Need a dose of innocence? Want to witness the true joy of sport? Swing by your local sandlot and take in a game of 10-year-olds playing softball. They will remind you of what sports should be — teamwork, camaraderie and fun.
The fourth-grader who lives across the street and her teammates reawakened me yesterday when I stopped to watch their game. Several of them hadn’t surpassed four feet nor 50 pounds. None of them could drive a softball out of the skinned infield. But then, none of the parents and spectators could match their enthusiasm and energy.
When I spotted my neighbor, Emily, she and her teammates were focused on the girl at home plate, willing her, pleading with her, exhorting her to get a base hit. The dugout chorus began with a smattering of “You’ve got this!” and soon united into a coordinated cheer: “Gimme an E!” ... “What’s that spell? Emma!”
I studied my neighbor through this sequence. She laughed, she smiled, she cheered, she peered through the fencing. Gosh, if only my fourth-grade students had concentrated so intently they’d be comparing notes between Stanford and Harvard.
When the ping of the bat announced the hitter’s success, Emily and her teammates erupted. A rally was beginning and the cheers and chants rose to a surprising level that I’ll paraphrase:
“We will, we will rock you, sock you,” “Drop you in the toilet, hope you enjoy it!”
For me, their lyrics were original.
“We don’t play with Barbie dolls,” “We play hard with bats and balls.”
The game itself was a series of inept plays punctuated by a fielder’s marvelous stab or a series of wild pitches interrupted by a hit that almost cleared the infield.
As parents, we’ve all been there. Find some shade, cheer for your child, hope he or she does well (because secretly we think it reflects on us), and chit-chat with the other parents. There’s always the disinterested parent who brings a book or a crossword, and you wish they would put them away and give the appearance that they are focused on their child, not themselves.
In this game, the adults helped out but weren’t overbearing. When the count reached four balls, the batter didn’t run to first. She stayed in the box, her coach hustled out and grooved a few pitches, and she had a chance to make contact or strikeout. There was no endless parade around the bases fueled by wild pitching.
The 60-pound righthander on the mound left me chuckling. She was handicapped by her tiny hands in relation to the softball. She had the windmill fundamental down, but couldn’t find the plate. Her release point on one pitch sent the ball looping past first base.
Your clothes could go out of style waiting for the catcher and pitcher to complete the exchange. The catcher retrieved the wild pitch from the backstop. The heave to the mound skipped past the pitcher. The centerfielder threw it back, but overthrew the pitcher. The pitcher walked to retrieve it, walked back to the mound, then walked around to psyche herself up for the next pitch.
Of course, as an official, I had to study the mechanics of the teen-aged umpires. The guy behind the plate was so far back that a wild pitch would have died in the sand before it struck him. He seemed to whisper his calls. The short kid on the bases kept indicating balls and strikes, the plate umpire’s job. I thought to myself: “What these guys need is some kind of improved training ...” Then I stopped myself; my plate is full. They were good enough.
The parents would be wasting time if they studied their watch and worried about home projects that awaited them. Those honey-do lists and the urgency to get to Home Depot don’t matter one iota to these girls. Time is measured only in how much fun you can have with your friends.
Emily’s father, John Horgan, placed the day and the season in a neat perspective.
“Emily and her sister, Savannah, love to dance, but I really enjoy this,” he said. “She is part of a team and she is trying something new. And I don’t know anything about dance. But I grew up playing baseball so this is something we can share and I can help her with.”
From the third-base coaching box, John was nothing but encouraging. And he made sure not to overload the girls with technique and strategy. Neither did the other coaches. Impressive.
Through all this, my brain was channeling James Earl Jones’ soliloquy from Field of Dreams (1989) when his character, writer Terrence Mann, expounded on America’s nearly 200-year-old love affair with baseball.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”
“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.
“This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
Make no mistake. There are plenty of jerks around youth sports, but they are the exception, not the rule. Times are good. Ignore the naysayers who begin phrases with “the trouble with kids these days.” These players are just as good, just as true, just as funseeking as we were 50 years ago in Little League or Grasshopper or Junior League.
They express themselves differently nowadays. Their little brains hold a lot more information and imagery than we did as children. Their minds and voices are bound by a different filter, a more complex, fast-paced world than the times of my youth. But little has changed. They dream of their softball futures, they want to excel, and they want to find the fun in the game.