It was the first day in almost a week that we weren’t bombarded with heavy thundershowers. The First Colony Little League was use to unpredictable spring weather, so rescheduling the championship games was nothing new. But, to a wiry 10-year-old the wait was unbearable.
“Mom, do I have baseball today?” Will would ask before the car door even snapped shut in carpool.
I almost dreaded seeing him at 3:30 every afternoon because it was painful to see the disappointment on his face when I would say, “No, it’s supposed to rain pretty bad later,” or “No, the fields are soaking wet and unplayable.”
Last Tuesday, however, the supreme Little League guru sent out an email blast that finally, the championship games were on for 6 PM that day. Dad and grandma were notified, and plans began to take shape. Will was so excited he raced around the house gathering the various necessities of his uniform: red belt, Cardinal shirt with a number one on the back, sliding shorts, hat, twice-washed white baseball pants with impenetrable grass and clay stains smeared around the knees.
Fully dressed and packed two full hours before the game, Will became a clock-watcher. “What time is it?” he would call every three minutes or so as he tried to complete his spelling homework.
“Don’t worry,” I would reply, “I’ll get you there early, just not this early.”
This has been quite a season for my little baseball player. If I include the brief stint at tee ball when he was 6 (the season I affectionately call the Playing-in-the-Dirt season), this makes Will’s 5th season playing baseball, and to date it has been the best one yet.
During “tryouts” this year, I really noticed the difference between those kids who have been playing some form of select ball and those who play recreationally like my son. It was like watching middle school players try out with the pros. Those in the pro camp could hit the ball over the fence (I kid you not) even though they were the same age as Will. Those kids were the ones who seemingly flew across the field to catch a pop fly and snap a ball to first base like they were simply flicking a piece of lint off their uniform. And, the pitching…Let’s just say, I am not sure my husband would have been able to get a hit off some of these pitchers. They were sharp, fast, trained, and consistent. I was certainly impressed.
But, I was also concerned. As much as Will likes to play sports (How shall I say this?), he is a casual athlete. Will is in it for fun and the camaraderie. He just isn’t that kid outside throwing a ball with a neighbor to get in some more practice. No work on muscle memory there. Also, Will isn’t beefy like some of his teammates. He’s of average height for his age with giant feet and hands. One season a coach likened him to a Great Dane puppy, which I thought was a perfect description.
So, it was not all that surprising that Will had not had an official hit in any game he ever played. Sure, he had made it on base if a pitcher walked him or hit him with the ball, but an actual hit that goes into the infield or outfield escaped him. Sure, he looked good at the plate—bat up behind his shoulder, cleats planted in the batter’s box, helmet tight and glasses on straight—but almost every time a pitcher released a ball, Will would take a step back. He was terrified of getting hit by the ball, which unfortunately happened the very first time he was at bat two years ago. Some people never forget their first kiss, but with Will it was his first hit—literally the ball hit him, hard, in the ankle.
Then there was this new coach, who seemed to take his job very seriously. As soon as his team was formed, Coach set up practices at 7:30 on Saturday morning. He insisted all boys were white baseball pants instead of the typical grey, and he would not let the boys on the field until they had their cap on their heads. I thought to myself, “This is going to be a long season,” because Will has the laisse faire approach to practice:
In uniform? Oh, you mean I have to have cleats too?
Run the bases for warm up? Is it okay to skip second?
No eating in the dugout? Do nachos count as food?
And, he is not being a smart alleck. That is just his personality. Most of the time he has gotten away with bending the rules because all he has to do is flash those giant dimples and adults just cave; that is, until this year.
Will seemed to sense that he needed to up his game. His coach had these grand expectations, and by golly, he was going to meet those expectations (with the littlest amount of work possible). I think it was the first time Will’s charm took a back seat, and motivation moved front and center. He liked Coach, and wanted to do well. Also, Will really wanted a new bat. His father had been saying to Will for a full year that he would buy Will a bat when he got his first hit in a game.
