Like any true love, it was instant and intense. As he climbed into the backseat of my van after his very first practice, I immediately noticed something different about his eyes. In them I saw passion and excitement, giddiness and bliss. I casually asked, “So, how’d you like it?” His response was immediate and I knew right then and there that a fire had started in his soul on that warm May evening at the dusty little league park. He looked at me through the rearview mirror with sparkling blue eyes peeking out from underneath a too-big ball cap and replied, “Mom, I love baseball.”
I have to admit, I was a bit surprised. In all of our focus on ice hockey over the past three years, we’d neglected to spend much time outside throwing the baseball around. Our evenings were spent at the ice rink, not at the ballpark. Our basement was full of sticks and pucks, not bats and mitts. To be honest, when I sent him out there for his first practice that night, I was a bit worried that his lack of skills and experience in this particular sport would make him hesitant to get out there and play. But he was undeterred by the steep learning curve ahead of him. Love is blind, and he saw only the possibilities and none of the pitfalls. It didn’t matter to him that a simple game of catch turned into a round of “chase the ball down.” He didn’t care that most of his throws hit the ground before they hit his partner’s mitt. And although he didn’t know where to stand when playing second base before practice started, he was a self-described expert in field positions by the time it ended. I admired his blind allegiance to his newly discovered passion. He reminded me of the boy in the song, “The Greatest” by Kenny Rogers, the one who swings and misses three times and marvels at his own pitching skills as opposed to focusing on his strike out.
As his passion grew, so did his ability. The kid who couldn’t catch a cold in May became the starting second baseman in June. The boy who missed every pitch at the batting cage in pre-season became the leadoff batter and a reliable base runner by game time. This wasn’t from dumb luck or pure natural talent; he just worked hard at getting better. Every night after dinner he grabbed his mitt and bat and headed outside with his dad for an hour or two of practice. He played whenever and wherever and became an expert at begging any nearby adult to just, “Pitch him a few.”
I couldn’t help but fall in love right along with him. His excitement was infectious and I found myself holding my breath every time he stepped up to the plate, willing him to get a hit just so I could see the smile on his face as he hustled down to first. I noticed other Moms and Dads in the stands doing the same thing, cheering on their little guys and yelling things like, “Get your hands back” or “Keep your glove down.” Over the course of the season, the families on the sidelines merged into a cohesive tribe of enthusiasts, calling out the names of the boys in the blue jerseys and relishing the big hits and the clutch plays.
Our evenings were spent at the corner of Liberty and Carroll Streets, on the same diamond my Dad and husband spent their summers. Across the field we could hear the Girls of Summer banging out doubles and running around the bases. Those tough softball chicks with their long ponytails sticking out from their helmets and their black eye paint were the sisters of the boys on the grass covered infield and many families stood between the two fields to watch both. All of us ballpark parents fed our kids hotdogs and nachos for dinner followed by more suckers than we’re willing to admit. Younger siblings were free to run around with the other kid sisters and little brothers whose summer schedules were also dictated by the game calendar. We became part of the community of the league where every other night was a high school reunion. It was like stepping into a time machine and setting the clock back twenty years, except this time the faces that filled the field during my youth were now the coaches standing on the third base line and the Moms cheering in the stands. The continuation of a tradition is one of the beautiful aspects of small town life, made even sweeter by the successive generations that wear the jerseys and come back to watch their children and grandchildren do the same.
There are all kinds of lessons to be learned on the field that can translate to lessons in real life. To keep swinging, even with two strikes against you. To win humbly and lose gracefully. To play a role for the good of the team and to cheer on your teammates, even if from the bench. To learn from a missed ground ball and keep your head up and your mitt down for your next chance to come along. To never give up--some rallies begin with two outs on the scoreboard. To experience the elation of winning and the agony of defeat. To play with your heart and leave it all on the field.
Yes, summertime is for ball. It is for friendly rivalries and good old-fashioned competition. It is for nail-bitters that come down to the last pitch of the last inning. It is for muggy evenings and rain delays, dirty faces and grass stained knees. It is for coaches who believe in their players and lift them up after a hard loss and celebrate with them after a big win. It is for slushies and hot pretzels, bubble gum and walking tacos. It is for rally caps and bows made out of yellow leather. It is for rundowns between second and third and slides into home. It is for homerun derbies and little league records, championships and trophies. But most of all, it is for holding on to a little piece of Americana and a continuation of the love of the game.
(Photo courtesy of Caryn DeFreez Photography)