Sunday, August 4, 2013

Only a game

I'm not someone who usually comes up with the timely quip. Like many, I think of the perfect response to a situation perhaps a minute, an hour, or a day after the fact, too late for it to do much good. For example I could have used a good comeback the other day when I described the intensity of parents of some of the kids on my son's Little League team to my mother. She shook her head and said incredulously: "My God, it's only a game."

In a way she's right, in our day sports are inconsequential, unlike pre-Columbian America for example where participants in team sports really had something to lose if they lost the contest, usually their heads. To my mother, sports are uncouth, they have little value compared to allegedly more intellectual activities such as theater, literature, music and the visual arts. To put it bluntly, she's a bit of a snob.

Not that she objects to sports per se, they're perfectly fine in their place. As a schoolteacher and later a principal, she considered scholastic achievement to be the most important part of childhood. She made it clear that being a student was my job. My mother probably wouldn't have objected if I had expressed an interest in playing organized sports, but she'd never have thought of suggesting it herself and would certainly not have pushed me into it.

Which in a way is a shame.

I don't have any illusions that had I been encouraged to play organized sports as a child, I would have become a better, more successful human being. But I think certain aspects of my life relating to issues of self confidence, teamwork, and competitive spirit would have been much different.

Now it's all water under the bridge and we're making up for lost time with our son who has just finished his fifth year of Little League baseball. My wife and I did have to nudge him into it in the beginning but pretty soon (to borrow a metaphor from another sport), he took the ball and ran with it.

This year, in addition to his stint on a team in our local park's house league, he tried out and made the traveling team. As the name implies, a traveling team plays teams made up of the best players from other parks. For the first time in his baseball career, my son is not one of the best players on his team, in fact he's much closer to the bottom than the top. Much to his credit that doesn't bother him. I asked him the other day which he prefers, being the star of a bad team (which is the case with our house league team), or one of the worst players on a really good team. Without missing a beat, he chose the latter. Beyond the fact that winning is more fun than losing, I think my son is processing in his head that if he wants to get better at baseball, he needs to play with and against kids who are better than him. As far as that's concerned, he's way ahead of me. When I was his age, I would have taken the easy path, perfectly content to keep my dream of one day being a baseball star a fantasy, not having to deal with the grunt work of learning how to play the game correctly, and the pressure and humiliation that went along with screwing up in front of other kids who were better than me.

Baseball more than any other, is a game prone to humiliation and pressure. In team sports such as football, soccer, basketball and hockey, lesser skilled players can contribute to the team by mastering relatively simpler skills like blocking, passing off, setting picks, or hitting people. Kids playing those sports at a lower level can blend in with the better players by gleefully running up and down the field, not getting themselves open for a pass.

By contrast, there is no hiding in baseball; if the ball comes to you, you either make the play or you don't. In sports where there is a continuous flow of activity, if you make a mistake, you usually get the chance to redeem yourself pretty quickly. In baseball if you have a bad at bat, you get to spend a lot of time on the bench to think about it, if you make a bad play in the field, you may not get another chance at all as the ball may not get hit to you again.

I'd say that baseball is one of the most difficult games to master; not only do you need the physical skills to succeed, but so much of the game is played in the head. It's the head part of the game that can be devastating to so many players, professionals included. Imagine standing in the batters box with a pitcher throwing a hard ball at you at speeds that could reach 90 miles per hour or more. Not only are you expected to stand there stoically while that ball is coming within inches of hitting you, but you're expected to hit it with a bat that measures only about two inches at its widest. Or being a fielder having to place your body in front of the ball coming at you at even greater speeds, being expected to make a play that could be the difference between your team winning or losing the game. For most players, the biggest fear in baseball is not getting hurt, by far the biggest fear is, pardon the expression, fucking up.

One nice thing about playing on a bad team is that there is little expected of you. I eventually became a fairly decent player, playing mostly in beer leagues just for fun, never in very competitive leagues.  Even still, the pressure to make plays was always intense for me. Playing competitive ball where the stakes are much higher, on a team that expects to win, compounds the pressure exponentially. Frankly for me, just watching my son play on his traveling team is nerve wracking.

