Analysts disagree on what accounts for this attrition. Do kids willingly drift off to acting and music and Dungeons and Dragons? Or do adults turn kids off with misplaced emphasis and boorish behavior?
Rick Wolff, chairman of the Center for Sports Parenting at the University of Rhode Island, believes that 11-and 12-year-olds go elsewhere because parents and coaches aren't giving them the sports experience they want. He cites the boom in extreme sports as proof. "With mountain biking, snowboarding and skateboarding, kids know parents aren't involved," he says. "And because parents aren't involved, they know they can go do those things to enjoy themselves."
Indeed, that Youth Sports Institute survey asked kids who abandoned sports at 10 what might lure them back. The top three answers were: "If practices were more fun," "If I could play more" and "If coaches understood players better."
Which suggests once again that it's worth cocking an ear.
Lunch hour is over at Home Run Baseball Camp. The games of pickle and tag-up have wound down, and coaches keep their distance as two 10-year-olds choose sides at a diamond tucked into the far end of the park. "They know exactly who the best are," John McCarthy says. "They don't need coaches to tell them."
George Wojcik of McLean, Va., has been designated one captain, and he picks his team from the gallery of unwhiskered faces seated before him. "It takes me a long time to choose them," he'll say later. "I want to see who's making eye contact with me. And I'm influenced by people I've already picked."
With its culture of on-field chatter and idle dugout banter, baseball is well suited for the 10-year-old's fledgling rhetorical confidence. Disconnected thoughts materialize and fill out the natural pauses of the game, eventually organizing themselves into a kind of conversation:
"In the hole—that's an odd term, don't you think?"
"You know what? If a glove is in our lost and found for more than a week, we send it to the Dominican Republic."
After a teammate fouls off a handful of two-strike pitches: "Uh, uh, uh, uh, stayin' alive, stayin' alive!"