A Mother’s All-Star Memoir

Coach CoverWelcome to the Sports’ Pages!

For your reading pleasure, every now and then I plan to post on this page a chapter, some complete, others abridged, from my Little League memoir, Put Him In, Coach!, published in 2007. It’ll be a Dickensian sort of reading experience, a little serialized fun, and you can leave your dictionary on the shelf. Put Him In, Coach! is about as light and breezy a read as they come.

I chuckle to think how my mother, who tolerated her athletic progeny but thumbed her nose at my passion for sports, would feel about sharing “her” blog space this way. Still, she read Put Him In, Coach! cover-to-cover at least three times and after, always gave me a verbal pat on the back. “It’s really more of a family story,” she liked to say, as if this made up for the passed balls and called strikes, the RBIs, ERAs and RISPs she had to wade through. But in a way, Mom was right (as mothers, sigh, so often are). Coach! is a family story, and I’m ever grateful it came out when it did, a good three years before my mother’s brainpower began to sputter. Should you like what you read enough to want to own a copy of your very own, click here. If you prefer an e-book, click e-book Friends tell me it makes a great gift for that great coach or sports fanatic in your life!

 

 

Put Him In, Coach!

Put Him In, Coach! A Mother’s All-Star Memoir

Chapter One, Bonus Baby

 

I suffer from Little League Syndrome, a condition found commonly in parents of youth league baseball players and now recognized in other mutations as well, among them Pop Warner Football Fixation, Gymnastics Flip Fever, and Youth Soccer Syphilis (so called because its effects on the adult human brain are far-reaching and in most cases, irreversible). The parents of more cerebral or creative children may contract one of a family of related yet slightly higher-brow addictions lovingly known as Drama-Mama DisorderAcademic Bowl Affliction, or Youth Symphony Shock Disease. The names are different, the symptoms the same: victory at all costs, brash and inappropriate behavior at games, auditions or concerts; constant, nagging phone or e-mail communications with busy coaches or bandmasters; micromanagement of the lives of children who would be better served by biking through the neighborhood or playing in a ditch. 

As with most emotional disorders, my problems started early. Though I don’t exactly blame my parents, or my place in the birth order, I feel that in the spirit of self-analysis and do-tell-all psychology popular today, I must begin there, at the beginning, when I myself was only a high-strung, Type A competitor-waiting-to-happen. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, an era when only the best athletes on a team got trophies, only the smartest kids received academic awards. Being the youngest child in a family of six, I clutched at any opportunity to divert my parents’ attention from matters involving my older siblings, and I discovered early that nothing garnered their love and affection like an honor or an award. In my mother’s case, Happiness Was… a report card glowing with As.

Perhaps more important to my case, however, is the fact that I grew up in a household drenched in testosterone. My one sister, sixteen years older (and a talented swimmer, by the way), vamoosed before I was old enough to cut a paper doll, much less dress a Barbie. Through no fault of her own, she left me in the care of four older brothers. My mother, a lady to the core, tried her best, but all female role modeling aside, I was a born tomboy for whom edging out the competition, any competition in any form, brought great personal satisfaction. By the time I was eight, I preferred a game of HORSE on our driveway basketball hoop to playing house or attending the ballet classes Mom insisted on. I never missed a minute of the Wide World of Sports (remember when you had to wait ’til Sunday to watch sports?!?), and I spectated loyally at my brothers’ sporting events. One of them was the star of his high school basketball team—during each of his games, my parents and I made an unnecessary fuss whenever he swooshed a foul shot or performed some complicated dribbling maneuver while paying not a spec of attention to the poor kids warming the bench.

