Over the past few weeks, I’ve been an assistant coach on my younger son’s Tee Ball team. Go Blue Thunder! As you can imagine, there is quite a variety of familiarity with the game of baseball on the part of these six-year old boys and girls. There is also a range of interest, from my son’s unnecessary dives for anything hit within forty feet of him, to a little boy who stands on third base “resting” (his words) as balls go flying past him, inches from his face.
One little girl, cute as hell, must weigh no more than the bat she attempts to swing. All of the kids look great in their uniforms. Only a couple of them can actually catch the ball. One kid, though, can hit the ball into the outfield, well over the fistful of “outfielders” we have planted on the edge of the infield dirt. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite know what to do once he hits the ball. I guess that’s what we’re here for.
I get to coach third base on a regular basis, and the kids have grown used to seeing me as they run clean past, near, or around second base. I tell them to run right toward me like I’m handing out pizza and cupcakes. Once they reach me, I tell them when it’s O.K. to run to home plate. I am the last adult they see before they run towards home plate, scoring a “point” or a “goal”, as a couple of them breathlessly told me they were excited to do.
My son Ian (not his real name), who never stops talking, has decided that the entire middle infield, and much of the outfield, is his domain. He carries on a conversation with anyone and everyone around him, explaining to them how he watched an Oriole rookie pitcher on T.V. throw a ball into the outfield, “A DUMB, ROOKIE MISTAKE!” he exclaims, sounding uncomfortably like me.
He also informs the little boy on his left and the girl on his right that he’s hit maybe a hundred or even a thousand home runs, and that they’re easy to hit. All you have to do, he explains, is swing the bat before the catcher can steal the ball out of the air. If you swing hard, it’s an automatic home run, unless it’s a foul ball, in which case, apparently, the umpire will strike you.
Coaching third base is, in some respects, like being a priest hearing an awkward confession. I stand there, crouching over, waiting for a response to the directions I give, then wham, I am hit by the full force of the existential mind of a six-year old.
Me: “Eva, when the batter hits the ball, I want you to run fast to home-plate.”
Eva: “What do I do when I get there?”
Or, from the little kid who can never seem to pay attention at any point in the game,
Me: “Jeremy, there are two outs, so run on anything. If he hits the ball, just run.”
Jeremy: “Are those geese over there?”
No one keeps score, except my son who says that he keeps track of every run in his head. According to him, our team has won all four games so far this year (we play weekly), and a typical score from his little head is usually something along the lines of 88-10. “Dad, I can count all the way up to ten-hundred!”
The parents sit in a semi-circle around the field, collecting calories, occasionally shouting something vaguely encouraging, “Way to go, Kayla, you almost caught that ball. Don’t let it hit you in the face next time!” Or demeaning, “Gavin, what the hell you doin’ out there, boy? You sick or something?! GO GET THAT BALL!”
This middle-American summertime ritual plays out this way all across America, knitting our nation together one dropped pop-up at a time. But at least at the end of the game, there will be a snack and a drink waiting for each and every player on the team. We are very democratic that way, the least among us sharing the same amount of food and drink as the boy who really did slug a legitimate homer (although of the inside-the-park variety.)
Everyone is their own Designated Hitter, and E-5 never flashes up on a scoreboard to belittle our efforts.
Then the parents pack up their folding chairs and coolers, secure in the knowledge that they’ve invested one good, solid hour watching their child absorb the American values we all share, such as honest effort, teamwork, pride in one’s performance, picking yourself up when you fall down, and pretending to know how to do something that you are generally pretty clueless about.
My son picks up his bat and his glove, and sidles up to me as we walk back towards our car after the game.
“Dad, when you played ball when you were a kid, what color was your uniform?”
“Ian, we didn’t wear uniforms when I was a kid. We just played in our jeans, sneakers and t-shirts.”
Ian thinks to himself for a minute before responding.
“Dad, I’m really glad they invented color. I don’t think I’d like it if the world was black and white like it was when you were growing up.”
Laughing to myself, on so many levels, I tousle his hair as I drop the gear in the trunk. No, nothing much is black and white anymore. Things have gotten a shitload more complex and complicated these days.
But if you keep your hands back, your head down, and your back foot planted near the white chalk, swing at the ball before someone can take it from you, and you’ll stand a good chance of hitting the ball real far. After all, life may be complicated, but home runs are easy.