Karl “KB” Blum swings a bat in the on-deck circle and tries to breathe. He has played 125 games this spring and summer, jetting around the country, bunking in anonymous hotel rooms, and now it has come to this. Tri-State Arsenal Red, KB’s team, is trailing 3-1 with two outs in the last inning of what, barring a dramatic last-at-bat comeback, will be their final game in the 13-and-under Elite World Series in Orlando, Florida. It’s a defining moment for KB. Start a game-winning rally, and scouts and college coaches will learn his name. Fail to deliver, and he’s just another teenager with a bat and glove.
KB came into the series as one of Arsenal’s most promising stars, but he’s been in something of a slump, notching just four hits in his seventeen at-bats so far. He takes his place in the batter’s box and digs in. He fiddles with his jersey, taps home plate, and fixes his eyes on the pitcher. It’s only 10 a.m., but the August sun is relentless. The crowd is as loud as it’s been all week. “C’mon!” an Arsenal parent screams from behind the dugout. “We can do this! KB, let’s go!”
If it’s hard to imagine how a professional ballplayer can perform under this much pressure, it’s nearly impossible to understand how a 13-year-old can do it.
Baseball has never been as innocent as we collectively mythologize it, not at any level. Steroids and other performance- enhancing drugs are only the latest unsightly scar on the game; overbearing fathers have been screaming at Little League coaches, umpires, and kids (sometimes other people’s, sometimes their own) for generations. Never before, however, has kids’ baseball been so high-powered as it is now, and the point of the high-pressure youth-baseball spear is arguably 13-year-old travel ball and the 13-and-under Elite World Series in particular. Little League baseball is certainly a more intense pursuit than it once was, but the fields are still kid-size, the coaches wear Dockers, not uniforms, and the game somehow maintains an ineffable quality of kindness (there is crying in Little League). Although high-school ball, for its part, can be all but quasi professional, it is played by high-school kids, many of them 17 or 18 years old. Thirteen-and-under ball exists on a unique point on the spectrum. The kids are grown-up enough to play on full-size fields and skilled enough to play the game at a high level, but they’re still a long way from being fully developed, physically or emotionally. They may look and play like men, but they are still, in reality, boys.
Elite youth baseball players typically come from California, Florida, and other Sun Belt states, where the climate allows year-round play. But improbably enough, the New York area has its own pocket of youth-baseball excellence: Toms River, New Jersey. A team from Toms River won the Little League World Series in 1998, and the town is unabashedly baseball-obsessed. There are seemingly more baseball diamonds per capita than anywhere this side of the Dominican Republic. There is a fall instructional league for 6-year-olds. The best players are regarded as local heroes.
KB Blum is arguably the premier Toms River player his age, and one of the best 13-and-under players in America. That status affords KB and the hundreds of other top prospects his age around the country tremendous opportunities. A few may make it to the big leagues, some may parlay their talent into a college scholarship, and almost all will enjoy the benefits that playing competitive team sports can yield, not least of all having fun. Still, being an ultra-elite 13-year-old ballplayer isn’t all walk-off home runs and high-fives. It requires a massive time commitment, extensive travel, and a willingness to sacrifice many of the things that typical 13-year-olds do. Fathers, no matter how well meaning, often push kids too hard. Injuries happen, sometimes career-ending ones. Winning can be thrilling, but losing can be crushing, and the burden of expectations is immense.
Back on the field in Orlando, KB stares out at the opposing pitcher. The first pitch is a fastball on the outside corner. The umpire raises his right fist. Strike one.
When KB was 2 years old, he already had Mike Piazza’s batting stance down. He would hold up his hand—asking for time from an invisible ump—then gingerly place his tiny feet into an imaginary batter’s box one at a time. He’d give his butt a Piazza wiggle and wave his plastic bat in the manner of his idol. His father, Karl Sr., would then toss KB a Wiffle ball—he tried to give his son 30 pitches a day—which KB would, as often as not, hammer. KB would then go into his home-run trot.