In Defense of “That Guy”

“They give you round bat, throw you a round ball, and tell you to hit it square.”

-Willie Stargell

We are firmly in the Spring season. That means I spend my weekends and some weekday evenings watching my favorite baseball team. In all honesty, they are struggling. Most of the time they make the wrong play in the field. Their baseball IQ is not the greatest yet. They can’t even figure out consistent line-ups, positions in the field, or pitching rotations. The staff era has to be in the twenties and don’t even get me started on their WHIP, BABIP or fielding percentages. Despite all of this I watch every pitch of every inning. My favorite player wears number 4. He’s scrappy, determined and he gives it his all.

I’m not talking about the Phillies and Scott Kingery. I’m not talking about any professional baseball team, not a high school team or a traveling team. I’m talking about the Brookline Brewers, my son’s under 9 little league team. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that number 4 is my son, and he loves playing this game I love with all his heart. This is the story about the solidifying journey of that love, and my view of it from the bleachers.

As I approach my 40s, the overriding competitiveness in my soul has dwindled, but seeing my children succeed is a drug that has fueled an addiction even Avon Barkesdale can’t supply for.

My personal little league story was short and difficult. My first year, I believe, was third grade. I should have known things weren’t going to go well when I was placed on Galloway Township Athletic Association’s Mets, of all teams. I, like my son, loved the game, but I spent that first year struggling. I never played t-ball, coach pitch or machine pitch. I was plugged right into kid pitch and had to learn fast. While my baseball acumen was high (I knew what 5-4-3 meant and the eight ways to get on base before my teammates), putting that damn bat on that damn ball was something I couldn’t do. It was no surprise that I spent most of the season in right field, on the bench and at the bottom of the order. I struck out Every. Single. Time. Up. I never gave up though, and I never quit. I stuck it out until it finally clicked in the last game of the season.

For any kid who makes that walk from the on deck circle to the batter’s box, I applaud you. It takes courage and guts to stand up there, by yourself, in front of a crowd, in front of your parents and grandparents, in front of your classmates in the field who want to see you fail, and in front of your teammates on base and on the top step of that dugout that you so desperately don’t want to let down. Next to home plate can be the loneliest place on Earth. Failure or success is totally up to you. Your mom or dad can’t swing the bat for you, they are left totally helpless in foul territory. Your coach can only offer words of encouragement at this point. The decision to swing or not to swing rest totally on you. Oh, and remember….

Eye on the ball.

Knees bent.

Wait for the good ones.

Hands back.

Keep your eyes open

Step to the pitcher.

Choke up

Level swing

Two hands on the bat.

Yeah right.

Since you’ve come this far, I must confess that my title here is a little “click-baity.” We aren’t talking about parents who scream at kids or umpires, or parents who berate their kids. I’m coming to the defense of parents who want so badly for their son or daughter to feel what it’s like to not only shed that 800lb gorilla, but to punch it in its smug face.

My son had been struggling all season, but we practice most nights out in the park. I throw bucket after bucket of balls night after night. Most make the disheartening clanging sound as they hit the back stop. My son left with his head down after another micro-failure. Ugh, baseball…it’s an entire game of failure at the plate, but how do you convey that to an eight year old? Some balls thunk of the end of the bat, some dink off too close to the handle and leave the boy shaking the sting off his hands. Every once in a while though, maybe once a bucket, we get a sweet sharp *ping* and the ball goes sailing into the sunset. He gets a gigantic smile and tells me “I didn’t even feel it hit.” Yeah that’s the sweet spot buddy. Remember that.

My story son’s story of redemption is eerily similar to my own, although his came much quicker than mine. We both struck out in first at bat in a game that followed so many games filled only with Ks. His second at bat though…… I suddenly heard that sweet satisfying *PING!* I stood up on the bleachers to cheer, my son made the turn at first with the biggest smile on his face. I was clapping wildly while my eyes started to mist, clearly from the pollen. Later after the game he told us what he was thinking during the at bat. “After that first strike, I said to myself, THAT’S IT! I’m done striking out I pounded the plate with my bat and I crushed it.” Well, damn. That’s got me ready to run through a brick wall.

This is what makes Little League so great. Yeah, it’s hard and parents and coaches can be too tough, too demanding, and can easily suck the fun out of it. Baseball itself is inherently fraught with failure, rejection, and disappointment, but there is no greater feeling than trying something a thousand times, failing, only to come back, overcome it all and punch that gorilla right in the nose. The only thing better may be watching your son or daughter do it. Scratch that, seeing your kid do it is definitely way better.

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