But as is generally the case with young impressionable girls, my most questionable tendencies with regard to sports, and to baseball in particular, can be traced back to my relationship with my father. He had season tickets to Georgia Tech football games, and while my mother shopped or went antiquing, I would sit happily above the fifty-yard line, flanked by Dad and a couple of brothers. I cheered and analyzed strategy and quickly learned the meaning of a P.A.T. and a clipping penalty. A graduate of Tech, my father taught me the words to the Ramblin’ Wreck fight song, even the beloved curse of the archrival. In those days, nothing thrilled me more than to shout, “To hell with Georgia!” with no risk of having my mouth washed out with soap. A few years later, I enjoyed the early days of Monday Night Football—a sporting event on a school night! This was such a special occasion, I was allowed to flop on the living room floor at Dad’s feet and do my math homework in front of the television. A few months before I turned six, the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, and Dad took to listening to games on his AM radio. A businessman whose exercise regimen consisted of several hours of weekend yard work, he liked to turn on the ignition in his Oldsmobile, roll down the windows, and crank up the Braves’ play-by-play while he trimmed hedges and weed whacked. I’d shoot baskets or play nearby, within safe earshot of the easy hum of Ernie Johnson’s commentary.

Finding his sons engrossed by then in the vagaries of teen life, Dad began taking me out to the ballpark. Sporting caps adorned with a funky (and decidedly non-P.C.) tomahawk, we latched on to Braves’ players like Rico Carty and Felipe Alou. Together, we admired the Cat, Felix Millan, who could turn a double play with the grace of a feline. Our hearts quickened to see Hank Aaron’s strong, fluid swing launch pitch after pitch into the seats. Yes, we enjoyed the competition, the game, but there was more. Baseball was ours alone. My father sitting strong and tall beside me, I came to love the game’s slow, almost drawling pace, the dramatic unfurling of each inning, the long, lingering season. Like Dad, I was a fiercely loyal but easily disappointed fan. There was great comfort, then, in the fact that in baseball, if things didn’t go your team’s way, another game would be quick on its heels, possibly just minutes after the final out, or at the very least, the next day.

So maybe this—a passion for the game—later instigated my fanatical behavior. It’s reassuring to think so. And maybe it wasn’t thoroughly unwholesome that when my firstborn son, Sam, four years old, picked up his plastic bat and whiffle ball and asked me to pitch to him in the backyard, I fell in love. To that point, Sam and I had struggled for a mutual interest, for some bond stronger than the instinctive ties between mother and son. Being the family of a surgeon-in-training and living in a strange city, we were often lonely. We needed each other, but mothering small children did not come easy for me. I was by nature a loner, a reader and a thinker, more teacher than nurturer or playmate. Sam, like most boys, was a bundle of restless, random energy, a talker who craved distraction and attention, hands-on and lots of it. But on that first day (and many after), I found I was content—no, more—I was happy to pitch to Sam.

As whiffle ball after whiffle ball sailed high into the blue Georgia sky, a sense of deep satisfaction would quell Sam’s restless nature. Now and then, he would drop his bat, blonde hair a rumpled mess, gaze after his hit with cherubic green eyes, and jump with glee as I chased into the farthest hedge to dig out the ball. “Mommy, Mommy! Watch out for snakes!” he might yell, smiling, before standing in again, bat cocked behind his soft little shoulder, ready for my next pitch.

A couple of years and several split and dimpled bats later, I signed Sam up for tee-ball. He quickly demonstrated a knack for the game, and before long, my healthier maternal instincts were sublimated—how did this happen? It was just too satisfying. Watching an older, lankier Sam slam line drives and make diving catches in the field fulfilled me in a way other aspects of parenting did not. Like any first-time mother (or like most, perhaps? a few?), I thrived on hearing my fellow parents marvel at my son’s natural grace and talent. I dreamed blissfully each night, my baseball-consumed brain replaying his triumphs on the diamond like an ESPN highlight tape. Soon, our second son, Matt, began slugging away himself and alas, I began my descent into mania. Because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a single one of my boys’ games, I began organizing family meals and outings around their Little League schedule. Who needs planetariums or zoos when you’ve got fields of grass to play on? And nutrition be damned—my toddler daughter could eat hot dogs and popcorn for every meal if it meant I could cheer on my boys.

During his nine-year-old season, Sam posted a set of career stats. Coaches began to take notice. He pitched well and batted over .600, which means he had a hit two out of every three times he came to bat. Top professionals are paid seven-digit sums to average above .300, but in Little League, only those who reach base nearly every time they step up to the plate stand apart. And Sam did it! You can imagine my euphoria. At the end of this season, he was rewarded with an election to the All-Star Tournament Team. Having heard of his acceptance to Yale couldn’t have given me more of a high, a high which only stoked my obsessive tendencies. I’d always known Sam was all-star material. I never doubted he would excel in tournament play.

