November 8, 2010

In Baseball As in Life: A Mother’s Perspective

By Elizabeth Crabtree

I don’t really know much about the game of baseball. After more than a decade of heading to the field with my son, Aaron, I still have to ask him what “RBI” means, why a foul also counts as a strike, and when it is acceptable to supportively exclaim, “good try!” after an error or when you’re just better off pretending that you didn’t see it. As a parent, it’s sometimes best to keep your head down and gently say nothing at all. I’m also completely perplexed by all those peculiar and secretive hand gestures among the coaches, runners and base players. I don’t know how they seem to instinctively figure out that stuff, but still can’t manage to feed the mewing cat or remember to take the garbage out on schedule before the truck arrives at the front door. It must be a ‘guy-thing.’

I have supported my son’s enthusiasm for the game of baseball all the way back to tee-ball. His first debilitating moment on the field was a pop fly catch that missed the confident and eagerly outstretched glove of a five-year-old, bouncing off his top lip and resulting in a bloody yelp that beckoned a chorus of mothers rushing to the field with sympathies and ice packs in hand. That was a tough moment – not because he met with minor injury, but because in that passing instant he would now forever realize that the excitement, joy and fun of playing baseball could also really hurt and bring about great disappointment, embarrassment and fear. Oh, the mother’s agony of nervously waiting and wondering if this early experience would forever shatter his fledgling exuberance and fragile ego. A hint of anxiety and sadness did set in, but only momentarily. It seems that a little humility and a sore fat lip can sometimes be a strong motivator. He could have sulked and sat on the bench, but the next at-bat brought focused determination. He crushed the blood-stained ball with a long baseline grounder that hopped past several foiled fielders and landed him victoriously in a belly-slide at third base. Home plate was within easy reach. He was safe and smiling once again.

Thereafter, we were both hooked and soon got into the habit of practicing for the big game. Aaron graduated tee-ball and was recruited into the little big leagues where he quickly became a go-to pitcher. As an awkward single-mother of an athletically-minded boy I tried my best to fit in with all the dads at the field and took the time to throw the ball around in the yard with my son from time to time – just like all the neighboring dad’s seemed to do. I was really getting the hang of it and found that I was having a little bit of fun, too. After a while I felt so confident about my baseball training prowess that I bought myself a nice new leather glove at our next trip to the sporting goods store. Aaron was even impressed and thought that I was good enough to be his team’s coach. I beamed with pride. Who needs a dad, I thought? Although Aaron had a loving father, we were separated and his time commitment to Aaron had always been fragmented. So I thought that being able to not only be a mother, but a surrogate dad to my son by playing sports with him was an important achievement, which validated my ability to do it all, be it all and never surrender to my worries, doubts and fears. Then, just when I was feeling quite satisfied with myself, I took a hard fast ball on the shin from the kid while catching for him at age seven. I immediately gave up on my budding and bruised coaching career. Who knew baseball could be so painful, I thought? Was he throwing so hard and fast to try to hurt me?! Jeesh! “No more of that,” I said, “Go play with your friends!” And that’s how it’s been ever since. I’ve surrendered to my limitations. I can’t do it all. So I just have to live with doing my best at what I can.

So each weekend, I am there – retreating to the safety of the sidelines, lugging out my chair and cooler, slathering on the sunscreen or rather, opening up the umbrella and shivering under a blanket. After all, this is New England baseball we’re talking about it. Still, each weekend, I am there. Cheering on the team, trying to remember all the players’ names, being proud of my son - or sometimes dismayed - but overall, I’m just hoping for a good day. I do admit that there is a competitive streak in me that would like to see my son’s team win their fair share of games, but at the end of the day, it’s not really about all of that.

I don’t really know much about the game of baseball. Even though I grew up playing a lot of it in the back alleys and vacant lots of the rural South with my three scrappy brothers and their rowdy friends who cheated their way to a win practically every time. There wasn’t as much to it in those days. You could buy a ball at the local hardware store for about fifty-cents and you seldom ever got a new bat or glove – you inherited a nicely broken-in one from your father or an older brother or perhaps your mom snagged a deal on a used one at a local rummage sale. If you were lucky and your birthday came around during the spring or summer, you might be surprised by a new bat or glove, but that generally meant you had an obligation to share it with your siblings, friends and other team mates on a regular basis that in the end, nobody really knew who actually owned it. Forget about cleats, we were lucky to own a pair of sneakers that weren’t two sizes too small by summertime. Nowadays, it is common knowledge that this year’s model hybrid fusion bat is much better than last year’s model and no kid can be respectable at the field without a pair of leather batting gloves, shatterproof sunglasses and sweat-minimizing, anti-chafe, high-performance underwear.

