Saturday, April 15, 2006

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I have quite an inimitable relationship with baseball. I know the legends of baseball, but I couldn’t tell you their statistics. I recognize the names of some major league baseball teams, but I couldn’t tell you the name of one, single, major league player. I don’t even have a favorite team…but when I attend a baseball game – minor or major league – I feel more patriotic than anything else I do.

Maybe it’s the small-town feel that accompanies a minor league game: A sense of a community coming together. Maybe the nostalgia that comes with it since communities are all but non-existent, and “coming together” certainly isn’t on their agenda if they do exist. Maybe it’s the history of baseball, identified as an American sport, developed at a time when the people of this country were patriotic. They believed in an American dream. They were kinder to each other. Baseball was a commonality between neighbors, cities, states, and the country.

Maybe it’s the movies about baseball. Films that use baseball as a backdrop against the protagonist’s journey appeal to me on a personal level. I don’t know why, really. It’s the story of the hero that leaves an impression on me, and not the game of baseball, but somehow the two are intertwined.

Whatever it is about the sport that evokes the emotions that it does in me, they were heightened when my son Garren took an interest in the sport. I came home from work one day, about two years ago, and Garren asked me to play catch with him in the backyard. Garren was four years old at the time and had received a baseball glove from Santa that Christmas. But to my knowledge, he had never really put it to use, other than using it as a prop as he acted out parts of The Sandlot.

I agreed to go play catch with him because he’s my son and I love him. Not because I expected a great game of catch. If anything, I expected a great game of “fetch,” wherein I would throw the ball, Garren would fetch it, he would “throw” it to me, I would fetch it, and on we would go until dinner was ready.

We walked into the backyard and assumed our posts. I turned and looked at him, waiting there for me to throw the ball. He had his glove up in the air, and a colossal smile on his face. He couldn’t wait to play. He looked like the sweetest kid. I threw the ball to him – overhand, even – and, as if the muses of baseball were watching over him, Garren followed the ball with his eyes until he stuck his glove up to meet it. That ball landed right in his glove, with that beautiful echo of a ball hitting a mitt. It was the best sound I had ever heard. Garren was so ecstatic, but so cool about it, he just plucked it out of his glove and threw it back to me. Right back to me. I caught the ball in my glove and threw it back to him. He caught it again. It was no fluke, ladies and gentlemen.

Well, two years later he is finally playing Little League. And my daughter, Abbie, is playing on the same team. She is the only girl on a team of thirteen little hairless boys. If this were a Disney sports movie, she would be the stereotypical female fish-out-of-water character that is at first disregarded by her teammates and dismissed by her coach, only to then impress her coach and teammates with her athletic abilities and woo our hero/team captain with her feminine charm and wily flirtations. Then there’s an awkward pre-teen kiss at the end of the movie, after they’ve pulled together as a team and won the championship.

But we won’t be seeing any such kiss at the end of our baseball season. On our first day of practice Abbie ran to second base without getting tagged by the second baseman, who was holding the ball. The first baseman came running over and said, “He won’t tag you out … because he thinks you’re hot!” Abbie was recounting this story for me, and judging by her face, she is 23% flattered, 67% offended, and 10% confused by these new feelings.

The week before the first game the coach asked if I would be willing to serve as his Assistant Coach. He singled me out, no doubt, because of my expressed interest in the intricacies of America’s greatest pastime, and my unmatched knowledge of the game. You could argue it might have something to do with him asking, “Are there any parents planning to attend all the games?” at which point I raised my hand and he said, “You, Dad, I need you to be an assistant coach.” Then he belched and patted his beer belly. I think we are going to be close friends, Coach Bob and I.

The day of our first game arrived, and we were first up to bat. I took my place on the field as First Base Coach. My job, as it was explained to me, was to stand by First Base and, with league-issued aircraft-landing lights, guide the kids into first base after they hit the ball. I’m kidding of course, my job was never explained to me. Unless you count Coach Bob grunting and pointing at First Base as my explanation. And I do.

I’m not going to lie to you people, my kids are remarkable hitters. Not so much with distance, but with consistency. They have fantastic hand-eye coordination, and as I watched them hit in practice I took comfort in sensing I wouldn’t have any anxiety while watching them bat in a game. That is, until they actually played in a game.

My stomach was in knots as the game started. What have I done? Have I set up my children to fail? Have I set them up for public ridicule? Will this single game cause me thousands of dollars in therapy as they grapple with the emotional harm I’ve incurred upon them at the tender, vulnerable ages of 6 and 8 years old?

My fears were put to rest when Garren stepped up to the plate and immediately knocked out a base hit. He ran up to me at first base and said, “Dad, this is so much fun! Can I play it all year?” He proceeded to run to second, then third. And then Abbie was up to bat. She hit another base hit and ran to first base, while simultaneously allowing her brother to run across home plate. The first run of the season, the first run ever for Garren, made possible by his sister. It will be years before something replaces this moment as one of my Top Favorite Kid Moments.

On the national list of Best First Base Coaches, I’m not sure where I rank. I was stellar at remembering the kids names, giving them high-fives for making it to first base, and removing their batting helmet and handing it off to the next batter without inappropriately mussing up the kid’s hair, as I am wont to do with my own children.

My only weakness made itself known if my own kid was on the field. Many were the times some kid would hit the ball and instead of making eye contact with him and having him follow me in to first base, I would be yelling at Abbie or Garren to run from second to third, or from third to home. The kid batting was suddenly of no interest to me. It could have been a monkey running to first base.

The kids weren’t particularly interested in the score throughout the game, but everyone was excited to have won at the end, a 10 to 4 victory. I felt especially pleased at the outcome. Not necessarily the points, but the fact that my kids felt a little more positive about life, a little more self-assured. Also because I can now put “First Base Coach” on my resume.