Take Me Out of the Ball Game

The pitch is coming in slow motion.

I don’t mean that time has somehow dilated and my perception of reality is unpleasantly drawn out like a post-1990 Robert Altman flick. I mean the ball actually seems to hang perpetually in the air as though suspended from the sun by a preposterously long string. It’s a Bugs Bunny slow pitch, comically lackadaisical in its casual efforts to reach home plate, an underhand toss that scientists should study for its gravity-defying properties.

I watch it dawdle toward home plate, and now maybe I am also imparting my own time dilation to the event as well, because I want more than anything on the planet in that moment to hear the metal thwunk of contact and to see that glorious orb soar. It is, after all the very last pitch of the very last game of the season and the bases are loaded with rich scoring possibilities.

And at bat is my six year-old son.

Standing there under the warm morning sun, he almost looks perplexed. “Wait,” he seems to say, “what is this large bludgeon in my hands and why is that tall man throwing things at me?” He is a boy waking from a dream, and while the weight of the moment seems to press at me as I sit a helpless observer with only the power of overwrought encouragement, he seems to not feel it at all.

It’s been kind of a long season at this point. My son is a wonderful boy, but he is also — let’s call it dynamic. In my mind, baseball was a way to channel his unyielding perpetual motion properties, but when standing in the outfield as the game swells and ebbs all around him, blades of grass tossed into the breeze are much more his kind of thing. My son is Ferdinand the Bull in the outfield, happy and relatively oblivious to the fact that a sport is being played in such close proximity. You can almost see the Bubble of Solitude that separates him from the world.

I find that the game is teaching me far more about who I am as a parent than it is my son. I had hoped that sport might be a way to build some kind of mutual understanding between us, something that at times seems to be painfully missing. How many soccer moms and baseball dads had that wrong-headed idea before, I wonder.

When I was my son’s age, there was this weird conflict between my parents, one of whom was recruited to play football for a prominent university and the other who seemed to view enforced team sports as a sentence of indentured recreational servitude. Negotiations on the point were strained over the years, and eventually took on a tone that might remind one of the Middle-East peace talks, though with far less success.

The balance of power shifted, however, as I grew into a frame that seemed equal to pretty much anything that rural high-school contact sports could throw at it. Six-four and with a body sculpted by life on a dairy farm, what I lacked in decades of childhood development I could at least partially make up for through brute force.

Long story short, by high school if it was a sport that kept me from cleaning cow manure in the afternoons, I wanted to be involved. Football, basketball, golf, track and swimming, it was never really about the actual event so much as it was an opportunity to be engaged in a social structure. I liked the perks of sports, the status. No recruiter was ever going to knock on our door and no award trophies would ever decorate my walls, but I always had somewhere to go and someone to be with on the weekends.

Now, I am where my own father was, trying desperately to explain why the consternations of competition and the shared experience of team play are valuable to my six year-old. And, yes, it’s an argument built on a foundation of fodder that I might once have shoveled with my own pitchfork, but my son seemed game for the idea and so I pulled the trigger with grand designs dancing in my head.

In between that moment, and this one where the last pitch of the season is finally closing in on home plate, he’s had a few hits, commonly followed by an almost casual, self-satisfied stroll to first base. He’s scored a few runs. We’ll just say that fielding is not his strong suit and leave it at that, but his enthusiasm for the game is pretty obviously built on the heart-rending foundation of doing-it-for-dad, and I suspect that I’ve fallen for that hoary old patriarchal trap of trying to shove my son into my own mold.

And now, by some trick of fate, he is the very last batter of the season. He does not seem aware of the stress of the moment, and I’m certain the only moments ago he was on an entirely different planet that may have seemed far more real than this one of dusty diamonds and batting stances. That pitch, though, is still coming just now over the plate, and he swings. Or, rather than saying he swings, perhaps it is more accurate to say he simply relaxes the muscles that were holding the bat upright and allows gravity to impart its will through a strange but potentially useful arc.

