Tuesday, June 23, 2009

[Smalls has lost a baseball signed by Babe Ruth]
- I take it back. You're not in trouble, you're dead where you stand. *

Once upon a time, I was such a baseball nut.

These days, the closest I get to baseball is the Mets t-shirt I occasionally wear, one Zephyrs doubleheader I only got to see the first game of this season (they were playing the Albuquerque Isotopes, who were named for a certain fictional Springfieldianite ball team), and the many baseball books I still have. I couldn't even converse with someone I knew recently about the latest Mets-Yankees games, where, it seemed, once again the Mets had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. (Come on, fellas, Joe Torre ain't there no more. You coulda pulled it out. Beltran only got on the DL just recently...)

How could I forget my son's ball games in that list?

Well, for one thing, it certainly ain't the majors. Before you get all het up about that assessment, let me explain. I know baseball played by 6-year-olds can't be expected to be like watching grown men slug an airborne shot into the hot corner where the third baseman is just waiting to pluck it from the air, get the guy running from second, then throw a fast one over to the waiting second baseman's glove a split second before the runner from first touches the bag. The kids are barely able to wrap their heads around the basics of catching a ball, then throwing it to make plays like that, and I don't even want to talk about the hitting. At least the games are arranged so that the kids are only playing two full innings in which all of the players get to bat and all of them play in the field. I don't think most of the parents could take something going on for that long, forget the kids. And I certainly know that my son's coach, as patient as he is most of the time, can only take the human equivalent of herding cats so much.

So, it's a struggle...for me, anyway...because, it seems that for every kid on my son's team who is unable to keep the ball from dribbling past his outstretched glove, or has to have the tee brought out after three attempted pitches have sailed by his swinging bat, or who gets out after he spends a little too much time following the ball he just hit with his wondering eyes rather than running for first base as fast as he can, there is a kid who swings for the fences like Barry Bonds and gets the ball there. There are kids who are throwing the ball straight, true, and fast to first once the ball leaves the hitter's bat, and on one occasion, the ball made it into the first baseman's glove with that satisfying thwack in the pocket just before the hitter got to the bag, eliciting an ooooh from the watching parents who were not expecting it.

- Man, you think too much! I bet you get straight A's and shit!
- No, I got a B once. Well, actually it was an A minus but it should have been a B.
- Man, this is baseball, you gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball! *

After being away from baseball for one summer, my son decided to come back to it this summer, and his lack of aptitude for the game kinda shows. He's more interested in getting the snacks from the concession stand, especially, after the games, one of those giant Pixy Stix that looks for all the world like the company decided to add steroids to a humble puff of flavored sugar and the straw in which it is packaged. He goofs off when he's playing defense out in the field, and, after loosening his very loose tooth right out of his mouth during a game, walked all the way through the infield, past the coach from the opposite team pitching to a hitter from his team, to where I was sitting in the bleachers to tell me he'd lost it and he couldn't find it (it's still in left field someplace). He's made contact with a pitched ball on occasion, but there is still a big reliance on his using the tee.

Yeah, so...he's six.

"I didn't start playing Little League until I was in third grade," Dan tells me.

The parents sitting by me are an encouraging bunch. Nobody is insanely raging for their son to become the next Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, or David Wright. "They're just trying as hard as they can, considering it all. It's amazing they even stay out there in this heat and do as well as they do," one mother says to me as she watches her child run for a ball that danced past him and is fast on its way to the fence, guaranteeing the batter a double by the 6-year-olds baseball rules. The games here are, by and large, entertainment, not life and death. I'm very grateful for that.

But there's still something nagging at me, a feeling that my son is a square peg in a round hole. He has admitted to me that he likes soccer better, but, overall, he's having fun with baseball, even taking a few practice swings in the teensy batting area behind home plate before he steps up to take some pitches. I get concerned about what he might be learning out there, if anything. Worried that he still feels pressure despite the looseness of the structure at the games. A tad exasperated that we put money into what has become a public goof-off with food for him...which is the point at which I want to kick myself. Hard.

Because all of the nagging I feel is probably just me, reeling from experiencing what happens when my son meets the world and worrying a bit too much about the impression he leaves. That sensation of having been hit by a pitch - or, even worse, having been hit on the elbow by a player picking up and swinging a bat right by you, which is what happened to a mom who volunteered to help herd the players along through their batting order while in the dugout - is that of having turned into my own mother.

Let me tell you something kid; Everybody gets one chance to do something great. Most people never take the chance, either because they're too scared, or they don't recognize it when it spits on their shoes. *

Baseball and any related practices and pickup games are all about preparing for moments, for eventualities, for whatever can come your way. Catch the ball as it caroms off the wall and use velocity and direction to launch it from your hand to the second baseman to hold the leadoff batter at first. Keep your knees loose and your glove down to capture that ball dribbling between second and third and, barring nailing the batter at first, keep a single from turning into a double. If you're batting, train yourself to swing at the right moment, to look for what might be coming from the mound even before the pitcher knows it.

I love my son fiercely, as my mom loves me and my brother, and I fear that he won't show how great he is on the inside, that he won't be ready to give his best, to put his heart into it when the opportunity comes. The moment will pass him by, and there he'll be.

But there he is, out there on that field.

I have to be a good parent and let him go.


*The Sandlot

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