Fortunately, my son seems to thrive on the pressure. Yes he gets nervous, but I only know that because I've asked him, you wouldn't know it watching him take the field. He plays right field for the travel team, the position usually reserved for the worst fielder on lower level teams. At his level however, batters actually hit the ball to right field and it's just as important to be able to make plays in right as any other position. On the house league team he has played every position on the field except outfield, but he's adapted very well to playing his new position; as far as I know, he's only booted one ball hit his way. Batting is another story. Unlike his old man who couldn't wait to get up to bat, my son is a little tentative at the plate, still trying to get over an old habit of flinching as the ball comes toward him. In other words, he's doing something that any normal human being would do. But that hasn't prevented him from getting some clutch hits this season, often getting on base and scoring while the big guns at the top of the order have either popped up or struck out.

The travel team program began in our park about five years ago when our little league kept losing players to other parks with outlets for the better players. With a couple of exceptions, the kids on my son's team have played together for four years. It's a multi-sized, multi-ethnic, multi-racial group of kids. Two of the best on the team are girls. In this day and age, that last part shouldn't come as much of a surprise, however in all the games I've witnessed, I've probably missed only three, they were the only girls on the field on either team.

The travel team played in a couple different leagues this season, one a city league, another a suburban league. It's a little comical seeing the contrast between our city team and the suburban teams who are used to playing ball on pristinely manicured fields in their lily white hometowns. They show up at our park wearing freshly dry-cleaned and pressed uniforms, carrying matching equipment bags with the name of their team stitched on them. With attitudes to match their gear, they find a park filled with a highly diverse cast of characters the likes of which they've probably never seen in their young lives, except perhaps on the Discovery Channel. They take one look at our field, playable but less than perfect, no outfield fence (until recently), then notice our uniforms that don't necessarily match from player to player, and the two girls on our team. Then they snicker. The most satisfying part comes when more often than not this season, those snickering teams get beat.

Playing primarily to win is a controversial issue in kids sports. Some leagues, our house league included, hand out little trophies to every kid on every team at the end of the season. Some people have a problem with that but not me. For some kids it will be the only tangible reminder of their brief sports careers. Besides, winning has its own rewards, the desire to win doesn't need to be taught, at the end of the game, every kid knows, and cares about who won and who lost.

By design, a travel team is different. The team is built around winning. Unlike the house team, you have to earn your position. Beyond their skill level, there's not a discernible difference between the kids on the travel team, and their non-travel, house teammates. That's not always the case with the parents. For many of the kids who play only in the house league, baseball is just another summertime diversion. By signing your kids up for the travel team, you're essentially signing away your summer, committing yourself and your kids to baseball every day for two straight months. Small wonder then why these parents, myself included, get a little intense about the game.

There are different reasons why parents commit their children and themselves to such a rigorous schedule during a time that's supposed to be devoted to getting away from the stresses and commitments of everyday life. Cynics say that intense sports parents never themselves got far with sports and live vicariously through the exploits of their children. Others might say that participation in rigorous sports programs are good preparation for adult life, teaching children valuable lessons such as if you want to achieve something worthwhile in life, you have to work very hard for it. Some parents believe that participation in sports enhances a kid's chances of getting into better schools through sports scholarships and other incentives. Others may hold on to the faint glimmer of hope that one day their child may be able to play professional ball. Still others do it simply because their kids love the game. In my case quite honestly, I'd have to say that four of the five reasons apply, but don't tell my son, I see no point in deflating his dream of being a big leaguer someday.

That isn't to say there's not a great deal of personal satisfaction that comes from watching your kid play ball all summer. As compelling drama, few things compare to a well contested sporting event. In theater, the drama is contrived, the outcome pre-ordained. Not so in a baseball game where anything can happen at any given time. I can think of few things more compelling than watching a pitcher getting out of a bases loaded situation in a tie game in extra innings, helped along by a perfectly executed 6-4-3 double play. Or a late inning comeback from a seemingly insurmountable deficit. Or watching a player save the game for his team with a fantastic catch in the outfield.