It’s a strike, the last strike, and the season is over.

And, more than anything else at that moment, I am ridiculously and unrealistically surprised. That’s not how the story goes. He gets a hit — his best hit of the season — and runs his endearing little six year-old run around the bases to close out the year. Who the hell is writing this reality anyway? Do they have no sense of narrative arc?

But, I don’t have time to synthesize my feelings, as my rational mind suggests that perhaps I could try and remember for half a second that not everything is about me.

“Nice swings, buddy.” I shout as he wanders into the Good Game line that concludes every game, and then I work to compartmentalize what I’m actually feeling from what I want to project to him before he comes over. I have no idea what his mood will be.

Moments later, he is there, a bright faced boy with freckles on his nose and his baseball cap askew in a way that somehow is the perfect definition of his equally off-center but endearing character. He grabs the strawberry lemonade from the drink holder in my chair and gives my outstretched hand a casual five as he takes a long, thirsty pull from the bottle. He is inscrutable.

“Those were some tough pitches to hit,” I lie, feeling ridiculously awkward. He shrugs in response, red lemonade still to his lips, and seems totally unaffected. “Did you have fun?”

“Yeah. I gotta go back for my trophy.” In the history of unconvincing yeahs, this is a contender for the top spot.

The other kids have begun congregating around a cardboard box and the coaches who have done a great job of being relentlessly positive for months begin to hand out generic white boxes to every player as though each one contained a tiny Arc of the Covenant. There are some staged photo ops, some team pictures and a cooler full of Capri Sun and Oreos.

And, while I mill about with parents who seem trapped in their own heads like myself, I look on as the kids joke and laugh and shove around with each other with total comfort. My own son, who loves jokes, is holding court near the cooler for maximum access to refreshments, and around him are his teammates laughing and trying to extend this last moment that they will all be together as a group.

As I stand there and look at the great chasm between the two groups, the parents and the kids, I begin to wonder which of us have really missed the point. Now, days later, thinking back on the season, I realize that maybe reality had penned a pretty good story arc about personal growth after all. I just hadn’t necessarily realized who had the most growing up to do.


I've often found myself enraptured while you or Rabbit speak of raising the kids. Since gaming is such an integral part of your lives, it makes me wonder how you learn from their own growth (and whether they assume the importance of what you treasure).

It's nice to see that there's learning to be done on both sides, and that you're able to learn from your son instead of giving him the Helicopter Parent heap of stress.

Sure, but how is he at Rock Band?

Very nice article.

I especially liked how you contrasted your own expectations as a parent with your own experiences. Your son got exactly what you got out of sports, a social structure with his own peers, and not your own unrealistic desire of increased rapport with each other and a kind of vicarious desire to see your son succeed.

Articles like these are one of the reasons I enjoy reading this site.

Your son sounds a lot like I did as a kid. However, I don't think I even managed to score a run. I was pretty lousy at sports on the whole until I discovered roller hockey, and that I was in love with.

I've wondered if it is better to try and play some of these sports with the kids in the back yard, or have the neighborhood kids try and play together (which isn't always easy since some of the neighbor kids are real brats) and see which sports the child has the most interest in before putting them into a league. After all, when something goes from a fun little thing to do on the side to a scheduled and mandatory event, all the fun can easily be taken away unless they have a real love for it.

But most of all, ask him if he really wants to play baseball again when it comes time for the next season, or if he'd rather try something else. I don't remember ever asking to play sports, nor being asked if I wanted to. It just seemed like my parents enlisted their kids in these things, and after a few years of not doing well and not having fun they finally gave up (that is, until I discovered roller hockey).

Latrine wrote:

a social structure with his own peers

That's really what it's about. My best man and one groomsman at my wedding a couple years back were two guys that I met when we were 5, playing Under-6 youth soccer. 25 years later, we still talk on the phone every week and see each other as often as we can.