Seriously. When I was a kid we did walk a few miles to get to school each day and we never really knew all the rules of baseball or just how dangerous the game could be. In our neighborhood, a good pitcher or catcher could get a runner out on a steal by simply pelting him with the ball. You might be considered mean-spirited if you hit the runner in the head, but other body parts were fair game and there was no need for an umpire. For us, the rules of dodge ball, kickball, baseball and red rover were all interchangeable and in any dispute, the majority (or biggest fist) ruled. Those boys made me crazy as a kid, but I think of them with fondness as I remember the game of baseball before it became such a serious, business-oriented venture:

Before the business of baseball
There were more battered knees than
Bruised egos:

No midnight strike deadlines
Or board room brawls
No home run fireworks
Or strategic press releases
No boasting million dollar contracts
Or boisterous billboard-sized players

Before the game became a sport
Before the sport became a business
Before the business became a circus

Before the business of baseball . . .

There were sun-tanned boys with
Puffy red-cheeked faces
Bashing sweaty shots in
Back alley lots across
Fields of dandelions and through
Choruses of crickets
Stealing bases and little girls’ hearts
Until the final call for
Suppertime ….

All for the sake of a simple joy:
Playing ball.

The times might have changed, but it’s still a joyful gift to play and watch this insane and unpredictable game of baseball, especially with a fine team whose animated players suit up on a sunny day and meet the sky with high-five winks and self-assured grins, yet never really know what the game will throw their way. I enjoy seeing my son with his coaches and teammates, working hard to learn a thing or two about playing a good game of ball. It takes a lot of commitment, dedication and sacrifice to become a better, stronger and faster player. And even then, there’s still a very good chance that you’re going to screw up, strike out and lose it all in the end.

I sometimes miss my fantasy coaching days, but it is really much easier to be a back-seat coach from the comfort of my lawn chair where I can pretend that I know what’s going on, second-guess the team’s strategies and curse the umpire’s calls under my breath. It’s truly much harder to actually step up to that plate, take that chance, and be that coach in real time. Scheduling games, herding players and placating parents appears to be the most difficult task of all. So I applaud the valiant efforts and perseverance of my son’s coaches all the more. It’s really my business as a mom to do exactly what I do best. Sit back, try to relax and let him live it – injuries, heartaches, errors and all. It’s just part of the game and perhaps, too, it’s a little part of life.

Aaron, now fifteen, already learned a hard life lesson during baseball season six years ago this June. I enrolled him in his first sleep-away camp – Little League’s regional headquarters baseball camp in Bristol, Connecticut. He was so excited and proud to go. We got there after six long hours of driving. The place was so beautiful – ‘fields of dreams’ you might even say. And the college-player coaches were loads of fun and distraction for Aaron while I stood in the long registration line for yet another hour. However, when I got to the head of the line and eagerly gave his name and whipped out my checkbook to pay the account balance, the camp director quickly came over to me with a sense of grim despair. There was an urgent, emergency phone call from our family back home. I stepped aside to dial my parents and was informed that Aaron’s father had died that morning – suddenly and tragically at age forty-one from a stress-induced heart attack. Game over.

I stood there in silent tears shocked and confused as my son impatiently questioned me about what was wrong. I wasn’t at all ready to be called up for something like this. It just couldn’t be true. I never saw it coming. I hadn’t planned for it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not now. Not here. Not ever.

So just how do you tell an eight-year-old boy whose joy of the moment was playing baseball that his father just died and their big and woefully overdue summer plans of fishing and swimming and roller-coaster riding would never be realized? Baseball camp, too, would have to wait.

There was nothing I could say to him except the God’s honest truth. A doomsday omen and career-ender, I thought. That long six-hour ride back home changed the game of baseball for Aaron. Somehow though, it didn’t completely break him. A few months later he picked up the bat and was swinging for the fences again. And each summer since, we’ve spent every Father’s Day and the anniversary of that loss with some team, somewhere on a baseball field.

Even though I don’t know much about the game of baseball, it has meant a lot to our little family. After everything Aaron and I have been through these past many years it occurs to me now that baseball somehow prepares us for a lot of life’s lessons. I’m glad that Aaron never lost his love for it, even though one of his earliest memories of baseball coincides with one of the greatest tragedies of his life. After a recent heartbreaking game Aaron simply smiled, patted me on the back, and said, “It’s too bad that we lost, but we played a good game and it was a fun day.” My sideline frustration and disappointment vanished and I readily replied, “You’re right, you guys did play a good game and it really was a beautiful and fun day.”

My boy is fast growing into a young man with a head full of dreams and great expectations. I often find myself wondering what odyssey there will be for us yet ahead and what kind of father he will be someday since he lost his own so early in life. Our days at the field seem plentiful and long, but summer can be all too short and fleeting so I try to savor each and every one as they are sure to be some of the best of our lives. I still find that as a mother much of my energy is spent planning, organizing and worrying until I finally just have to give up, sit back and hope for the best. I can’t control everything. I can’t fix everything. I can’t be everything. And I’ll never really know that much about the game of baseball. Like every inning of every game, his future no matter how well conceived or prepared will always be uncertain.

For in baseball, as in life, you just never know how far you can go or how it will end. But hopefully, you’ll play a good and honorable game, enjoy living in the moment, and have a chance to make your way home safe every now and again.