I sat down last night and tried to calculate how many total youth sports games I had attended for my three sons over the years. I’m not sure why I did this. Perhaps I was bored. Or perhaps it was the realization that my youngest son was turning 13, and this phase of our lives would soon be over. It was nearly impossible to calculate, but each of my several estimates carried me close to 1,000 games. Could that really be true? And I didn’t even try to guess the number of practices to boot. By any measure it all added up to a large amount of time spent with kids’ sports. And the great majority of it was fun.
I suppose when you combine all that time spent at youth sporting events with the basic reality of human nature and emotions, it is statistically unavoidable that one would bear witness to a wide variety of incidents ranging from the most hilarious to the most heart warming to the most shameful. And unfortunately, when I think back on it, I can’t help but recollect that it was the adults who were almost universally responsible for every one of the shameful behaviors I witnessed, whereas the kids monopolized ownership of the hilarious and heart warming events. Funny how that worked.
While the shameful behaviors of parents and coaches make for interesting and easy news columns and blog essays, there’s plenty of worthwhile entertainment to be had in recounting the hilarious and heart-warming stuff of the kids. Thankfully, these stories outweigh the shameful ones by a large margin. Here’s just one that sprang to my mind the other day.
I had a boy on one of my Little League baseball teams one year whom I’ll call Simon. Simon was the quintessential Little Leaguer by my definition. He came early to every game and practice. He was always fully decked out in baseball paraphernalia, with all of the coolest accessories like double-wristed sweat bands, flip-up sunglasses and a large wad of Bazooka gum tucked neatly in the cheek. His spitting ability was second to none, and his knowledge of Major League Baseball statistics and trivia would make Tim McCarver blush. He loved baseball. Unfortunately his athletic skills and coordination did not match his love and passion for the game.
Because of his weaker skills Simon did not qualify for the “major” league and was therefore playing on my “minor” league team with much younger players. He was nearing his last year of eligibility for playing Little League, and Simon had spent his first few years in the league logging a lot of bench time, pulling a lot of right-field-only duty and mostly batting last, if at all sometimes (believe it or not). He had never been on the pitcher’s mound except to walk across it on his way to right field. His parents had written to me at the start of the season to say that his experiences in the past were demoralizing and had all but squashed his joy and desire for participating in the game. Their stories of past experiences were unsettling to say the least, and probably cruel by any standards of decency. I assured his parents that Simon had come to the right team this year.
On one particular early spring night we were excited to play a game under the lights on one of the premium fields in town usually reserved for the older players in the “major” league. It would be our team’s first game with real infield grass instead of dirt, actual dugouts and a 200′ fence outlining the perimeter of the outfield. Cool stuff for a bunch of 9 and 10-year-olds with visions of baseball grandeur still dancing innocently in their heads. And for Simon, it was baseball fantasy brushing against reality as he jogged onto the lush grass field with the giant overhead spotlights illuminating the perfectly manicured diamond. He took the field with his usual professional stride, happily ignoring the probability that any balls hit his way would once again not likely land safely in his glove. To Simon, that was not a devastating concern. Like his errors of the past, if another occurred he would once again shake his head, smack his glove a bit and raise his hand to us coaches as if to signal, “I shoulda’ had that one, Coach. But I’ll get the next one.” And we’d simply give him a thumbs up and yell, “Great try, Simon!” It was a pretty good arrangement; stress free for all of us that way.
Being the true professional he was, I half expected Simon to tip his cap to the dozen or so “fans” as he strode out to his position. One thing was certain, Simon would savor every precious moment of his Little League experience, as long as somebody provided him with the opportunity to do so.
Bats, Balls and Bladders
Unfortunately, as Little League tends to go, our excitement of the big game under the lights began to dwindle around the third inning when the opposing team proceeded to score 10 runs, with no end in sight. I’m sure you know the inning well; walk after walk, error after error, stolen base after stolen base, relief pitcher after relief pitcher. It was painful for all, especially on what turned out to be a freezing cold, misty night. And as if the baseball follies weren’t punishing enough, there was yet another side effect from this “Bad News Bear” moment. The inning lasted so long that I started to notice a few of our players in the field squirming, wiggling around and tugging at the crotch of their pants. Suddenly, while my fourth reliever was warming up, our second baseman bolted off the field towards our dugout.
“Coach,” he pleaded, “I gotta’ go bad.”
“Go where?” I responded.
“I gotta’ pee so bad,” he replied with the look of desperation in his eyes. Darn those 24-ounce Gatorade bottles!
“Alright,” I said, “go ahead, but hurry back. This game is taking long enough already.” As he took off towards the latrine, the first baseman arrived right behind him.
“Coach, I gotta’ pee bad too.”
I told him, “Go ahead, but please hurry.” Then comes the third baseman as well.
“Coach, can I go too?” he asked.
“Sure, why not?” I said. I was thinking that by the looks of our next pitcher’s so-called warm-up pitches, this is going to be the longest inning in Little League history anyway. Hell, I thought, I might as well go myself. At least it’s probably warm in the men’s room.
As I glanced at my near-empty infield and realized that our only chance for turning a double play would have to take place in front of two urinals and a sink, I also noticed that the opposing coach was becoming annoyed by these further delays. I couldn’t figure that one out. I guess he wanted to get on with the resumption of our slaughter before his team lost any momentum. Perhaps a future bench-coach position with the Yankees was hanging in the balance. Who’s to know?
To be fair, the inning was dragging on for an eternity. But given the current state of my infield, my biggest concern was who else might be suffering from nature’s calling. Back on bladder patrol, I once again scanned the field for more squirming and crotch tugging. Nobody else seemed to be in apparent discomfort, but suddenly I noticed Simon now also jogging to the dugout from the outfield. I met him at the fence and preempted his expected request by saying, “Yes, yes, Simon. You can also go to the bathroom if you have to.”
But Simon replied, “No Coach, I don’t have to go.”
“Then what’s the matter, Simon?” I asked.
He said, “I have to come out of the game to rest my eyes.”
Rest your eyes?
“The giant spot lights are too bright and they are hurting my eyes. I’m afraid they may damage my retinas.” And without waiting for my reply Simon passively took a spot on the bench and calmly removed his wrist bands and flip-up sunglasses. I never even got the chance to ask him why he wore sun glasses to a night game, or – since he did – why he didn’t employ them to protect his retinas from spotlight damage. Simon sat down politely in the dugout, opened up a fresh piece of Bazooka and scanned the field with his usual enthusiasm, belting out a few supportive “C’mon guys!” to his teammates whom he still believed could engineer a comeback. Simon was not one to let reality ruin his baseball fantasy. And why should he? That’s what baseball’s supposed to be at that age.
Seeing Simon so matter-of-factly perched comfortably on the bench, I thought to myself, that was the final kicker. Our team was getting clobbered and the game wasn’t half over yet, the night was freezing cold, my entire infield was taking a pee and missing in action (probably warming themselves under the hand dryer), my fourth relief pitcher was busy bouncing balls three feet in front of the plate during warm ups, and now one of my players had ejected himself from the game for fear of going blind.
The coaches and I had no choice but to look at each other in disbelief, and then, burst out laughing. You just can’t make this stuff up.
By the way, Simon did finally get the chance to pitch that season for the first time ever. He gave up one walk, one hit and struck a player out. For that moment, for that boy, baseball fantasy became reality. The smile on his face proved it.