Perhaps the sweetest moment this season came when our team participated in the district tournament to determine who would represent our area in the Sectionals and beyond, the ultimate winner making it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. The toughest competition in the Districts was our arch rival from a nearby city park, well known for its less than scrupulous penchant for recruiting players from all over the city. The tournament came down to a best of three game series between us and them and frankly we had little hope of beating them. But in game one we held tight, after the regulation six innings were played, we were tied at four runs apiece. Following that came four of the most compelling innings of baseball I've ever seen: hits, walks, errors, hit batters, stolen bases, everything imaginable in baseball except for one thing, no runs were scored. I was standing with some old colleagues who live in the neighborhood and just happened to wander past the game. While I was talking to them, one of the other team's batters with two runners on base, hit a ball that looked sure to drop in for a base hit. But our outfielder got a good jump on the ball and at the last second made a leaping catch to end the inning and save the game. Remarking on the catch one of my friends said: "Wow these kids are good." "That's my boy" I proudly told him.

We played ten glorious innings that day until it got too dark to play and the game had to be resumed the next day. The joy of the previous evening did not continue the next day as in the first inning of resumed play, three of our guys (including my son) went down in order and in the bottom of that inning, the other guys scored and won the game. But we got out of that game a sense that we could beat these guys and in the following game, we outlasted them in a slugfest.

The rubber match the following day started out as a wash, our guys and girls couldn't do anything right.  Before we knew it, our team was down 5-0 and it looked very much like it would stay that way. But the other coaches didn't manage their pitchers well and were forced to remove their starter because he threw too many pitches. They brought in a reliever in the sixth inning who couldn't get anybody out. In the end we scored five runs off the poor kid to tie it up to send the game into extra innings. Then it became another defensive struggle as both teams found themselves one run away from either the Regionals or elimination. This time we were the home team with the last at bat and with two outs in bottom of the eighth, one of our best hitters was up to bat. During the series their coach kept switching their first baseman and right fielder depending on who came to bat. Expecting our hard hitting left handed hitter to drive the ball into right field, he took the better fielder who was playing first base and sent him to right. His move backfired as our guy hit a grounder to first which their guy misplayed, making a throwing error which enabled our batter to end up at second. That brought up our best hitter, the Mighty Katie, who promptly hit a single up the middle to score the run and win us the championship.

Since I'm writing this from my home in Chicago and not Williamsport, you can probably infer that we didn't get very far after that. It just so happened that at the beginning of the season our head coach signed the team up for a tournament in the resort city of Wisconsin Dells which would have taken place exactly at the same time as the state finals in the town of Beardstown, Illinois. This placed the team in an odd situation. Had they won the Reigionals, they would have next played downstate in a town best known for its slaughterhouse. If they lost, they would get to play in a place famous for its water parks. A glaring difference between the big leagues and the little leagues is this: the fact that they didn't advance beyond the Regionals didn't really seem to disappoint anybody.

My son's game face.
A fine time was had by all in the Wisconsin Dells tournament, lots of fun in the water, and the team finished second place in the tournament. The only bad part came during the last game when less than desirable officiating resulted in some truly bad behavior from a few of our parents, inspiring the comment to my mother mentioned at the top of this post.

Despite it ending on that sour note, this season was a fantastic experience for my son and me. All the years of playing catch, pitching, and hitting grounders and pop ups to my boy, have been taken to a new level. Having experienced baseball at a level previously unknown to him, he's now a bona fide ballplayer, his future in the game is now in his own capable hands.

While it's been exhausting, it gives me great satisfaction to hear these words coming out of his mouth: "Best summer ever."

Still I'm kind of glad it's over and I have some time left this summer to enjoy the thing that probably gives me more joy than anything else in life, playing catch with my boy, just for the fun of it.

It took me a while but finally I came up with a comeback for my mother's comment. She'd probably appreciate it too, coming as it does from a literary source.

So is Little League baseball really only a game?


To quote the great film director/screen writer John Houston (by way of Dashiell Hammett):'s "the stuff that dreams are made of."

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