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In small-town baseball, a wider world

 

My anxiety-prone 7-year-old son, Elias, was so nervous about his first baseball game that he felt sick. “Those are called butterflies,” I said. To help him out, I took him into the backyard and pitched some balls, all the while reciting a litany of “great athletes who got nervous” stories. I told him that the Islanders goalie Billy Smith used to throw up before every game. I told him Wade Boggs, one of the great hitters of all time, used to be horrifically anxious.

After a little research, I found that most of my stories were false. In fact, the goalie who threw up before games was Glenn Hall. Boggs didn’t get nervous, particularly; he just had a series of rituals on game day -- like eating chicken, or taking batting practice at an exact time. But never mind that; what mattered was the spirit of what I was saying, the parenting.

I told Elias that nobody else would really care that much about his performance. The people would be focused on themselves, and they were all going to screw up to some extent. Anyway, in baseball, much of the time you’re just standing around. And remember what Gandalf said to Bilbo, I said. “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

Indeed, small-town Colorado “coach pitch” baseball is a melting pot of characters, personalities and ambitions, boys and girls alike. One player, with permanently and defiantly untied shoes, looked over at me in right field one day and said: “My throat hurts.”

 You should drink some water,” I said.

“My legs hurt. I can’t do this.”

If your legs hurt so much, you shouldn’t have come out for practice,” I said, perhaps being too harsh. But I was thinking of the tragedy of Lucy in the outfield, the ultimate in unreliable teammates, “backing up” Charlie Brown.

We have kids who are slightly older than Elias, with the coordination of Michael Jordan, who can rope throw from shortstop to first, directly on target 10 out of 10 times. Others are slower, or shorter, or younger, and still others can’t follow directions and wander around the outfield like lost souls. But they’re all in the mix, batting and fielding and training.

The coach, Bob, has a major league bellow, which modulates down to a low growl. He’s a strategist: “If you run through first base hard, I guarantee you’d get on base half the time!” And: “If we can just field, we’ll win!” One day he roars at the kids coming off the field: “Run! There’s no walking in Basalt baseball!”

As a helper “coach,” it’s all new to me. I grew up with non-traditional sports like hiking and climbing. I look out at the kids hustling in behind Bob, and I take the tough-guy talk for granted, until I see Bob grinning widely, looking at me, his back to the team.

“Baseball is a thinking game!” Bob says. I like that. There is more here than victory at all costs. What I fear most is what the writer Peter Maas calls “the wild beast” — the dark aspects of human nature that get unleashed at certain times. Maas found it in Bosnia, but I worry about finding it during games. For me, the wild beast is the irrational desire to win, even when winning isn’t the only point. It’s omnipresent, but most alarmingly, I find it not just in others (where it’s annoying) but in myself (where it’s scary.)

My friend, who has three boys of his own, all athletes, heard about my fear and told me that 90 percent of the coaches “get it.” He says most understand it’s about teaching kids the game. Later, he adds, baseball is about teaching kids about life.

I thought about the gamut of children on Elias’ teams, the vast range of abilities — players with swings like George Brett and speed like Ricky Henderson, kids who couldn’t catch a pop fly if you offered them Twinkies, and boys so distracted, disaffected or developmentally slower, that they sometimes frustrate coaches as well as their peers.

But as our pitcher, Larry, said when one boy whiffed 30 times in hitting practice and notes of derision burbled from the bench: “Hey, he’s your teammate, you need to support him.” A civilization is measured, the saying goes, by how it treats its weakest members. The little league field is, in fact, a wider world. And this game offers up, like Larry’s soft pitches, some small lessons in how to get along in it.

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in Basalt, Colorado, and this is his first year as an assistant baseball coach.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].