Progress was slow. At first, we all praised Will if he just stayed within the batter’s box. Then, we lauded him for actually swinging the bat. Then, the only step left was to make contact. By mid-March I had a feeling Will would come through at some game this season. Coach, as it turned out, was actually a gentle giant of sorts. Every kid knew when he screwed up at that moment, but in the dugout and during the post-game pow-wows he stirred plenty of praise in the mix. One night after a game, Coach told the boys that if they slept with their bats by their sides, there was a good chance they would get a hit the next day.
Now, Will did not sleep with his bat, but his neighbor and best bud, George, did. The very next game I was driving the boys to the warm-up practice before the game, and I could feel a heightened sense of hope. Both boys said this was their game. They were going to catch a grounder or make a play at home or get an awesome hit. Their enthusiasm filtered into my blood. I too began to think this was Will’s big game.
That evening was unusually hot. All those storms had blown the clouds away and took the wind with them. The game was close—most of them were—and at the bottom of the third inning with two outs, Will got up to bat. After letting a few wild ones go by, Will seemed ready. I don’t know if it was his posture, or the weather or the sounds the other parents were making, but something that night signaled to me to pay attention. So, I bent over, placed my elbows on my knees, clasped my hands together, and just whispered, “Come on, Will. This is it.” Then, as if by Divine intervention, Will took a swing and made contact. A loud thwack filled the infield, and the ball made a line drive for the pitcher. At that moment, all the parents and fans stood up and screamed. Everyone seemed to know this was a big moment for Will. Even the other team’s parents stood and cheered because most of their boys had played with Will at one time or another. Everyone rejoiced. Unfortunately, the pitcher caught the ball so Will did not get on base, but none of that mattered to him or his coach or his dad or me. I just marveled at watching the outcome of hard work and luck coming together in the form of a hit. Long story short, Will got his new bat the next day.
It may be my imagination, but I think Will’s first hit had a powerful impact on the entire team. At the beginning of the season, they were just a bunch of kids who liked to play baseball. Some lived and breathed baseball, and others thought it was just fun. Some could get a double off of every pitch, and others, like Will, were just happy to make it on base. But, after that one moment, it seemed as if the team gelled. They started playing like a team, working together, cheering each other on. And, because of that, they got significantly better. They got so good, in fact, that they ended up the number one seed in the Minors, the age division in which they played. There was an air of surprised confidence in this little motely crew. They knew they had improved, but didn’t quite know how they got to number one.
So, the boys were quite disappointed after so many rain delays. After the first inning adrenaline wore off (that’s when Will made a fabulous catch in the outfield), the weather delays seemed to suck a little energy out of them. The night of the championship game, they seemed a bit off. I’m not sure what it was, but they appeared droopy or limp. They lacked the spark they had during the play-off games. Could it be that the crazy weather had stolen their mojo? Although in the third inning, the Cardinals were up by four points, it just didn’t feel right. All the parents kept mumbling about was the need for more runs to cushion the lead. And, they were right.
There were rules for the championship game that did not apply to the regular season. For example, there was no time limit, and the boys had to play out 6 innings. Moreover, there were no substitutes. If a player was sick, the team could not call on a replacement player from the pool of substitutes. We had lost two players this season because their parents moved out of town, and we were working with a skeletal line up. I’m sure the coach was praying no one would come down with strep throat.
During the fourth inning, the opposing team the Nationals, rallied. They had several great hits, and we had some colossal errors, and the next thing we knew was that at the top the 5th inning, we were losing 5 to 7. But, the coach’s son, a very small but mighty kid, replaced the weary pitcher, and the Cardinals managed to hold the Nationals. That was exactly what this team needed. Having a three-up-three-down inning lit a fire under these kids, and in the bottom of the 6th inning, the Cardinals earned three runs to win the game.
That night, the First Colony Little League representative awarded the boys two trophies: one for first place in the regular season, and one for winning the championship. This was Will’s first real trophy—not a medal everyone gets for showing up most of the time or a token trophy to say we are all winners, but a true symbol of the fruits of one’s work.
I personally am not a competitive person, at least not compared to my husband and his mother. I’m the mom who focuses on the experience, not the win. However, I have to say that it does feel pretty good to be in the winning circle. For Will, I think it was transformational. (At least, I hope it was. I mean, I hope he makes that connection between working hard and accomplishing something. But then again, he is a 10-year-old boy who’s already onto the next activity. Who knows?)