Funny, how this game grows on you.
This spring I followed in a long tradition of paternal guilt and helped coach my daughter’s seven and eight-year-old softball team, although I’m not sure if either “coach” or “softball” were the right words, at least at the beginning. But there was no question about one thing; those girls were definitely seven and eight-years-old.
I realized this immediately at our first practice. For the first time ever, I was surrounded by players who had longer hair than I did and wore butterfly earrings and sparkly sneakers. Two, maybe three, put the glove on the correct hand every single time and held the bat with the knob end down. These were obviously our “cagey veterans.” Another tip off was that these grizzled few chewed bubble gum, wore braids and didn’t have to ask what a shortstop was.
For some reason, in our town little girls bat against live pitching (thrown by the coaches), whereas the boys, with their delicate constitutions and big league dreams, hit off a tee.
I was sure this spelled disaster. After all, I had spent the spring pitching to my daughter and then picking up the ball after she missed it and ran around the bases anyway. The kid can read Harry Potter like a fiend but thrown objects seemed like something from another planet.
But that first day she dug in and swung at the first pitch and hit the enormous bright yellow ball with all her might – directly into her face.
A scream, then tears, and, I was certain, psychological damage that would someday cost me thousands. But then a funny thing happened. Peer pressure. She got back in and that was the only time all year a tear was spilled on the field. Well, almost.
After a few “practices” (although it was really impossible to call them that since practice denotes improvement), the big day arrived. Uniforms! And a parade!
Up until then the girls spent most of their time standing around looking bored and waiting for a ball (“Please, God”) to be hit. But put uniforms on them and march them in a parade and the real goal, giggles, start right up. I canceled the time-share for the psychiatric couch.
Then the games began. Everybody bats and plays all over the place and when the last batter hits, everybody gets to race around the bases, which all they really want to do anyway. No one keeps score – a good thing – since not even Bill James can add that fast.
But even when you are seven and eight-years-old, you get up for the game. In practice, no one had ever fielded a ball and thrown a runner out. On the rare occasion when both fielding and throwing took place, the rest of the equation, a never before seen skill called “catching” was also required. I figured the odds of all three happening in succession, at the right base, before the runner got there, were about on par with the Red Sox winning the World Series.
This too, may now be a possibility. For in the heat of the game, these little girls who couldn’t run, catch, throw, field, hit or hit with power, all had the that unspoken sixth tool, the really big one that makes the all others seem really dumb. They played. And then they made the plays, hitting, fielding, catching, and throwing, just like real players.
Okay, not very often, but often enough so at the end of the first three-inning game, which only took approximately seventeen hours during a driving rainstorm while I tried to stay upright and awake, my daughter said, “Daddy, that game seemed like it only took a minute.”
She was right, of course, because when you are seven and having fun and cheering and running around the bases and wearing a uniform and BEAMING every time you do something right, like stop at first base, time does fly. That’s what happens when you PLAY ball, which is something each one of these kids could do better from the start than any of us could have hoped to teach them.
But we were moving away and had to miss the last week of the season. That made me sad, because I liked seeing all those smiley faces and tying all those shoes and making bad jokes while giving everybody “high-fives” from the coach’s box. And along the way every single time they played they all got better and even better than that, had more fun.
It wasn’t until after our last game that anyone cried again. The girls knew we were leaving and somebody made a cake and brought brownies and soda and all the girls signed one of those big yellow softballs in their very best handwriting and gave it to me.
I was afraid my daughter might start bawling, but she had fun to the end, giggling and still playing while saying goodbye to friends she would never see again, little girls that I will never, ever forget.
I didn’t let them see, but the only tears were mine.