Summer was finally here. The long-awaited All-Star Team had been assembled, and I was the coach. My son George, was one of our two best players. Together, we set out to win the City Championship and then States. The boys were only 10, so this was just a test run before the “big deal” their 12-year-old season would bring: a chance to play in and win the Little League World Series.
Little League has turned watching their annual playoff tournament into a national event. ESPN covers all the games, there are sideline reporters, the families’ backgrounds are shared through interviews and close-ups. Kids and coaches are mic’d up during the game. Stars are born on ESPN2 as kids from around the world swing away at their short, but life-long dreams.The Little League World Series is the pinnacle. It’s what they all longed for. An endless summer of baseball finishing with a dog pile on National TV.
It was just a baseball tournament, but to me, it was much bigger. I wanted to create memories for these boys, teach them a thing or two about life, and win, baby, win. I know they’ll only be ten once, and for some of them, this will be the highlight of their childhood. If there was anything I could do to help make that happen, I was going to do it. Daily practice, nightly research, and analysis. Countless emails and text messages amongst the coaching staff. Hundreds of miles driven. A constant state of planning, hope, joy, and disappointment. Managing parents, league officials, umpires and my own emotional state. Little League Baseball in the Summer of 2017 was my full-time job — as head coach, I poured myself into the boys and their dreams. It was hard to tell who was more excited me or the kids.
You see, the faded dreams of parents have a way of finding rebirth in their children. In your sons and daughters, you see limitless possibilities. Your dreams are like a roulette wheel tilted in their favor, each heroic outcome outnumbering the chances of a wrenching defeat. Yet, life is a ruthless bookmaker and darkness wins out slightly in the long run. No one has good luck forever. I never had the chance to win the big game, but man, I did fantasize about it. Every kid does. “it’s the bottom of ninth inning, two outs, two strikes, bases loaded, all it takes is one grand slam to win the world series, it all comes this moment right here…now can he do it?” While I always was the backyard champion, the chances of pulling it off, in reality, were quite poor. Growing up has a way of revealing the true probabilities of success. The odds were low. That situation, the dream situation, the chance to become a ‘legend’ — will likely end with shame and pain rather than elation.
We had a great run. We won the City Championship handily and moved quickly through the State Tournament. We’d won 9 games in a row and were flying high until game number 10. We were losing most of the game but George hit a home run in the bottom of the last inning to kick off a furious comeback. A true hero’s moment. We scored a few more runs to secure the win and a spot in the State Championship game. There was only one more game left for the title. A team of country boys from the far end of the state was the only thing standing between us and the perfect end to the perfect season.
As the baseball gods would have it, the game was a back and forth challenge. We were up, then they’d come back. The lead changed a few times. But as the beautiful game has done so many times in the past, the final set up every boy’s backyard dream. It was the bottom of the last inning, we were down three runs, there were two outs, and the bases were loaded. The next batter up was my son, George. It was movie script stuff here. Proud Dad and Coach looked over and thought “here it is kid, this is the dream stuff right here.” With one swing, George could end the game and give us the Championship. He’d done it before. He could do it again.
When George walked up to the plate I said, “You got this, you got this.” His dream and mine fused as one naive fantasy. At the time, I believed I was giving him a bit of strength to get that hit and win the game. But in reality, I was setting him up to fail. Did my own dreams cloud my judgment when I smiled and said he could do it even though the odds say no? Did I hope he’d live out my fantasy along with his own? Or was I being a good father and leading him to a painful ‘growth experience’ because, in the long run, it’d be good for him? I don’t know. Being a father can be hard sometimes.
I stood ten feet from my son as he swung and missed on strike three, his head turned to show me the instant sorrow. I watched the joy vanish and agony arrive. The tears burned like the shame of letting down your teammates. His sadness transmitted directly to my heart. This was my son, a part of me up there. I wished I could do something to help him, but my only job was to rub his back as his head hung and body shook. The gods and odds of baseball caught up to George that day, ending an incredible run. We won the City Championship, 9 games in a row, and had the State title in our grasp. But George’s final empty swing ended the game, the tournament, and now the summer.
After practicing every day for two months, after playing 15 games in six weeks, after building a team, a real team, it was finished. I lingered on the field for an hour afterward, milling around, delaying the final packing. Putting the gear away was putting it away for the summer and that meant less time to spend with boys, less time to spend with my son.
I am divorced and I don’t get to see George as often as I would like. Every other weekend and one night a week isn’t enough. A boy needs his father more than that. I need him more than that. So five years ago I decided to become his little league coach. We had already built a love of baseball together, and this seemed like the perfect way to spend even more time with him. Instead of once a week, I now set the practice schedule to optimize my time with him. Instead of spotty clumps in the summer, we now have the whole summer together…playing baseball. For me, it’s obviously more than just a game. Little League baseball is my access point to George where I can have a big impact. Dreams of baseball and genuine fatherhood together means this shit is serious and means so much to me. I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like without it. I love baseball, I love my son, and I love being a father.