Well, he didn’t. Far from it. No, Sam came up short of expectations in almost every category. Given the position of starting center fielder because of his speed and agility, he misjudged fly ball after fly ball. Known for his intelligent approach to the game, he flailed through a series of mental errors. Famous for reaching base often and being a good contact hitter, he struck out about half the time. Desperate for the comfort and isolation of our whiffle ball afternoons, I developed a tic, a little twitch of the cheek with each swing-and-a-miss. Not long after, my idle fingers discovered the joys of neurotic pill rolling. Nail biting was a given. Before the district tournament was over, the anguish of watching Sam fail and the embarrassment attendant on my body’s small betrayals drove me away from my regular post as bleacher cheerleader. Rather than witness Sam’s dreary, droop-shouldered shuffle back to the dugout after a strikeout or an error, I sweated out his games on a mosquito-infested hillside above right field.

Ever the lioness, I blamed his coaches, blood-thirsty men who kept dropping him in the batting order—how would he ever gain experience and boost his self-esteem if he batted last? Sam needed a coach who believed in him, not one who would shower him with expletives after he popped out on a bunt attempt. He was only nine years old, for heaven’s sakes. He simply needed time—and understanding!—to develop into the next Babe Ruth. Late in that all-star season, my nightly highlight tape morphed into a nightmare of first-time mother stress. I would replay images of Sam fumbling a fly ball or whiffing at a fast pitch and blame myself for the downcast look on his tender face as we drove home. Then the what ifs began—what if his self-confidence couldn’t recover from this failure? What if he didn’t make the team next year? What if he were (God forbid) to quit baseball?

A month or so later, something funny (perhaps even serendipitous?) happened. I woke one July morning feeling a little seasick. The next day, it was a little worse, and on and on. Uh oh–time to fetch the bassinet down from the attic! Yep, I was pregnant. Pushing forty and on the brink of having all three children enrolled in a full school day, yet pregnant. The next April, just weeks after Little League Opening Day and right about the time his sister began to wow on the gymnastics mat, our eight-and-a-half-pound son, James Ian, burst into the world. He pushed and hurried his way out so that I nearly had to give birth without benefit of anesthesia.

“Good!” I reasoned breathlessly through clenched teeth. “He’ll be quick, smart, aggressive!”

“This one’s got a set of lungs!” the nurse noted as Ian howled into the antiseptic silence of the delivery room.

I smiled, noting the strength of his screeches even as I surrendered to the twilight sleep brought on by my epidural in the final hour. I dreamed of our new babe stepping up to bat in Tom Thumb–sized baseball cleats only to rip a home run off of the ten-year-old giant who pitched to him.

“A ten. And a nine point three!” A vaguely familiar voice tore me out of my reverie. Dopey with exhaustion, I struggled to comprehend.

“His APGAR—a ten, and a nine point three!” my husband, Houston, repeated, tapping his index finger repeatedly on a computer printout where presumably these crucial numbers appeared, numbers that the pediatrician had assigned Ian at birth, numbers that supposedly measured alertness, strength of reflexes, general well-being.

As the nurse laid Ian’s warm, soft, somewhat gooey self over the slack ruin of my belly, Houston squeezed my forearm. “Those are really high scores!” The night’s labors must have been wearing on him. He rarely showed excitement in public over something as pedestrian as one of his children’s APGAR scores. My hands draped over my latest born, I pulled my lips into a wilted smile before drifting into a contented slumber. Another child had arrived, whole and hearty, and I realized with a jolt of shock that I didn’t particularly care what Ian’s APGAR scores were, that unlikely as it seemed, I was overjoyed just to have created another new life …

Still, Ian’s scores were really high! They could not be ignored! And unlike my husband, I am a pedestrian, non-medical type, a sucker for such a significant numerical ranking, the first my son would achieve in a life that would no doubt teem with them. Most assuredly, such strong numbers would one day translate into dexterity! Energy on the athletic field! A high slugging percentage!

