published Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Kennedy: Fill your tank and play ball

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- Ah, yes, here we are at yet another wonderful Comfort Courtyard DoubleTree Inn and Suites motel.

We're here for a weekend baseball tournament, I think. Or is it a soccer tournament? Heck, it's the middle of the night, and I can't even remember which youth sports caravan we are rolling with at the moment.

All I know is that I'm in a tiny double bed, and there's a strange hand (not connected to my wife) draped across my face that smells like shredded cheese from the salad bar at the nearby Ruby Tuesday.

Yuck!

I fling my 9-year-old son's arm off my head, and in a flash of clarity I remember that the alarm is set for 6:30 a.m. so we can rush to an 8 a.m. consolation-bracket baseball game in the Atomic City Clash -- or is it the Atomic City Bash? (No, wait, the "bash" was in Birmingham last year, and that was soccer, not baseball.)

I turn over in bed and groan.

Immediately, my iPhone alarm comes alive with a mezzo forte patter of conga drums, and I toss off the covers to tackle the intricacies of the Wolfgang Puck dual coffee maker, which, it turns out, requires a mechanical engineering degree from MIT to operate.

Welcome to the slightly disorienting, weekend-eating, suburban ritual called travel-team athletics.

About once or twice a month, my family -- or some portion of it -- packs up the car with Legos and Gatorade to travel with my oldest son to one of his Clash/Bash sports tournaments. We leave home with songs in our hearts, and within five minutes we're bickering over my 4-year-old son's blueberry Slushy addiction.

These weekend youth sports tournaments sound a lot better when they are pencil marks on the kitchen calendar than when you realize it's 6:30 a.m. on your only day off and your most pressing concern is whether the motel-room AC has dried your son's Under Armour garments, which you dutifully hand-washed in the bathroom sink the night before using apricot-scented hotel shampoo.

While I wasn't paying attention -- which I have pinpointed as some time between 1970 and 2005 -- youth sports in the United States graduated from neighborhood ballparks. Now, all-star teams and aptly named "travel sports" clubs require weekend getaways to highly organized tournaments that almost always require at least one overnight stay at some $99-a-night, free-muffin motel. (Free-muffin motels, by the way, are not to be confused with $99-a-night, free-wine motels, which cater mainly to people attending training seminars.)

These sports getaways have become a big part of our family's social life, and honestly they are 90 percent fun and only about 10 percent torture.

The torture tends to fall into three main categories:

A. The getting lost part. Before my lovely wife won for our family a TomTom GPS navigation device at a local bowling-alley arcade -- seriously -- it was routine for us to get lost on the way to every sports tournament.

Baseball tournaments are especially tricky, as they are often tucked away in little rural towns that are mere dots on a map. Or as my 9-year-old son once observed, "Daddy, why do people out here like to park their cars on bricks?"

B. The spending part. Cash tends to fly out of your pockets at these tournaments. Besides the main overhead of room and board, there are expensive action photos to buy and $4 cups of shaved ice to eat.

My pet peeve, though, are those $40 titanium rope necklaces all the baseball boys are wearing that purport to block pain, relieve stress and enhance performance.

My 9-year-old thinks all would be right in the world if he just had a collection of these necklaces. Right.

C. The chewing your fingernails part. Because you have so much time and money invested in these journeys, it's hard not to be more than casually interested in how well your offspring performs.

Contrary to what some people think, most travel-team parents know that their children probably won't ever be scholarship athletes, much less professionals. But you do hope they don't end the weekend crushed by a poor play on the field.

Which brings me to the happy part.

At the Atomic City Clash, my 9-year-old son and his baseball buddies broke out of an O-for-summer slump against older, more experienced teams to gut out a victory. Technically they were the A-pool, consolation bracket champions of the Under-10 Division.

The boys piled on one another in right field after that game in a wild celebration suitable for a seventh-game victory in a World Series.

Meanwhile, I had an epiphany. A year from now, that pile of happy, 9-year-old boys is the only thing I'll remember about the last weekend in August 2011.

And you can't really put a price on that.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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