By Ron Berler
With Little League season approaching, I thought I’d reprise this piece, written while I was a youth-issues columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
When the Harwood Heights, Ill., Dodgers took the field last Saturday against their Little League rivals, the White Sox, they figured there was no way they could lose. On the mound for them was 11-year-old Paul Santucci, the Tom Seaver of the league. In his last outing, a fairly typical performance, he had fanned the last six batters and hit a three-run homer to win the game.
The Dodgers players were in awe of Santucci. He batted cleanup and wore Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg’s number 23.
“He’s perfect, I think,” said leftfielder John Mahon, 11. “He has every good quality you need to play baseball. When the game’s on the line, we say, ‘Come on, Paul, you can do it!’ and he usually does.”
“Without Paul,” confided Graham Brennan, the team’s 12-year-old centerfielder, “we couldn’t beat the White Sox.”
So the Dodgers players were dumbstruck when Santucci surrendered three first-inning runs, on two triples, a fielder’s choice and four consecutive walks. When in the fourth inning the score reached 7–0, the manager reluctantly pulled him from the game.
The players fell absolutely silent when Santucci returned to the bench. The young pitcher took a seat, carefully set down his glove and stared aimlessly into space. Just the day before, he had sat in the bleachers behind the dugout following practice and described to me what failure felt like to him.
“Most of the other guys don’t look at the game like I do,” he said. “They don’t worry that if they don’t come through, the team will lose. But I do.”
Many youth sports teams boast one star player, an athlete like Santucci who stands head and shoulders above his teammates. Some learn quickly that they pay a steep price for being the best. At a very young age, they must shoulder uninvited pressure and responsibility. For them, sports already has lost some of its joy, its innocence.
For Santucci, talking about this isn’t easy. “When the game’s on the line and I come through, I feel relief as much as happiness,” he told me, eyes to the ground, that day in the bleachers. “I feel relief that I didn’t let my teammates down. It takes a little bit of the fun away.”
He’s not alone in this. “Some of my friends and I who are good ballplayers, we talk about it,” he continued. “There are three or four of us who feel the pressure, and we all just live with it. We feel like we’re connected, like we know things the other players don’t know about.”
For the most part, their parents don’t know about them, either.
“I don’t think my parents have any idea that I sometimes get scared, said 11-year-old David Henrichsen, the Paul Santucci of the White Sox. “They don’t know that I spend more time worrying that I’m going to fail than I do about winning the game.
“I worry when I’m on the field, and before, at school and at home. When we score a couple of runs with two out, I worry about making the last out. When I pitch, I worry I’ll walk a lot of people or give up a bunch of hits.
“I think about it all, and it gives me the butterflies. I don’t like that feeling. It was almost better last year when I wasn’t the best on the team, and no one depended on me.”
Henrichsen was able to breathe easy the day of the Dodgers game. He skipped the matchup to go on a Boy Scouts camping trip. For Santucci, though, the game seemed never-ending. He came to bat in the next-to-last inning with the bases loaded and his teammates cheering for a home run, but struck out.
On the bench, Mahon quietly shook his head. “Sometimes we put too much pressure on him,” he confessed. “We say, ‘Come on, Paul, you can do better than that,’ after he makes an out or walks a guy. I know I’d be a nervous wreck if everyone depended on me to win every game.”
The Dodgers lost that day to the White Sox, 10–9.
“I wish I could take a a magic wand and make all the pressure go away,” Santucci had said, the day before.
“A lot of times I wish I was just average. If I was an average player and made a mistake, nobody would notice. They’d almost expect it.
“But I don’t have a magic wand.”