And energetic Ian certainly was—an early riser whose thirty-minute naps provided more annoyance than relief in our frantic days. He walked late, however, posing a significant worry. Sam and Matt had walked before they hit ten months, Emma at a year exactly, but Ian showed no interest in getting up and going anywhere until he was nearly thirteen months old. He did finally walk, of course, but he did something else first—something I surely dreamed when he was in utero and by maternal powers instilled in him. He pitched. At nine months. OK, OK, victims of the Syndrome tend to exaggerate. Ian threw a tennis ball, but he achieved such extension in his elbow and chucked the thing with such force, you could only call it a pitch.

And his first word?

Ball.

He was a dream come true! And we had so much time, Ian’s brothers and sister, Houston and I, to mold him into a competitive player. By the time Ian reached legal league age for tee-ball, we’d have seven more years of Little League experience under our belts. I would no doubt be an expert when it came to training up an All-Star, navigating the tournament system, dare I say, schmoozing a coach … How could we miss?

Well, I didn’t know the half of it.

Chapter Two, Swing for the Fences

In the wake of Sam’s disappointing all-star season, I wasted a surprising amount of emotional energy worrying that I had waited until he was six to sign him up to play tee-ball. Blame it on the hormones but there I was, a naive first-time mother raised in an era when even your burliest jocks tended to put off organized sports until say, age ten. How was I to know of the rich opportunities out there for the preschool athlete? Besides, it seemed I woke a day or two after finally figuring out how to load his Little Tikes pop-up pitching machine (ages two to four) to find Sam had grown so tall, he had to crouch down like a pint-sized version of Jeff Bagwell in order to swing. It didn’t help that our little family had been on the move during these crucial years. Before Sam turned six, we lived in three different cities with varying levels of enthusiasm for kiddie sports. He dabbled in soccer in Augusta, Georgia, wasted a precious spring season learning lacrosse in Baltimore, and all while most of his future all-star teammates were enjoying a couple of preliminary seasons of Atlanta church-league baseball.

Sadly, we moved into the city only a few months before Sam became eligible to play real Little League–sanctioned tee-ball at Frankie Allen Park, home of Buckhead BaseballInc. I was raised in Buckhead, a geographical district considered a suburb in the days before Atlanta’s metropolitan area encompassed about a hundred counties across North Georgia. Nowadays, Buckhead, or Buckhead Village, as it’s known by the trendy twenty-somethings who frequent its establishments, has become a hub of Atlanta nightlife. As history goes in the American South, Buckhead has a colorful past. During the 1840s, legend has it, near a forested crossroads just northwest of what would later become Terminus, then Marthasville, and finally Atlanta, a tavern owner named Henry Irby one day hunted down and killed a buck—a strapping, prize-winning sort of buck. Proud and plucky, Irby (one of whose descendants played ball with Sam 150 years later) hung the buck’s bloody head on his hitching post. Before long, every farmer in the county was meeting at the buck’s head for social hour.

Despite these inauspicious origins, Buckhead developed into the closest thing Atlanta has to a Beverly Hills, with affluent neighborhoods growing up around a quaint retail center. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Tara-like homes on rambling lots and grand churches sprouted up along a four or five mile stretch of Peachtree Street. When I was a preteen in the early 1970s, my friends and I were allowed our first independent journeys into Buckhead to shop at the Sears Roebuck or grab a bite of lunch at a fountain drug store. In my earlier years, I toddled behind mother and brothers to places like Buckhead Hardware and the Buckhead Men’s Store, a crusty old establishment where graying men in dark suits knelt down with measuring tape to deck out their youthful customers for Sunday services. I also skipped alongside when Dad stopped in to watch my brothers play Little League at a place then called Bagley Park, located about a half mile east of the former site of Henry Irby’s tavern.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Buckhead reinvented itself. Commercial development ran amuck and much of the area’s charm gave way to an inevitable urbanization as Atlanta grew rapidly into an international city. Today, sleek high-rise condominiums populated by young professionals or retirees (mostly from points north) have replaced all but one of Peachtree’s mansions. A new Starbuck’s sprouts up every other month, and a swanky restaurant featuring two-inch-thick steaks stands where my Sears once did. Traffic moves along Peachtree so thick and fast that no mother could in good faith allow her child the freedom of bicycle travel. Besides, cheesy nightclubs line the strip that once housed establishments like the Buckhead Men’s Store, and every few months, the proprietors of Buckhead’s nightlife somehow manage to extend closing time. Old Henry Irby, as fond of drawing a pint as he was, might be a touch disturbed.

