It was the bottom of the sixth — and last — inning. They were behind by nine runs, and their heads hung low.
Now is not the time, I thought, to tell Owen he didn’t make the All-Stars team and that his older brother did.
I had gotten the call right before the championship Little League game, and there hadn’t been enough time to tell Owen first. Plus, it would have been bad pregame morale.
Now, however, as I watched the Lions drag out onto the field, their faces red and defeated, it seemed there never would be a “right time.”
These are the moments that I miss Dustin most. One of the hardest aspects of single-parenting is playing both roles of Mom and Dad.
Parenting involves a heavy amount of good-cop/bad-cop, and when you’re alone, you have to make tough choices: Do I tell him to suck it up and try harder next time? Or do I coddle him and tell him that the decision stinks?
Ordinarily, when I’m coddling, Dustin plays “bad cop.” When I’m toeing the line, he pats the boys on the back. There is an emotional balance.
That balance got all out of whack during the baseball season. My usual role from the bleachers (“ultimate cheerleader” and “deliverer of Gatorade and bubble gum”) was complicated by the need to take on Dustin’s role: sports enthusiast, believer in the game and personal trainer.
Along the way, I got it all wrong. Telling Ford that his slide into second base looked like someone “jumping into a swimming pool” apparently wasn’t the right thing to say. Yelling for Owen to “keep his chin up” wasn’t welcome.
The boys needed their dad.
Or did they?
The day before I knew Owen had not made All-Stars, he said, “Sometimes I feel angry when I see other boys with their dads.” I understood. At the beginning of the season, I overheard fathers talking about taking their boys to the batting cages, and I felt sad.
Would Owen have made All-Stars if Dustin had been home to help him?
I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that the absence of the boys’ father has at times been offset, at least partially, by all that they have gained. When you’re missing a parent, you learn to depend on other people for support. That’s not such a bad thing.
Sometimes that support comes from other kids. Also not a bad thing.
For Owen, support ultimately came from his teammates. Our local Little League keeps boys on the same team throughout their “career.” (Once a Lion, always a Lion.) The kids build team identity. They bond with their coaches. They see older teammates grow and change. (Who hit their growth spurt between seasons?) And the team becomes a second, if somewhat seasonal, family.
At the beginning of the championship game, it became clear that the opposing team was bringing out the big guns: their top, oldest pitcher who can throw about 80 mph. I thought of Owen in the dugout and wondered if he was scared. Then the announcer said, “First up for the Lions, Owen Smiley.”
Oh. Dear. God.
I’m only half joking when I say I wanted to stop the game.
From the dugout, I heard Owen’s teammates cheering him on. “You’ve got this, O,” they yelled.
Owen struck out, but still, his teammates gave him high-fives as he ran back to them. They know it’s their job to bring up future Lions. Just like his older brother before him, Owen is receiving an education in the dugout.
Yes, part of that “education” involves learning new words and someone asking, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?” but mostly, it means a dozen other “brothers” who can teach Owen things his mother can’t.
By the bottom of the sixth, the game was virtually over. The Lions didn’t stand a chance.
Then someone stole second. And another stole third. Suddenly and dramatically, the Lions scored 10 runs and won the championship with only one out. It was better than any major league game. And Owen had been part of it.
I waited until after the team victory party, after they were drenched in sweat and full of soda and cookies. As we got in the car to go home, I broke the news. Owen’s happy face turned sad. Tears made dirt tracks down his cheeks. “What? I didn’t make it?”
Turns out, there is no good time to tell a kid he didn’t make the team.
Owen’s oldest teammates, the ones leaving the Lions this year, came to the car and saw that Owen was crying. They hopped in the van and started their pep talk: They hadn’t made All-Stars the first year either. They think Owen is an awesome kid. They think he will make it next year.
Owen began to smile. Owen started to feel special. Owen remembered everything he loves about baseball — mostly, the team. He went to bed (mostly) happy.
And to be honest, I’m not sure even his dad could have done that for him.
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 www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.