By Linda L. Esterson
Josh Sherer remembers dreaming of becoming a professional pitcher when he was about 4 years old.
Sherer and his father, Mitch, often watched classic Oriole games with Jim Palmer on the mound. The pitcher he admired most when he was very young was former Oriole Mike Mussina.
“He was the big pitcher, he was dangerous,” says Josh. “He was one of the top five pitchers in the league.”
Josh has played baseball for 10 years, most recently pitching on Reisterstown Recreation Council’s in-house leagues and travel teams.
“The dream is probably to get to the minors and get to Triple-A and hopefully move up to the bigs (major leagues),” says Josh, 14. He anticipates a need in Cincinnati, Arizona and Baltimore where the bullpens are “absolutely atrocious.” Josh estimates getting to that point in about six or seven years.
Josh is akin to millions of children all over the United States who dream big, aspiring to become professional athletes. Whether in baseball, football, basketball, figure skating, swimming or other sports, the dream is there to reach the pinnacle: Major League Baseball, the National Football League, or the United States Olympic Team.
Thirty-nine-year-old Brian Bark, a Randallstown High School graduate, remembers watching the Orioles play at Memorial Stadium with his father at about age six. His father played in the minor leagues in the New York Mets system, so with his connections, gave Brian the opportunity to meet players.
“I found very early that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he says.
His parents encouraged him through his career in youth baseball, in travel and fall leagues, at Randallstown High and then North Carolina State University. Mr. Bark signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1990 and rose through the ranks to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Richmond in about 18 months. He spent three years on the Braves’ official major league roster, but waited in line behind starters Steve Avery and Greg Maddux, and relievers Mark Wohlers and Mike Stanton. As the Braves raked in the National League pennant year after year, there was no time for prospects to gain experience in the big leagues.
In 1995, Mr. Bark was granted his release from the Braves and signed with the Boston Red Sox. He went to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket and was called up about a month later. He spent more than two months with the big league club, pitching a few innings in a total of three games. The next spring, the Red Sox wanted him again so he signed with the New York Mets. An elbow injury ended his career just after the season began.
Mr. Bark achieved what many players don’t. He made it to the big leagues. But he’s the first to admit it was not easy.
“Once you sign the contract, there’s a difference in your approach,” says Mr. Bark, who is now vice president of a global defense company based in the United Kingdom. “It’s a job and you have to be committed and dedicated.”
Jonathan Grossman, Esq., agent with Universal Sports Management in Florida, says getting beyond the starry-eyed dream is the first step and realizing the commitment is the next. “It’s a 12-month, 7-day-a-week job, not just high school one hour of practice and some games,” he says. “It’s about eating right, being in the gym when nobody’s around and not going out until 3 a.m.”
Mr. Grossman left high school early for the chance and never survived beyond the minor leagues. In the winter while it’s snowing, instead of frolicking, the player needs to be in the gym running and lifting weights and at the pitching and batting cages, hitting 500 balls a day “until there are blisters.”
He equates the situation to a marathon, with very few having the stamina to last 26 miles.
Mr. Bark believes that parents can be extremely influential in their children’s success, which is not entirely about reaping financial rewards. Their support proves crucial as their most successful sons are the ones who fail seven out of 10 times (hitting) and have to learn to be resilient.
“Why squash their dreams?” he asks of parents who would rather infuse a dose of reality for their children. “Let them aspire to be whatever they want to be.”
Yet, the reality is that of the 300 million people in the United States, so few earn a living on a professional field, court, pool or rink. And with sports like baseball and basketball drawing athletes from all over the world, there are billions of people dreaming of the same goal.
“It’s a tiny fraction of 1 percent who even make the minor league, semi-pro level,” says Harold Ziesat, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in practice in Columbia. “Even fewer get to the show (major leagues) and stay more than two weeks. The probability of getting up to the big leagues in any sport and staying there is at best small.”
And if they do, there are questions about how long they can survive in the minor leagues, living in a very small town on a salary of less than $1,000 a month for just five months.
Dr. Ziesat says explaining their slim chances to young children who haven’t yet completed elementary school math is difficult. Instead, the focus should be on the balance between boosting self esteem and encouraging exercise, breathing fresh air and gaining the experience of being on sports teams.
“Whether they win or lose, they still have plenty of great things to offer the world,” says Dr. Ziesat. “It’s not just about making the major leagues. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t become the next Orioles star or Ravens prospect.”
Most parents, he says, do a good job of explaining what’s important in life. Good exercise and teamwork are ways they benefit from sports and they can contribute to society via many important jobs.
“Parents need to not press kids’ dreams. The point it to enjoy the game and get out of it what you can,” says Dr. Ziesat, who counsels performers like athletes, dancers and musicians with issues related to performance anxiety. Enjoy the moment. The future will take care of itself.