From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Lessons Learned at Little League

Fatherhood, for me, has been less a job than an unstable and surprising combination of adventure, blindman’s bluff, guerrilla warfare, and crossword puzzle.

Frederic F. Van de Water

I am standing near the bench at a town Little League field while my ten-year-old son stands at the ready in the batter’s box. He sees the bases are filled with his teammates, the score is tied, two outs, the pitcher holds a small white sphere that he is about to fire in his direction, and if things go awry it might smack him the head and hurt a lot.

I am the assistant coach, unwilling to be the manager because my temperament is ill-suited to the tidal waves of pain and joy and sorrow that ten-year-old boys must endure to compete in Little League. In my role, I need never lose my patience or make tough decisions about why Tyler plays right field rather than shortstop. Here, the buck slips past and never stops at me, which is just fine and right and proper.

Mostly I am here because I believe that my presence will help my ten-year-old play the game better. I believe this because this theory worked extremely well when he was six, seven, eight, even nine, when Little League was a different animal.

Now at this level, the game has become serious. The kids pitch to each other (at lower levels, we coaches would toss cream puffs to our own players so they could smack them and get hits and feel awesomely talented). At this level, an umpire calls balls and very liberal strikes and there is no forgiveness or seven or eight more chances. This is where the wheat starts to get separated from the chaff, and there is no hiding the fact that some of the boys can catch and throw and hit and make the plays and some of the boys can’t.

At this level we have umpires and standings and playoffs and the first real whiff of that unmistakable scent called pressure. It is still fun, but fun has become a tiny byproduct. It is a taste of real life disguised as a recreational youth activity. And because of this, it is good and visceral and unremittingly tortuous for the species that set up all this: parents.

And so I am at this field, my boy is at the plate, and all I want is for something good to emerge from this moment. My boy is not the big, aggressive, agile, and athletic one. He is the timid, sweet one with the smile of an angel, the heart the size of Jupiter, and the athletic genetics of his mother, whose closest brush with sports was tossing my basketball shoes in the closet back when we were married. But he plays baseball because I immersed him in the beauty and poetry of the game from the moment I could get his little hand to hold a baseball.

He plays because we have spent more hours than I can count in the backyard or the park catching and throwing and hitting and pretending he was the shortstop for the Red Sox and making all the greatest plays in history. He plays because I always believed there was something good about being part of a team and learning how it feels to win and lose and participate. And mostly he plays because he really wants to.

He has refused soccer and football and basketball. But baseball has been his game, a glove tied up with a baseball and soaked with Neatsfoot oil under his bed as a talisman of the season to come.

And perhaps I shouldn’t be here anymore because the tension inside me billows to absurd proportions when my son is in the spotlight of the game. The season has gotten off to a horrible start, and our team has yet to win, and my son has yet to actually hit the ball. We have reached a juncture where a groundball of any kind would be victory, where I ache for him to avoid yet another failure. I am well-grounded in the team mentality and know logically that I shouldn’t be fixated on his performance. This is a bunch of ten-year-olds, for crying out loud. Get a grip, I think to myself.

I wish I could report that the pitcher fired in a smooth one and that my son launched a base hit into left field, driving in two runs. But he stood in, brave as a soldier, and didn’t flinch or move his bat as the ball floated tantalizingly and agonizingly straight over the plate.

“Strike three!” the umpire yelled.

And there in that moment, when he turned back to the bench, his face red, and he searched out my eyes, I felt the very rope of the journey that ties him to me, as it tied me to my father, and he to his. I felt the rip of having to hand him this imperfect world, where failure is a rite of passage and so much depends on chances taken on sunny Saturday afternoon diamonds. And I managed, because I am the grown-up, after all, to swallow that giant ache and hand him his glove and send him into right field with a sturdy “We’ll get ’em next time, big guy.”

Inevitably, he did get that first hit and we won our first game and we experienced the soaring joy of triumph that makes us want to play these games. But I believe I learned more about us during the struggle. There is, I have come to understand, real joy in Mudville, even after the strikeouts and errors and the games have ended.

The joy is in the steely bond that brings fathers out with sons to don their gloves and toss the ball across green fields of love and devotion. The joy is in being there, together, win or lose, and etched forever in a churning life.

Glenn Rifkin

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