Some of the other kid’s fathers never even showed up to the games. I could tell which boys had supportive home lives, dad’s who loved them, or mother’s who babied them. It was easy to spot if a kid got away with murder at home, or was used to being in charge. When some of them get to my teams, I’m the first hard ass they’ve ever encountered. But, my players always end up looking up to me because they know I give them everything I’ve got. I don’t treat them like little kids. It’s almost tough love and it’s new and foreign, but eventually, they cling to it and grow as humans and ball players. To me, they’re each my son for the season. I love them and it shows. I want them to learn how to play ball and be a man at the same time. Not every dad is like me, and I think boys appreciate it. Baseball is about father’s and sons, men and boys, wisdom and youth. The rhythm of the game demands it.
The rules of the game are basically as they’ve been for more than 100 years. The pitcher must throw a strike, and the batter always has his chance. In 1917 the game fueled dreams and broke hearts just the same as today in 2017. Grandfathers can look in the eyes of their son’s son and know exactly what he is feeling. The leather glove, the dirt, the summer heat. More than a past time, baseball is a thread which unites today with yesteryear, something we are losing as the world evolves. Baseball, from the National League down to Little League is a pillar of our culture.
Baseball awakens with the flowers, the gardens of life and hopes of summer victories stretch and yawn as they prepare to bloom. Players and nature ending their winter blues in unison. The crescendo of a baseball season gathers strength through what once to a child seemed like an eternal summer but now feels fleeting to grown-ups before it even begins. They don’t call ’em the “Boys of Summer” for nothing. Temperatures rise with hopes of championships as the gnats swirl in the outfield. The unity with the seasons is one of baseball’s most beautiful metaphors and experiences. Each year it ends, but each Spring it begins all over again..again.
We tell kids they play sports for fun, but we know the real reason. Some truths are impossible to explain, kids can’t hear them, and parents don’t want to do the work. Team sports effectively illustrates and shares by example where parental lectures may be unheeded. Losing hurts like nothing else, and life is full of it. Loyalty is hard to explain, but when you feel it you never forget. Practice and hard work are essential and pay off…sometimes. Focus and attention bring progress. Discipline is just a baseline for success. Often life is decided by nothing but luck. We win sometimes, we lose sometimes, and sometimes, it just rains. Lessons learned by joyous or painful example stick much longer. We’re building young men out here, young men who will one day be our new leaders. That’s a lot to put on a kid playing baseball, but we gotta train em up somehow and sneaking eternal wisdom into a child’s game is how we build for the future.
A few days after we lost the State Championship, my son looked at me with a choked up face and said, “I just miss it, Dad.” He missed the time spent with his friends, the carefree joy of getting dirty and playing a game we love. He missed the opportunities to shine, and even a chance to fail. When you’re ten the State Championship is the biggest deal of your life. And now it’s moving into the past. My son is learning what we all end up understanding one day: life is a collection of memories and we must seize all chances to make new ones.
We grabbed our gloves and went to the park to play catch. I stood thirty feet in front him as I had so many times before. Feeling nostalgic, my own memories swelled up to the moment. I saw rotating images of the growing boy doing the same thing with me that day as he had every year before. When he was two or three and had that floppy baby hair no mother ever wants to cut, we’d use whiffle balls and toss them underhanded in Logan Circle as rush hour traffic snarled around us. When he was 5 and got his first real glove, I’d throw the balls from my knees. At 7 he’d wear his t-ball jersey as we would sneak out of family events to play catch in the alley behind my father’s house. By 8 and 9 I started throwing to him like he was an adult. By 10 his pitches hurt my hand so much it was time for me to buy a real catcher’s mitt. Tied to every version of my son I can remember is this game of catch. These are the moments I will cherish forever, this is the real fruit of my efforts. Standing face to face with him for 45 minutes with nothing to do but talk, throw, laugh, and just be with each other.
This simple game of throwing and catching gave us the best of times and I thank baseball. Today, playing catch gave George a chance to move on. Small steps forward, putting distance between today and what he can only see as a failure right now. Losing the big game burned but with time, the kid’ll be alright.
I hope so at least. Along with baseball I also gave him my own irrational expectations. My relentless self-criticism. My clouded self-image. My unyielding need to win. When he beats himself up, it hurts, it’s my reflection, it’s partly me, partly my fault. Maybe one day we’ll both learn to give ourselves a break, to be kinder and gentler, to be our own best friend rather than our own worst critics. I’ve struggled with that for many years and I’m afraid he may too. But until then we have each other and we have baseball. And I think that’s just about all we need.