore the siren song of specialization. Next week we'll take you to Bradenton, Fla., to the campus of a private academy for serious jocks, set up by International Management Group, much like the New York City high school that trains singers and dancers and was the inspiration for the movie Fame. Then we'll visit Indiana, once home to Hoosier Hysteria, but where high school basketball is no longer packing gyms or knitting together the state's far-flung counties. Finally we'll drop in on a 96-year-old Thanksgiving football rivalry in greater St. Louis, where high school teams still play for school and community.
If Chip Hilton's Valley Falls is our Eden, places like Modesto Christian and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary are outside the gates. But even at schools untouched by scandal or sellout, there's less singing and cheering, fewer bands and "real send-offs." Classmates no longer wait up for the Big Reds boys' varsity to return on Saturday night, if only because so many have practices of their own on Sunday morning, that brass ring in their sights. To answer the question of whether we believe high school to be a precious interval in a young life or some Scholastic Fantastic stopover on the way to the Show is to learn a lot about who we are.
If it's true that by our children you shall know us, high school sports implicate us as a dedicated, focused, proudly self-reliant people, or an obsessed, blinkered, hopelessly atomized society—take your pick. But one thing is certain. In spite of all the trappings of tradition, notwithstanding the dads in the stands with three-letter sweaters in their closets, we are not who we once were.