Lots of nights when I sit around with those guys and the rest of my circle, most of whom played organized soccer, baseball, and/or basketball together between the ages of 5-18, many of our conversations turn to those days as kids. Remember that pickup basketball game where guy A broke guy B's glasses? Remember that time guy A's team beat guy C's team in the baseball playoffs? Remember that time I hit two free throws with 1 second left to send our playoff basketball game to overtime junior year? (My biggest clutch moment. ) And so on and so forth. Shared experiences with friends. As a kid or an adult that's a big part of what life is about.

Doesn't have to be sports. But there's certainly a lot of positives... fun, healthy exercise, teamwork, competition, learning to win and lose gracefully. Wouldn't trade any of my childhood.

Good stuff!

I myself haven't gotten to the point where "ze little vun" goes into any organized activity like sports. When she does, if she so chooses, I'll just get a kick out of watching her discoveries within her desired activity. I can't say I don't want her to choose to go one way or another; I would love it if she chose BJJ as a sport but dream of seeing her don a ballerina outfit.

I just hope I can abstain from projecting on her any of my ambitions so that she can enjoy her childhood to the fullest.

Really liked this story.

Dialate or Dilate? I never knew there was an alternate spelling for that word.

Bravo. My son did Coach's Pitch this year too, and both he and I approached it with an ambivalence I found shocking and somewhat disturbing.

I absolutely love the articles.

I remember playing t-ball back when I was 6 or 7 and I was totally that kid in the outfield picking dandelions. I didn't really understand that game or what I was supposed to do when the ball actually came to me. I don't really remember my parents forcing me to play, more just it was something we did - show up at the field and play. At that time, my dad and I never really bonded over sports. I was terrible and had little interest in organized athletics. A few years later we started skiing though. All the way to high school, we'd put in a good 20-30 days on the slopes a year, although I don't think we ever really bonded in the way that he wanted then. My dad and I are two very, very different people and at the time, I was just way too off in my own little world. Still some of my best memories are of us hiking the Ridge and him letting me take first tracks down some fresh run.

Some friends of the family, their two sons are tremendous ski racers, competing at national tournaments and the like, training in other countries during the summers. Their parents spend almost all their free time and money into maintaining equipment, organizing practices and regional competitions, and supporting their sons' skiing. The oldest recently got hurt and now doesn't seem to have as much interest in returning to that level of competition any more.

We've all seen this situation before in any number of sports. To me it's always arrives at the same question when I see the competitive youth sports; is it really all for the kids? Or would they be just as happy, happier even, to just play for the fun of it? But maybe that's a whole different topic.

What I remember most about my parent's involvement in my various sports throughout the years was that they encouraged me to just try, and if I didn't like it, they'd let me move on and and try something different. Baseball? Hated it. Basketball? Hated it even more. Soccer? Loved that and still play today. I think their expectations were always that I just get outside, make some friends, have some fun. And it worked.

My happiest memories of sports as a kid were playing T-ball, back when I was too young to be expected to reliably strike a ball that was actually flying through the air unsupported. It was a relatively organized league, with teams and uniforms and stuff, but none of that particularly mattered to us. The uniforms were a costume, like Halloween. The score was math, a practical application of the arithmetic we'd just barely started learning in school. The team seemed to us to be organized for geographical convenience, so that nobody would have to drive too far to get to practice, not because we were expected to form any kind of cohesive unit. There was no scoreboard, no omnipresent display of our ongoing prowess: the umpire would keep track of the score out of sight of the players.

Every game, I'd promise myself that THIS time I'd keep track of the score, not because I attached any particular importance to it or fully realized that it had some connection with my personal performance, but as a kind of mental exercise, to see if I could possibly hold the numbers in my head long enough for them to be of use. It was something to keep my mind occupied while fielding or sitting in the dugout. I swear, baseball and its offspring must hold some kind of record for being the "sport" that involves the greatest possible amount of sitting or standing idle rather than actually moving around and exercising.

