“Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.” Wes Westrum, Mets Manager
“It ain’t nothin’ till I call it,” Umpire Bill Klem
“Life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson
“Is this heaven? It’s Iowa.” Field of Dreams
Whomever doesn’t understand why baseball is a great sport well, my grandmother taught me not to judge, but let’s just say for those who just don’t get baseball they must be missing an American gene, or a gene of humanity, some lack of sentimentality, or something missing from the heart. I’m not referring to the rules, I mean the game!
This spring season of 2018 we were a part of the Orioles, not the Baltimore Orioles, the North Wake County, North Carolina Orioles. I’ve got Yankees blood in me born from my father who bleeds Yankees blood, but for the spring 2018 season, we were Orioles, loud and proud.
The season started out like any other little league season with the exception of this being the first season of “kid pitch” for Graham, my nine year old son. Kid pitch differs from adult pitch because it starts to test eye hand coordination maybe before a nine year old has fully developed this motor skill. Pitches are faster and more erratic. Put in laymen’s terms, the ball just doesn’t land on the bat. A batter has to wait for the right ball and be ready. And that ball may not come while the batter is up.
If you think this sounds hard on a nine year old kid just itching for the sound of a ball to crack his bat, it’s even harder on a parent. I had to ride home listening to my son talk about how he’ll never make the MLB because he can’t hit. He was downright despondent, which, for a mom, is so painful hearing such disappointment in your child’s voice. I just listened, then I asked him, “What’s the MLB?” “Mom, Major League Baseball!” “Oh,” I said, “Well Graham, you don’t want to be too good too soon. If you peak too early you’ll never make it to the MLB so just keep trying and don’t give up.” He was ready to quit but he didn’t give up. He shed some tears with every strike out but after a while he learned to shake it off and get back to the game.
The start of any baseball season is a little awkward. The team is new, most parents and kids not knowing each other. It’s like the first day of school. The start of the Oriole season was no different. Parents and kids were shy when introducing themselves to one another, the team feeling each other out, parents trying to remember names and whose kid belonged to whom, but then we started to play. Cheers from the bleachers were hesitant and quiet at first, and the boys and their team camaraderie was in an infancy stage. We lost our first game to the Braves, coached by the only female coach in the league. She was my son’s coach from the previous season and she was a good coach, competitive and tough. I liked her last season but not this season. She beat us.
The Orioles got off to a rough start with their first loss but then they became a force of reckoning. They became number one in the league, undefeated from their next win on out. This was not just luck, this, this sweep was hard work, strategy, good coaching, competitiveness (after all this is a game where winning matters and losing really stinks, this isn’t everyone gets a trophy – this is baseball!). The team’s specialty: stealing bases. We were feared in the league.
Parents’ cheers from the stands became louder, we became more opinionated. “That umpire isn’t very good.” “Hey, that’s the second out called on our boys. Someone start video recording, we want an instant replay.” “What, that’s not the same call you made for the other team. What rule book are you using?” “That pitcher is wild, he’s gonna hurt someone.” “He was blocking the base!?#@” “Tell that boy to back down.” “He dropped the ball!” “He didn’t tag him!”
Then there were cheers FOR our kids. “Wait for your pitch” “Good eye” “Good Swing” “Come on – insert parent pet name – you can do this, you got this” “RUN!” “OMG, I can’t watch, he’s trying to steal!” “He’s off his game today, what’s wrong with my child!?” “Shake it off buddy!” “What do you mean?! He touched the base!” “Oh wait, I just missed it.” “Couldn’t get a good picture.” “I got a good action shot!”
There were cheers from the coaches “Just you and the mitt” “Let’s take this ball on a ride” “Baseball ready” “Get ready to run” “Outfield, wake up!” “You got this one.” “Tuck in your shirt!” And there were probably a few others I missed because I was busy chatting in the stands.
And of course we can’t forget the umpires: “OUT!” “SAFE!” “STRIKE!” “BALL!” and warnings “If you throw your bat at me one more time you’re OUT!”
Then there was Coach Chris, the leader of our team, hard core and full of heart for the boys and the game. If there was a call he didn’t like he’d shout a time out, march out to home base and fight his case. He often didn’t win his protest but at least he didn’t kick up dirt and spit in the umps face. He walked away with grace and said “Alright boys, let’s get back to playing.” The players would say, “Shake it off coach.” He was always ready with praise, inspirational speeches, baseball words of wisdom, recognizing every little achievement with patches handed out after each game, our boys’ hats became maps of pride.
This season we had players with a broken finger, a broken ankle, and a broken arm. These boys showed up even when they couldn’t play just to cheer on their teammates, and then, probably a little too prematurely, they were back out playing. Tyler and his broken ankle gave us all some cringes like when he went running for home base fresh out of his cast. We all shouted, “Don’t slide!” Austin pitching when last time we saw him his arm was in a sling. He threw strikes.
We ended one game with a tie. A tie? What the heck is that? So a few days later Coach Chris sends out an email letting the parents know that he went to bat for the team, called the league, argued the call that cost us a run and this time, his persistent protesting pulled a win for our team. Well done Coach Chris! Perhaps some thought this was an unconventional move for little league, a little too competitive? But I gather every parent on the Orioles was quite pleased. I think some even egged him on to debate the call in the first place.
The parents, the parents were great. Every one with a story, I could write a book. But that’s baseball, everyone has a story but everyone keeps playing. We all share in the dream. The dream that our little guy who’s growing faster every day, gets a hit at bat because with every swing, and every stolen base, and every run scored or ball fielded well, they grow. And parents beam with pride and their hearts swell and, like that ball hit far into the field, we are taken on a ride. And all the coaches, parents and kids ride that ride together and it becomes a bond that will become a memory, a really good memory.
This team has been magical. See, baseball is making me sentimental. I get it, I may not know all the rules but I get it. We’ve got one more game, the big championship game. We made it to the top. Win or lose – of course winning is better – the boys, parents and coaches will play their hearts out tonight. Then the season will end, and like most little league teams, we will all part ways. Maybe we’ll run into each other at Target or somewhere. Maybe some of us will play on the same team again, maybe some of the parents will keep in touch, probably through Facebook, a random text here and there. Maybe some of our little guys will grow up to be big guys and stand on a Major League Baseball field - the MLB! and we'll catch them and say we remembered them when...Maybe. I’ll tell you though, doesn’t matter because this field, this season, this was baseball.
Thanks to all the coaches for their hard work and dedication. You gave of your time which is very precious. Hats off to Coach Chris, Coach Brian, Coach Todd, Coach Adam, Coach Kyle and if there is a coach I missed, then my bad. I don’t remember my own kids’ names sometimes. Play Ball!