When Shawn Beaty welcomed players to the Parkside Junior High School baseball tryouts on Tuesday, he noticed a sixth-grader who was bigger than many of the eighth-graders.
Beaty had this luxury in regard to the disparity:
“You know it’s not performance enhancing drugs,” he said. “It’s just the nature of development.”
Turns out they can coexist. You just have to know where to look.
Baseball was blissfully natural on Tuesday in Bloomington-Normal and beyond, unfazed by the mess it has become at the highest level.
A day after Major League Baseball suspended Alex Rodriguez and 12 others for using performance-enhancing drugs — the most sweeping punishment since the 1919 Black Sox scandal — junior high players here and throughout Illinois were in tryouts.
There was no talk of needles or syringes or clinics, just hitting and pitching, fielding and throwing.
“Their minds are completely open. They’re young and they’re sponges,” Beaty said.
“They’re here to compete and really the only thing they think about is baseball, nothing else. They probably don’t even know what happened yesterday.”
OK, they know a little. Some may know a lot, given the media coverage of the suspensions and, in particular, Rodriguez. Yet, they don’t look across the diamond at a physically mature player and wonder, “Is he juiced?”
Remember what that’s like?
It is among the reasons Beaty is back for his ninth year of coaching junior high baseball. The ills of the sport — the stains upon it — are a world away.
“It’s refreshing to have kids here who just want to learn the game,” he said.
The scene was the same at Bloomington’s Howard Saar Field, where Bloomington Junior High was in its second day of tryouts.
Toward the end of the workout, players rotated in taking cuts as coach Travis Drury threw batting practice. Some made solid contact, lining balls into the outfield.
No one had to guess what was really going on. You could take each swing, good or bad, at face value.
“It’s pure. It’s baseball,” Drury said later. “You’d love to have somebody who is physically advanced, but at the same time, it’s nice to be able to see the growth that can truly be made (naturally).”
Drury is beginning his second year as junior high coach and has assisted Steve Clapp for eight years at Bloomington High School.
Two days of tryouts came and went without mention of the MLB suspensions, from Drury to his players or vice versa.
“It doesn’t even come into play,” Drury said. “The 16-year-old level team I coached this summer, there was more talk, just joking around about it. You’ll see a guy who looks big for his age and you may get a joke or two like, ‘Hey, what’s he juicing on?’
“But at the junior high level, it’s not even in their thought process at this point. It makes it a pure game.”
There’s that word again: “pure.” We used to take it for granted, naive as that was. Now, we long for it.
Players in the big leagues are the most skilled in the world, and to be fair, many are clean. Yet, when it comes to “pure” — top to bottom — the 13-year-olds taking algebra are way ahead of the guys making millions.
The young ones aren’t out to cheat the game, just play it.
The way nature intended.