On the morning of Sam’s first Opening Day, I awoke itchy with anticipation and readied our crew to head for Frankie Allen a good hour before game time. Our then family of five buckled securely in our minivan, we pulled onto park grounds, carefully skirting the huddle of homeless women that like to kick back at the picnic tables near the entrance, then rolled past one, then another, clay-colored infield, each freshly raked and smoothed, with newly etched foul lines glistening. Ancient pine trees and scattered hardwoods provided pockets of shade over the bleachers and outfields, where dew-sprinkled grass, spring green and fragrant with a recent mowing, glittered in the chilly March sun. Adjacent to home plate on the Majors’ field rose a concession stand decorated with red and blue balloons, and beyond right field was a set of authentic batting cages where twelve-year-old sluggers crushed baseballs against chain-link fencing.

Tucked between the Majors field and its batting cages, the tee-ball diamond stood gallantly in a far corner of the park, as far as possible, I noticed, from the entrance and its vagrants (what a relief for the concerned tee-ball mom). Below the outfield, a hillside fell sharply away toward the rear of the park where Buckhead’s yuppies liked to walk and exercise their dogs. This orientation, I would soon learn, made for primo excitement when a superstar tee-baller managed to hit a ball over the fence. It could roll for yards and yards, only to be retrieved happily by some young stock broker’s Labrador. But as time would tell, there aren’t all that many true, over-the-fence home runs in tee-ball. You might see four or five in an entire season, a statistic my Sam couldn’t quite swallow. As we motored slowly past the field hunting for a parking spot, he lamented the fact that he hadn’t been able to hit a homer himself during preseason practices.

“Mark’s hit three already!” Sam whined, his blue belt buckled on the last notch to cinch in his baseball pants, size youth extra-small yet roomy, considering Sam’s lack of girth. His cap adjuster likewise was crossed over at the back.

“One of them landed way over there,” he said, his cap bill over his eyes.

His head held at a precarious backwards tilt, Sam pointed to an azalea bush to our right. Wild and unkempt, its blossoms were just before bursting into fuchsia.

“Well, Mark’s a bigger kid than you, honey,” I answered.

“Size doesn’t have that much to do with it …” Houston quipped. (Gee thanks. Read any child psychology lately?) “I bet you’ll hit one out before the season’s over!” he added and I had no choice but to punch him in the thigh.

“Now he’ll waste time over-swinging!” I whispered.

“I won’t, either, Mommy,” Sam said, all ears.

“Well, you need to focus on being an all-around player anyway,” I said. “There’s more to baseball than power-hitting.”

“Quit touching me, Matt!” Sam yelled, shoving his little brother against Emma’s car seat where Emma herself, four months old, nestled in deep sleep.

“Ow!” Matt cried, eyes filling with artificially rendered tears.

“Mom! His fingernails are touching me!”

“Shhhh! You’ll wake the baby,” I said, reaching back to pat Matt’s knee.

“Dad says nice and easy swings get the biggest hits,” Sam the Daddy-pleaser continued. “Everybody knows that.”

With a wide grin, Houston wedged the van into a makeshift parking space and we unloaded. Game One pitted Sam’s Braves against the Tee-Rockies. Sam came to bat in the first inning after the sure-to-be-famous Mark had rounded the bases on a towering fly ball that did not, in fact, go over the fence but might as well have—it bounced against said fence and lay there ignored by the Rockies’ outfielders until their parent-umpire finally trotted out to fetch it. Sam then cracked a solid hit up the middle, sending the ball bouncing through the shortstop’s legs and on past two outfielders, one of whom was facing the wrong direction, watching one of those friendly retrievers lope after a Frisbee on the road below.

