My daughter had a swim lesson at a swimming pool this afternoon. The heat seems to have broken, for now, and it was actually nice to have a summer day without all the sweat.

As my daughter was in the pool, kicking and stroking and generally having fun, I went to the fieldhouse of the park and spotted the box pictured above. It was a tangled mass of exceedingly ugly trophies, medals, and other detritus from a baseball awards ceremony. It made me think about, and want to describe, the trophies that I won when I was a kid.

The first trophy I ever won was when I was nine years old, the same age as my younger daughter is now. There was a batter following through on a swing, and it was gold-plated. There was also a golden eagle next to it, and a nameplate that read “HORACE MANN 1977 CITY CHAMPS.” It was the coolest thing I owned at that point in my life, and I put it on my dresser to make my brother jealous. Sibling rivalry at its finest.

But I got the trophy because my team actually won something. Had we not had a better record than the other teams we played, and won the year-end playoffs, we wouldn’t have had a trophy to get. In other words, just showing up and playing hard wasn’t enough. A trophy was a symbol of accomplishment.

Now fast forward to today. My children have dozens of trophies between them. Soccer, t-ball, skating competitions, whatever. Everybody gets a trophy. Win or lose. The trophy makers love that approach, I’m sure, but it’s far different than it was when I was a kid.

In the depths of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine saved the day when he wrote the American Crisis at the behest of George Washington. Paine’s words inspired the soldiers under Washington’s command to fight on, and it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t be Americans today without those words. Paine wrote, in those dark moments of December, 1776, that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Although Paine was writing about the cause of freedom and liberty, the same sentiment could be applied to a kid and his trophies, two hundred years later. My trophy mattered to me because I won it, while my kids now have participation trophies with a thick layer of dust on them. And so we end up with a box filled with plastic baseballs,  bendable arms and hamburger helper gloves as a result. Call it progress, if you want to, but I’ll have to differ with you on that.

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