Play Ball!

Baseball, River DadAt some point last fall, my then-four-year-old son told me that he wanted to play baseball. Tears of joy streamed down my face.

I love baseball. I have loved baseball my entire life. I play pick-up softball whenever an opportunity arises, which is more and more infrequent these days. I spent many a summer’s day as a child pretending I was driving in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. I cry through Field of Dreams. When my children were born, I secretly wanted them both to be left-handed — not because both my wife and I are left-handed, but because I planned on grooming them (both my son and daughter) into highly-paid left-handed relief pitchers.

So when my son (a righty) told me he wanted to play baseball, I couldn’t have been happier. He was excited. I was excited. He wanted to play right now! I explained that it was October and baseball wouldn’t start up again until April. He was not so excited. I spent the winter worrying that his desire to play would fall out of favor the same way his love of Sesame Street and Thomas the Tank Engine had waned over time. But my fears were unfounded. As the snow began to melt, his interest remained strong, and I signed him up for T-Ball. In fact, in a fit of blind enthusiasm, not only did I sign him up, I signed myself up to coach. I may not get a chance to play softball anymore, but now, twice a week, I’d play baseball with my son.

I didn’t think much about my decision to coach. I’ve seen hundreds of baseball games, I know what moves to make, when to steal, when to bunt, where to bat on my high OBP (on-base percentage) guys, when to pinch-hit, when to take the pitcher out of the game. This would be a snap.

But instead of sitting in the dugout chewing pistachios and managing a team of ready-made All Stars, my coaching partner and I were thrown to the wolves armed with little more than a box of baseballs, sequential uniforms, and a black plastic batting tee.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that five-year olds generally don’t come with Awesome Baseball Player 2.0 software installed and that the first thing I was supposed to do was teach them how to throw a baseball.

This information gave me pause. I had to teach kids? Lead them in exercises and drills? Stretching? The pressure of being responsible for making sure 14 five-year olds became lifelong baseball fans threatened to overwhelm me. What if they didn’t pay attention to me? What if they ended up not liking baseball? What if they laughed at me? Remember, five-year olds are pack animals, and I’m pretty sure they can smell fear and weakness.

Still, I didn’t lose my cool. For one thing, my son was really excited to play, and even more excited with the fact that his Dad was going to be his coach. For another thing, I wasn’t in this alone, and my coaching partner had an older son to go along with the one the same age as my own, which meant he’d done T-Ball before.

The day of our first practice arrived and my son and I drove to the field. He: thrilled, excited, with no idea of what wonders lay in store. Me: terrified because of a call I’d gotten thirty minutes earlier.

“Hi River Dad, it’s your fellow coach. I’m stuck in the City and can’t make it to today’s practice. Sorry. Have fun!”

I tried to calm my nerves by telling myself that this was all for fun, everything was going to work out fine. Then the children showed up. One by one, they trickled in and gathered around me —  instinctively drawn to the adult wearing the team cap — and stared up at me, waiting for guidance. All I could think was, “Why are they looking at me like that? Oh no, this is it! They’re going to jump me!”

If 14 five-year olds waiting for me to make the first move wasn’t bad enough, I was acutely aware of all of the parents standing around, watching. Panic started to set in. “I may be able to fool the kids, but not the adults! They’re going to know I’m a fraud. They’re going to wonder why their kid got stuck with the loser coach. They’re all going to be asked to transfer to a better T-Ball team.”

“Calm down,” I thought to myself. “You can do this. It’s baseball. You love baseball.”

I started slowly. A kind of fake round of stretching. Make it look like I know what I’m doing. Next, I asked them to pair up and start throwing to one another. After watching them mill around aimlessly for a few seconds, I paired them up myself, handing each pair a baseball, and stood back to take stock of the situation — close enough to watch the action but far enough away to avoid being pelted in the groin with an errant throw. What I discovered was that when you ask a five-year old to throw a ball overhand, they’re as likely to send it behind them as they are to toss it within twenty feet of their target. Pairing them up and having them throw to one another was an exercise in one child taking a turn chasing down the ball thrown by the other. Rinse. Repeat.

You’d think that at this point, I would have run, screaming, into the Hudson River. But instead, something deep, deep inside awoke. I watched these children, my players, toss baseballs into the Heavens and was overcome by a desire to…. help them.

I knelt beside one and showed him how to start his throw by just flipping his wrist. With another player, I showed him how to step forward as he threw the ball. A third player needed to

follow through with her arm, throwing rather than shot-putting the ball. And so on down the line. After ten minutes of this, the accuracy of my players’ throws had actually improved. Marginally, yes, but there was a noticeable improvement. I had taught them something.

What a rush.

Suddenly, my initial fears seemed silly. Nobody was standing around waiting to scoff at my suggestions. Nobody expected me to turn their child into Derek Jeter overnight. Everybody wanted to be here, and they were all having a good time. Especially my son, who grinned excitedly as his partner’s throw rolled between his legs.

It seems silly of me to have forgotten the most basic truth about baseball (at least for me). It’s fun. Now, my son is discovering this pure joy, and I get to rediscover it with him.

And who knows? Right-handed relief pitchers make pretty good money, too.  ©

 

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About the Author: David Neilsen