“Pick up the ball!” came the gruff command from the Rockies’ dugout, and ten little faces turned towards their livid coach as if to say, “Now there’s an idea!” (This coach would later be banned from tee-ball for his intensity on the field.) Meanwhile, Sam raced around the bases, bareheaded now, his cap having flown off somewhere along the first-base line. It looked as if he might follow Mark into the dugout with an inside-the-park homer of his own until the Rockies’ first baseman, clearly talented and clearly determined to stop this circus act, turned on his jets and bolted from first to the center-field fence. He scooped up the ball and made a rocket throw to the third baseman, who in an act of self-preservation, allowed the ball to ricochet off his body as Sam dove back to third. In awe, I watched the first baseman run back to his post and noticed for the first time a ponytail bouncing through the gap in his—uh, her—cap. Yes, the play which reminded the Rockies they were playing a baseball game rather than enjoying a day in the park was turned by a girl, one who robbed Sam of his first full trip around the bases. Not so good for his tender ego.

“Nice hit, Sam!” I yelled, clapping heatedly in an effort to deflect any potential feelings of ineptitude. After all, a triple in his first at-bat—nothing to sneeze at! I turned to my fellow mothers, feeling sure they were impressed with my firstborn. Instead, they were red faced with muffled laughter, hands clasped over mouths. When I turned back to the field, I saw Peter, our next batter, running headlong at Sam who was trying to dodge him to make it safely home. Peter had hit the ball well enough to score Sam but then, sadly, had chosen to run up the third-base line.

“Go the other way!” hollered Jim, our normally mild-mannered coach. “Towards first, Petey! That way!”

Jim, who stood in the coach’s box a mere five feet away from Peter, gestured in the direction of first base, but to no avail. A speedy little devil, Peter was already halfway to third, nearly eye to eye with Sam, and here came Little Miss Rockies over from first again. Ball in glove, she tagged both boys out for a double play.

And I’d been warned that watching tee-ball was like watching paint dry. Blasphemy! In a single inning, I’d gone from nervous excitement to exhilaration to emotional languishing—it was better than the real Braves.

 

*         *         *

 

Despite Mark’s towering hits, the Buckhead Tee-Braves developed into a huggable little team that failed to win a single game. Dubious though the distinction may have been, Sam did become one of the team’s stars. Although the other parents never said this in so many words, Houston and I could sense it. We could sense it in the curious way Gus, the most competitive dad among them, set his teeth as he whacked Sam on the shoulder as a means of congratulating him after a big hit. We could see it in the watery eyes of the mother whose son could hardly hold the glove above his head in the effort to catch a pop fly. Glancing our way on the bleachers, she’d whisper, “Thank goodness for Sam,” who’d just leaned in to catch a fly ball inches behind her son’s unprotected head. At that point, it seemed to make little difference that Sam had missed those seasons of preschool ball. He could scoop up wayward hits deflected off of less attentive players, snag line drives (rare though these are in tee-ball), and throw with the grace of a dancer.

Methinks the lady doth boast too much. Reader, forgive me. The flesh is weak and now and then the urge to indulge my parental bias too strong. Sam’s tee-ball glory was so delicious … and, ah, so fleeting! Now that I have twenty-seven years of parenting behind me, I know how hard being good at something really is for kids. Successful high school athletes drag into weight rooms at 6:00 am (before classes) in order to keep up with the competition. But first-time parents don’t know this, and even if they do, it doesn’t matter—nothing tops the thrill of witnessing a child first revealing a natural talent, be it a penchant for sports or an ear for music or a gift for comforting others. You know it when you see it. It comes unbidden, and nothing is more beautiful to a parent than its purity and effortlessness.

In the end, Sam’s illustrious tee-ball career spoiled us. During the late games of the Buckhead Tee-Braves’ second season, Houston and I began to take for granted the doubles and triples and RBIs, even the circus catches, that Sam seemed born to execute. We grew bored, antsy for the day our son would graduate to what’s known as the Rookie League, not quite real baseball but close enough for the eight-year-old slugger. In rookie play, the batter stands in at home plate as he would in traditional baseball and waits for an umpire to feed a ball into a pitching machine, thus insuring more consistency of pitches for the developing hitter. About three minutes after Sam received his second tee-ball trophy, I began to dream, day and night, of Sam’s future domination over the pitching machine. These dreams sustained me through yet another dreary, cabin fever–infested winter completely devoid of baseball. Then, early one Saturday in mid-February, I roused before any child seized the chance to infiltrate our bedroom. Perhaps it was the scent of crisper, drier air, a slight evaporation of winter’s mucky mold, but something moved me towards the window, where the rays of a sun beaming more strongly than the day before were peeling back the thick skin of gray that had gripped our city since early November. In the backyard, crocus and daffodil buds were beginning to push open in happy response. Everywhere, rodents and birds and other suburban wildlife were shaking off the drowsiness of winter to begin a new season of foraging and reproducing.

