Kids’ baseball: holding close, letting go

Posted May 02, 2010, at 7:21 p.m.

Four years ago, I wrote a column about Ford, then 5 years old, playing baseball. Only, it wasn’t real baseball. It was T-ball. And lest you think 5 is too young to play anything that even resembles baseball, by local standards in what was then our hometown of Pensacola, Fla., Ford was a little late getting into the game. Neighboring Bagdad, Fla. — calls home to say, “Hi, Mom, I’m in Bagdad,” were always fun — is where T-ball originated in the 1960s. They don’t take this lightly, and any child who begins T-ball later than age 3 is considered to be somewhat of a hobbyist, not a serious player.

When Ford joined the “Bears” as a novice at 5 years old, he was promptly sent to a position far in the outfield. He practiced daily with his dad in the front yard, and then, once he thought himself proficient enough, Ford went to the coach and said, “I’ve worked real hard and I think if you give me a shot at the infield, I can do it.” The coach smiled and put Ford at first base the next game.

I titled my column about this experience “Lessons from the Dugout,” and it has been republished more than any of my other columns. (Last year it was featured in “Chicken Soup for the Father and Son’s Soul’”) My alternating feelings of torment and anxiety, mixed with sudden urges to run onto the field and protect my son from any embarrassment, resonated with readers. So did my husband’s advice when I was tempted to shield Ford from laughing peers in the dugout after he got the first out: “Sarah, do not go in the dugout,” Dustin said.

I wrote, “Sometimes, I guess, being a mother means allowing you to have experiences that will break my heart while they build your character.” I began the column with a description of a short, knobby-kneed Ford nearly swallowed up by the large, wobbly batter’s helmet that made him look like a bobble head. I ended with this:

“Two batters later, you were safe again on third. You looked to see if I was watching. Someday, I thought, you’ll look for another girl in the stands. But for now it is me. The next batter hit the ball and you ran home. Then you circled back to the dugout, leaving me there, behind the fence, at home base, where I will always be cheering for you.”

A year later, still in Florida, I followed up “Lessons from the Dugout” with “Not an Easy Out,” the story of my getting into a fight with a coach who humiliated Ford on the field. I remember yelling, “I don’t care who won or lost, don’t ever tease my son like that again.” And I remember not crying — not even a single tear — until the coach threw his bat at the chain link fence and stormed off, muttering something that rhymes with “brazy citch” as he went.

As it turns out, however, your own mother screaming at a coach is much more humiliating than just about anything else.

Clearly, for me, none of this was about baseball, the sport. Each year, my son’s tentative steps onto to the red, dusty baseball diamond were symbolic of his maturing. They were all wrapped up with my monthly crying jags over Ford’s square, slender hands that look nothing like the round, chubby ones I used to hold in mine as we crossed the street. And they were an outward representation of my own, deeply personal struggle to hold Ford close and let him go at the same time.

Last year, now in Bangor, Maine, I thought I was past all of this, past the emotions of baseball. At least I wasn’t crying in the stands anymore. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about children eating dinner as they waited for their turn up at bat. I laughed spontaneously — the kind of laugh that bursts forth at the most inopportune times, such as the middle of a sermon at church — about the kids holding half-eaten ham sandwiches in the outfield. I don’t remember feeling sad.

Then, about a month ago, Ford said he wanted to play in Little League. Technically, he is still too young for Little League, so he would have to try out. We weren’t sure he’d make it. Two days after the tryouts, while I was at school, Ford called me on my cell phone. “Mom, I made Little League,” he said. “I really made it!”

I immediately thought of that little boy with the wobbly batter’s helmet and started to cry, which only got worse on the night of his first practice.

To be continued next week in “First Day of Little League.”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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