Inevitably, I'd fail: I'd get distracted by an interesting bird or joking around with my teammates in the dugout or just my own thoughts, and when the coach announced that the game was over, we'd crowd around him and ask, "Did we win?" It was an afterthought, and I remember always wondering why we even bothered to ask considering that we were sure to enjoy an Otter Pop apiece afterwards, regardless.

I did that for a couple years, and then moved on to soccer, and that's when there started to be a more formal league structure and winners and losers and semifinals and trophies that you could actually not get because they said something other than "participation" on them. But it's easy for me to forget now, all these years later, that for a precious little while, I actually did enjoy sports.

Great story Sean. After a little league season of our own I can honestly say I've rarely felt more powerless as a parent than in those moments my son stood at the plate protected only by an oversized helmet and his fierce stare back at the pitcher.

Being a 16 year old son of a Diablo, Starcraft, Warcraft II-dabbler, and a casual driving simulator fan, I remember my violin concerts and soccer matches my parents attended and the greedy 6 year old I once was. I always asked for a reward (a Game Boy or a Genesis game) even though technically the execution of the performance and the satisfaction as a result were supposed to be that reward.

Reading this article reminded me of these events and I thank you, Sean Sands.

If it makes you feel better, by the way. I was only good at fielding and drawing walks (and steals) when I was in Little League. I'm a fairly respectable softball player and avid fan of my MLB team now, though.

Dude, totally been there. had high hopes when my son was 6 that his sports career would have better results than mine had. However, to him soccer is a contact sport. Baseball was much as you described. in the end he has gravitated to the performing arts where he totally gets 'the game' and has a social structure that he appreciates. unless you are the dad in the yard drilling with your kid at least an hour a day since he is 3 and watching lots and lots of baseball, the ambivalence seems to be the norm. But its funny, because all of a sudden with many kids something clicks and they are totally into it. Just yesterday my son who is now 8 told his grandfather that baseball is his favorite sport with a ball and that rock climbing is his favorite without one. Meanwhile he has not played baseball in over a year and doesn't want to, nor does he watch it on TV, but somehow it is his favorite sport with ball. Who knew.

Soccer is a contact sport, especially on defense.

I was at the local minor league game last night working at a concessions stand. During my break, I watched the game from the first base side. Four rows in front of me sat a kid leaning against his dad, legs stretched out on the bleachers. He was playing a DS; his dad was watching the game. Though the kid squirmed a bit, his eyes never left the DS and his dad never flinched from the game. This lasted an inning, until the kid put the DS away and they finished watching the game together.

I liked that the dad let his son play until he decided to watch the game. I'm used to seeing parents disappointed if their kids don't act or respond like they expect them too. Or maybe I was just jealous I never had a gameboy growing up.

I always used to play in right field... I might have gotten one or two balls go my way that season. It's little league so no one can hit the ball anywhere outside the infield let alone RIGHT field. I did get some consolation in that my coach that year is no longer allowed to coach any youth sports in my town on account of him being a jack***

wordsmythe wrote:

Soccer is a contact sport, especially on defense.

If most World Cup teams are any indication, I'd say Soccer is a "fall" sport.

Chairman_Mao wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Soccer is a contact sport, especially on defense.

If most World Cup teams are any indication, I'd say Soccer is a "fall" sport.

Yeah. I hate that about pro level soccer. Especially Netherlands in this iteration of the Cup. We need official replay, pronto!

What we need is robotic cameras on wires along the sidelines, with linesmen sitting at a screen with a controller to move and flash the flag.

Sean, your biggest failure as a parent is letting your kid go outside instead of perfecting those leet WOW skills that are so important for geek cred. Six is plenty old enough to go farm gold for daddy.

Joking aside, great article. I've found that my 2-year-old actually forces me to go do fun stuff outside when I'd rather be inside or doing boring household chores. I don't know what to expect when my son reaches the age to start sports, but as long as he tries and has fun I'll be tickled pink. I do worry though that I won't do well with other pushy parents who treat every game like it's the World Series.