A modicum of warmth, the promise of new life … baseball on the horizon. My children too caught a hint of renewal in the air and rustled early. Down the hall, Emma chattered with the bunny who was her cribmate while Matt scrambled in his costume trunk to find Superman’s missing cape. Moments later, Sam, bat in hand, raced through our bedroom door clad in his fresh-issue Little League uniform.

“What time do we go, Dad?” he called, unaware that his father still lay drenched in sleep, slightly less anxious than the rest of us to emerge from winter’s long nap.

“Practice doesn’t start ‘til ten, sweetie,” I whispered. Emma began demanding rescue from her crib, but I ignored her, glad for a moment to bond with my firstborn.

Aaww, that’s like …” Sam glanced at the clock, pouncing on Houston. “… more than three hours away! Dad, can we go early? You could pitch to me!”

Never wake me this early!” Houston growled in mock anger, rolling over to tickle Sam.

“No, Dad! Stop!” Sam cried.

“Of course. Early it is,” Houston added, tickling all the harder.

Ahhhh, the preseason—there is surely no happier time for the Little League family. Such promise in the warming air … and so much to do! There is the new bat to be purchased, slightly longer and heavier than last year’s to account for the added power a year’s growth will guarantee, and the new cleats to be sized to accommodate increased speed on the bases. Uniforms fairly glisten and coaches are all sunshine, smiling and promising not only a championship by season’s end, but equitable playing time and candy rewards for stellar performance and open channels of communication with parents. The highlight of February for me personally was finally getting my hands on the game schedule, then recording in my calendar every last opportunity I would have to cheer on my brave slugger. In short, nothing stood in the way of a star being born.

But something went wrong. Very, very wrong. At practice that bright chilly day, the machine wound up, pitched, and Sam swung and missed. A lot. He struck out. Again and again, in fact. And not only on that ominous day, but deep into his Rookie season. The umpire on the mound would hold a ball aloft, and Sam, arms quivering, soft small knuckles aligned on the bat, would blink, his cap tipping ever so slightly to indicate his eagerness, his determination. This time, he would hit it. This time, he would earn the right to show off his speed on the bases, perhaps even to slide. How he longed to slide—to smudge and stain those sleek white pants! As the ump dropped the ball into the machine’s hurling mechanism, Sam would coil back his bat, unleash his beautiful left-handed swing, and catch air. Again and again.

Maybe it was the machine itself, I reasoned. A metal contraption on four spindly legs, it is a decidedly cold, menacing thing, inhuman and featureless save for a dark hole resembling a mouth, a monster’s mouth, that spits out balls at what must seem a breakneck speed to a child accustomed to having his parent pitch to him. Maybe Sam needed to witness the human exertion of a pitcher’s windup to better predict the trajectory of that little white ball. Or maybe, just maybe, it was divine retribution, the baseball gods giving us our due for the sin of pride. The psychological strain brought on by Sam’s failure in the face of the monster machine turned out to be simply a primer for the gut-wrenching lows that are an integral part of parenting a Little Leaguer. Slumps, or extended periods of poor performance, are all part of the ball game, unless you happen to have one of those kids with such built-in self-confidence that he or she doesn’t think twice about having struck out in his last two at-bats when he steps up to the plate the next time around. He simply believes this time he will get that hit. Who me? I’m not in a slump—I’m due!

