As noted before, in real life I coach for, and help run, a local youth baseball league. My oldest, now in 6th grade, has been playing since kindergarten; my youngest will be in kindergarten in a few more years and he’ll play too.
And so I gradually took over duties from the guy who used to run the organization, and another dad/coach help me run the show. This past week, our spring baseball registration period wound down, and we had a numbers problem: Too few kids at the one age level (they will register and play with another local baseball organization) and too many at my kid’s level.
We had 17 registrations, too few for 2 teams – we would have needed at least 20, but ideally 22 – and way, way too many for one team. We had wanted to cap team size at 12, but I talked the other dad – who will be the team’s head coach – to agree to keep 13 kids. That meant we had to lose four. But who?
One very late signup said, no problem, he’ll go over to the other league. Another kid said, well, he changed his mind, he decided he just wasn’t going to sign up at all. That’s 15.
Another kid, when I looked at his birthdate, realized – he’s too old to play at this level, the league is really strict, he has to move up. That’s 14.
One more to go.
If it had been up to me, if I were the head coach of the team, I would have just kept 14. But the other dad – who’s a better coach than I am specifically because he’s more hardcore, and Leo Durocher had it right, nice guys finish last – said uh-uh. It’s 13 or he won’t coach. Saying – correctly – that even 13 is probably too many; the more kids you have on a team, the more juggling you have to do as a coach. Kids have to be subbed in and out, good kids, quality players, wind up having less playing time, they don’t develop the way they should – the team itself isn’t as competitive as it could be. And that penalizes all the players, because kids playing competitive ball want to win. You keep too many kids, it makes it harder to win.
I knew all these arguments. I know that they’re true. I knew that he was right. I knew that the fairest way to do it was on a first-come, first-served basis. And so I let him make the call, and he did.
And I felt like I failed that one kid.
It may sound overwrought – less so if you’ve ever been involved with youth sports, maybe – but it was excruciating to me. I wanted to accommodate the kid. I felt we should. I didn’t want to have to cut him. He’ll go play for the other league, we made sure there’s a spot for him, but he wanted to play here.
Listen, says the other dad/coach – his registration was the last one we got, and the registration period lasted nearly two months. This is the fair way to do it. Nothing personal. The team as a whole, and each of the players, will be better off because we didn’t overload the team.
In being “fair” to this one kid, he said, you’re ultimately unfair to everyone else.
You’re right, I said. But I feel like I’ve gone over to the Dark Side or something.
His response: “It’s called real life.”
And I’ve thought about that ever since.
I had another friend/coach say – you’re being such a damned liberal. And I thought, well, you know – yeah.
Life isn’t fair. Liberals want to make it fair. If you ever need a two-sentence definition of liberalism – that’s it.
I wanted to accommodate everyone. I feel like I had/have an obligation to do so.
But you know what? There are times you’re just not going to be able to accommodate everyone.
And in trying to accommodate every individual, you ultimately short-shrift the group.
The other dad/coach ran a team with 16 kids on it last year (which is why he refused to have that many again this year). They lost a lot of games they might have won because he was required to get all the kids on the field a certain number of innings, meaning the other kids – the better players – had to sit. Any coach wants his best players on the field at all times; by saddling him with so many kids last year, we made that impossible.
Was that “fair” to all the players? Sure, maybe to the 3 or 4 latecomers who we/I felt obligated to accommodate. But how about the rest – how about the kids who signed up on the first day because they’re so psyched about baseball and they’ve worked and they’re ready to play and they’re pretty skilled? Don’t we/I have an obligation to be “fair” to them?
If I sound as if I’m still trying to convince myself of all this… well maybe. But I feel as if I just learned a hard truth or something. You can’t always accommodate everyone.
And if that’s true, maybe it’s true not just in baseball but in politics; in terms of social services, in terms of education. Liberals always insist upon the necessity of accommodating everyone. We argue that it’s a moral imperative – and I believe that it is.
But while something may be “moral,” that doesn’t make it achievable. Or rather, it doesn’t make it achievable without imposing costs, maybe significant costs, on others.
I think of ADA-compliant sidewalks, sidewalks with ramps to accommodate wheelchairs. It’s a minor example, but consider that in order to accommodate a very small percentage of the population, everyone else had to pay. Not much; and the morality of being “fair” in this case did not impose a big burden.
But consider education. I think I’ve mentioned this before – I personally know a woman who’s employed full-time by a local school district to manage one student with special needs. One full-time employee for one student. Because the student – by law; and it’s the only moral thing to do – must be accommodated.
But multiply this by whatever the number of these students are, in this district and others, and you have a significant cost that taxpayers must bear. It may be “right” and just and moral to impose that burden, but recall that it’s just one of many such burdens the taxpayers must bear.
Is that “fair” to those taxpayers?
And isn’t this question the essence of conservatism?
I don’t know. The personal is political, as they say – but I didn’t expect this personal thing to become political. That is did just kind of jolted me. With lasting repercussions down the road? Ask me in the spring. When we’re on the field, playing baseball.