when baseballs break a heart: a lesson you wish a kid didn’t need to learn
the night before, we laid out the uniform. the spic ‘n’ span white pants, the socks and shirt and hat the color of a rubber ducky.
the mitt, nearly sacramental, was laid on top. the final offering, it seemed, to the gods of baseball. or maybe merely to the patron saints, the ones whose job it was, you’d think, to look down on little diamonds dotted all across america, make sure no hearts were broken. not needlessly anyway.
when it comes to baseball and hearts, the sound of cracking hardly comes from bats alone, biting into balls. plenty of chambers, too, are splintered, emptied out of blood and hopes and dreams.
that’s pretty much the way it went last sunday, when the plumbers took the field. and walked off five innings later thoroughly, well, tanked.
but that’s getting ahead of the ball here.
what happened the other day was, like so much of life, teeter-tottered. one team was made up of little squirts, second graders new at baseball and pitching and hitting without a tee, and the other team was, well, old hands. and huge, by the way. third graders who’d been around the bases plenty of times.
it was the opening game of the pinto season, the league the little kids look up to, the first one where you get to don the catcher’s garb–the caged helmet, the strap between the legs, the padded shield, oh my–and kids, not coaches, get to pitch.
it’s the league of little players’ dreams. and just the day before they’d gathered for as old-fashioned a welcoming ceremony as you could imagine, complete with red-white-and-blue bunting on the outfield fence, 50-cent donut holes, dugouts, and a pledge to “make it fun; above all, make it fun.”
well, before the teams took to the grass and sand-strewn mounds, even a mope like me could tell that somehow something was off-kilter. felt a bit like goldilocks, one team too little, the other too, too big.
but it wasn’t the kids so much as the coaches, who quickly emerged as big bad bears.
there were two, in particular, on the other team. one a beefy guy who wore his Big Ten football jersey beneath his little league t-shirt. the other: lean, in khaki trousers, not smiling.
those two coaches took on this game as if it was some sort of season-ending series, and their life and lungs depended on a win.
from the get-go they were whoopin’ and bellowing. tellin’ one player or another to knock it off. hustle. hustle. CHASE THE BALL, KID, WHAT ARE YA THINKIN’?!?
right off, they encouraged stealing bases. a kid would hit, the little plumbers out in the far-out field would fumble for the ball, chase it half a mile, and all the while the coaches would be spinning round their arm, like some cockeyed windmill, fanning in another run.
didn’t take long for the little ones to take on a dazed sort of expression. reminded me of what cake batter must feel like when the metal whirring beaters are dropped into its midst. poor soupy batter just stands back and takes it, till at last the instructions on the back of the box say to stop, two minutes, up.
inning after inning it went like this: kids from the other team stepped up to the plate, hit, ran, stole, scored. ran through the lineup nearly every time.
scored run after run after run. after run. and that was just the first inning.
then the little guys got a turn. three up, three down. boom, boom, boom. three strikes, yer out. three outs, yer on the field.
pretty soon the score was 20 to nothing.
after an inning or three, we lost count. but the coaches on the other team never let up. they were calling out the batters’ names, four or five at a time, assuming i suppose that they’d bat forever, without a single out.
wasn’t long before the kids on the Big Ten coach’s team picked up on this knuckle-thumping bravado. they’d bellow out the score from time to time, a pathetic count that rose–on one side only, thank you–like mercury on a steamy august day.
alas, inning after inning, the little plumbers stayed stuck at the hollowest of numbers.
“it’s 35 to zero,” one kid from the other team called out, in case anyone was listening. yelled it so loud, made me fairly certain he was making sure kids two towns away would know the score.
the coach said nothing; i couldn’t help myself. i’d been muttering in whispers long enough. it was time to politely make a point.
“how ‘bout some humility,” i mentioned–softly–to no one in particular, in case anyone was listening. i got poked in the ribs by the chap sitting next to me. told me to cool it, he did. and i guess, because he’s the man i married, he was just tryin’ to keep me safe. from coaches and their trounce-announcing players.
oh, it’s a happy place, this sandlot baseball.
worst part, though, was hours later. at bedtime. of course, when all the muddy waters of the day come rushing out, and rinsing needs be done.
the little one, no surprise, couldn’t fall asleep, and soon had called for help.
“i can’t sleep,” he yelled in apt description.
seems the whole darn game, inning after inning, was playing in his head: the fly ball he’d missed, the one that let the batter earn a triple; the strike-out the only time he got to bat; the foul tip that got away.
wasn’t long before the tears came too.
“we lost by 43,” he said, demonstrating second-grade subtraction skills. “that’s half of a hundred,” he said, demonstrating wide-eyed approximation.
demonstrating, too, just how bad it hurt, to be a little kid with giant baseball dreams who’d had them thoroughly, undeniably trampled. rubbed-in like grass stains on his once-white knees.
just the night before, this would-be catcher-slash-center-fielder had had trouble falling asleep with all the home-run pictures in his head. heard the crowd roaring, he did. imagined the coach handing him the little plunger that, each game, goes to the plumbers’ player-of-the-game.
and now, one game later, he’d seen the way it really was: coaches past their prime taking on the task as if a win, at any cost, was all that mattered. paying no mind to pint-sized kids and their first outing on the field. waving in runners twice the size of the little ones fumbling under bushes, trying to throw the ball anywhere in the vicinity of a base.
it hurt, the poor kid said.
he was mad and sad and thoroughly confused: baseball was a game he loved. a game he watched at night, lying beside his papa. a game he read about every morning, slurping statistics along with frosted flakes.
and now, because of baseball, he felt, he said, like someone put their baseball cleat right where his heart goes thump, and then, with all their weight, they’d pushed down that cleated sole.
it hurt, he said.
and then, at last, he fell asleep.
his mitt, that night, was nowhere near his bed. he’d dumped it, soon as he came in the door. his yellow hat, though, hung on the post of his bed; he wasn’t giving up.
just poring over pages in the play book, trying to figure out the game.
when i walked in a little later on, to kiss him one last time, his cheek was soggy still. he’d cried himself to sleep.
some lesson learned on the ballfield that sorry sunday: you can give it all you’ve got and then some, but some beefy guys will run you bloody. and hoot and holler all the way to home.
not why i signed up the kid for baseball.
do you think, perhaps, i could get my money back?
the questions are these: what lessons have you learned on some ball field somewhere, lessons you still don’t think you needed to know? or, conversely, if you’ve found yourself sitting in the stands, or drying tears at bedtime, how did you patch a player’s broken heart?
housekeeping: this is my first friday meander on the new rhythm, and while i ached to write on wednesday, it is something of a treat to wrap up my writing week here, where i can meander to my heart’s content. welcome to the new world, i suppose. maybe fridays will be all right. maybe it makes sense to emphatically end my week, and start the blessed weekend. thanks for adjusting.
and finally, a huge and hearty welcome to a few fine souls who’ve just recently told me that they’ve found the chair. the mama of a boy who long long ago was my patient, a boy with cancer who i, along with a few other heavenly nurses, cared for, and quickly came to love. jeffrey died, but his mama comes here now, one of the miracles of the chair and life. and a lovely writer named julia, who is in 7th grade, and who is going to grow up to knock your socks off with what she writes and the questions she asks. it is the most blushing thing, thoroughly a blessing, to find out that extraordinary souls have tiptoed here and quietly pulled out a chair. it gives me goosebumps every time. bless you each and every one. and welcome.