I spent much of Sam’s Rookie season greening up with envy of the mothers of such boys, watching brazenly their interactions with the young Ty Cobbs they seemed to be raising. After all, I reasoned time and again, I can be taught! If emulating these supermoms would help me infuse my sons with confidence, then I’d study their parenting skills until the stadium lights went dim. No doubt I should have long ago purchased a self-help book (or a hundred) on this topic, but what Little League mom has the time? There are practices to be watched, strategies to formulate! And besides, how could Sam control what seemed written in his genes? He was jockish, yes, but also a sensitive and analytical child. How could he help but apply these traits to his own play? And apply them he did. He would strike out once, come up to bat later wearing a look of edgy hope, swing once, twice, thrice, and strike out, again. He’s not using his legs, his coaches might advise, not throwing his hands, not following through … He’s thinking too hard!

That was it! At age eight, he’d already overengaged his cerebrum, lost his boyish playfulness. And while he deliberated and analyzed, his previously less-talented and blissfully less self-aware cronies sprayed machine-pitched balls all over the place, infield and out. Heck, when Sam’s younger brother played in the Rookie League, he saw not a monster in that machine but an ally. Matt struck out once, exactly once, in his fourteen-game Rookie League season.

During Sam’s endless Rookie charade, I would bite my lip, toss back my hair, and watch his shoulders slump after each strikeout until he developed a permanent baseball slouch. Houston and I forced smiles and thanked our fellow parents for their continuing encouragement. Gus, the shoulder-slapping dad from Braves’ tee-ball, again shared the bleachers with us. In fact, Sam generally batted behind Gus Junior who by midseason had one of the hottest bats on the team. I suspected Sam’s coach, Jim, the same nurturing, mild-mannered man who’d guided him to his tee-ball eminence, was trying to take the pressure off of Sam by letting him bat after a boy whose hits would more often than not clear the bases.

One day, Gus Junior came to bat with the bases loaded and, sure enough, hit a triple to the fence. When Sam swung and missed for the third out, stranding Gus Junior at third, Big Gus caught me broadside with that meaty paw and gave me a wink.

“Don’t worry. He’ll get that magic touch back soon!” he said. “Some of ’em have trouble making the transition from the tee to a live ball,” he went on, doling out another thud between the shoulder blades.

Against all reason, Houston and I grew quite popular that season, as if the more glaring Sam’s weakness became, the more attractive we were as a family. Perhaps the baseball gods needed something more than game day humiliation, something harsher, more along the lines of a burnt effigy. Thus, we were invited to cook out with people we hardly knew. What could we do but accept and stuff our miserable faces as Sam dragged along his albatross of a bat, then swung and missed right in his friends’ own backyards?

As the Rookie season drew to a close, Sam began to get the knack of the monster’s trickery. But the machine would not give up so easily. Although he began to pick up a few hits, most of the hardest-hit ones shot right back at the evil ball-spitter (was this accidental?). He’d slam a line drive in the direction of center field, and the ball would careen off the metal leg of the machine. Guess what that meant? Dead ball. It touches any part of the machine itself, and you lose. No credit given—replay!

In spite of this, Coach Jim refused to give up on Sam. When asked by the Rookie commissioner to name two players to an all-star team, he chose his own son (a solid, all-around player) and Sam. After all, he may have had a weak bat, but Sam was still the man in the field. My husband and I missed that early June all-star game—as I remember it, against my will. Had I known before season’s end that an all-star game or team even existed, I never would have planned to go along on Houston’s annual fishing trip for tarpon. I don’t even fish! But it was too late to change our plans. Sam’s grandparents went to his game in our stead.

“How’d Sam do?” I spat into the hotel phone, my ear sweaty with Florida humidity.

“He played just fine. Fine,” answered my perpetually optimistic father-in-law.

“Did he get to bat?”

“Uh, just once or twice, they had him a ways down in the batting order.” (Dead last, Sam told me later—not that I was surprised.)

“And?” I just knew he’d broken through, showed ’em his stuff after all.

“I can’t quite remember. Wasn’t on base much.”

He struck out, of course. Twice.

Yet I entered that off-season with hope in my heart. Sam’s coach knew Sam still had the spark. He’d been named an all-star, after all! But that was before I figured out the truth. Being dubbed an all-star is one thing. Being elected to the All-Star Travel Tournament Team is quite another thing altogether.

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