For a few years, my niece was one of the best setters in the state of Wyoming. That is, I realize, being a big fish in a small pond, but it gave us a taste of what it’s like to be the family of a gifted athlete. Upperclassmen viewed her largley with disdain, and their parents tended to focus on the fact that she was taking court time from their kids. My family encouraged her skill while my niece negotiated fitting in with her peers. I loved watching her play, but the drama was exhausting. It also gave me a new perspective on the complications of raising an athlete — there’s a lot more than what happens in a game.
I’ve been thinking about my niece’s volleyball career since stumbling onto the social media of various Rockies parents and family members. Rockies families have an active (if quiet) online presence as they support their adult children who also happen to be professional athletes.
Based on my own, albeit impersonal, participation in the lives of Rockies’ players, we can break down the Rockies’ players’, spouses’, and parents’ social media interactions into a few categories. These are the ways I’ve noticed the broader world of players’ lives show up in ways I didn’t really expect.
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The Players: Most players have some kind of social media platform, which largely serves to help build their brands. Many prefer Instagram (e.g., Charlie Blackmon, Chad Bettis, David Dahl, Carlos Estevez, Carlos Gonzalez, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Adam Ottavino, Gerardo Parra), which makes sense given that the platform is primarily visual, discourages comments, and has a translation feature for players whose first language isn’t English. (I’ve written about players’ social media here and here.)
The Spouses: Some of the players’ spouses, like the wives of Gerardo Parra and Adam Ottavino, have social media accounts, but they tend to be private.
The Parents: Then there are the parents. Because I wish to respect their privacy as much as possible, I’m not linking to any accounts in this piece, but none of these accounts are private.
It is sobering to realize that Rockies parents and family members are keeping up with what you write. On one hand, it’s flattering. As a writer, you write because you believe that you have insight into a situation. Realizing that players’ parents may be reading what you write feels empowering. Maybe the player will notice what you’ve said. How cool is that?
On the other hand, it’s terrifying. It’s impossible to keep from worrying that you’ve written something really stupid — embarrassingly stupid. What if the article you’ve written has ends up as the subject of ridicule around the dinner table? The writer’s job is to be true to the story, regardless of popularity, but who doesn’t want approval?
I would argue there are four levels of parental/familial engagement on social media, primarily on Twitter.
Silent Monitoring: Some parents don’t have Twitter accounts (at least easily found ones), but they’re keeping up. For example, Purple Row colleagues have told me that Charlie Blackmon’s dad occasionally sends emails to writers. Mr. Blackmon isn’t interested in making a public fuss, but he wants writers to know that he’s paying attention.
Discreet Approval: This is the quiet liking of a tweet promoting something you’ve written. Chad Bettis’s dad has liked tweets from Purple Row about his son’s pitching. Similarly, Adam Ottavino’s mom liked an article I wrote about her son’s photography, and Sam Hilliard’s mom liked something I tweeted during spring training. These are only few examples.
Public Approval: This happens when an article is retweeted by a parent. It is a kind of personal endorsement, an authority promoting what you’ve written. Nolan Arenado’s mom is a great example of this. She uses her Twitter feed to, essentially, scrapbook Nolan’s and Jonah’s careers. She is liberal with the like button, and she retweets things that she thinks are noteworthy. But that’s the extent of it. She never comments. I had a similar experience with two members of Jon Gray’s family for an article I wrote about him. (They endorsed my rebuttal of Mark Kizla’s article referring to Gray as a “head case.” That means they also probably read the one I wrote urging him, in the tradition of Coco Chanel, to change his mindset by cutting his hair. I suspect they were less impressed with that one. I had no idea they would read either.)
Open Engagement: This is less common, but it occurs when a player’s family member comments on a story or an event. Tom Murphy’s mother is very active on social media in advocating for her son. Tyler Anderson’s family uses Twitter to point out his success as a player because he can get lost in the pitching rotation.
Again, these are only a few examples.
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So what’s the point? Here’s my theory — and why I told you about my niece. When she was in school, we discovered that we had to act as her advocates. It was a balancing act — we didn’t want to undercut the coach or create problems with her peers, but we learned that other parents were powerful forces who were advocating for their own children. Being present mattered.
Take what we experienced, and multiply it by 100 for the parent of any professional athlete. These talented young men surely experienced the same pressures. They were taking playing time that their teammates wanted. Complicate that with knowing that for young men, this is may be a ticket to a professional career. (The opportunities for women are fewer and less lucrative.) And then add the pressures of sports: winning and losing; handling injury; dealing with stress; managing a busy schedule. They became baseball experts and sports psychologists and advocates. It was part of their job as parents. And I suspect that they use social media to continue watching out for their kids. Besides, they’re good at it: They’ve had years of practice.
After a year of college volleyball, my niece put away her spandex. We all understood that part of our lives was over. But the Rockies families are still watching, seated in the bleachers of social media.