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Put Me In Coach

     Mama said that every guy that plays Little League, whether he ends his baseball career at that level or not, considers himself an authority on all things baseball from that moment on regardless of whether he was an All Star player or the perennial bench warmer.  She further noted that the ability level and accomplishments he remembers are seldom consistent with the remembrances of others that saw him play. The older you get, the better you were. I’m pretty sure she was basing her observations on my baseball experiences, but that’s purely speculative on my part.
     We have been watching our grandsons play baseball for many years now, from T Ball and the amoeba defense to high school and every level in between.  We have accumulated an enormous amount of equipment that must accompany us to their games. We have a tent to provide shade, a cooler to keep drinks cold, a designated bag for peanuts, pretzels and snacks, frozen plastic thingies that replace the messy ice we used to use, small, personal battery powered fans, hats, sunscreen, rather expensive chairs that rock and recline and have cup holders in the arms, and a lightweight red wagon to preclude numerous trips from the car to the ball field with all our paraphernalia.  We are prepared, but preparation does not preclude discomfort.
     There are few places on earth where temperatures, wind, rain, sun and the elements combine to produce the extremes found at our local ball fields.  I am undecided as to whether the fields are built purposefully in areas subject to these conditions or if the area becomes a climatic anomaly after the park is built. Shade is nonexistent (hence the tent), and no matter how you dress for the current weather, it will be inappropriate at some time during your stay and almost always for the majority of that time.  In late winter and early spring the afternoons will begin in a delightfully comfortable way, but degenerate quickly into gale force winds coming off a nearby glacier carrying a deadly combination of rain, sleet, hail and snow once the sun disappears at 4pm. In summer, the heat will invariably hover at or near 125 degrees until the afternoon thunderstorm appears with strong winds, rain, hail, and multiple tornadoes.  The game will never be cancelled, but will be postponed for 30 minutes each time lightning is seen in the area, regardless of the inning or score. Your team, for example, might be ahead or behind by 15 runs in the 7th and final inning, but the umpires are unwilling to accept a concession on the part of the losing teams’ coach (or parents) if lightning flashes no matter how late in the game or hopeless the situation.
     Most games are 6 or 7 innings and last a minimum of 31/2 hours, not counting delays, and it may be that the climatic abnormality zone coexists with a corresponding temporal anomaly similar to that near the blue event horizon of a black hole where seconds last for hours, and hours go on for years.  In black holes, the enormous strength of the force of gravity has the ability to affect not only light waves but time itself. I’ve felt it happen at little league games. More than once. Frequently in fact.
     The equipment for players is outrageously expensive, and the grandparent code of conduct requires that we buy most of it.  We took out a 2nd mortgage on our house to buy a bat for each of our grandsons because they are different ages and need different sized bats, cashed in a 401K to buy gloves and batting gloves for them both, found cleats on sale for a little less than my Mom and Dad paid for their first house, and started 2nd jobs to help pay for practice and game uniforms, travel expenses, team pictures and assorted (but required) accoutrements. I almost cried when I discovered that bats could not be used in perpetuity, and different leagues and different ages require different sizes, weights and compositions that umpires check religiously before each game. That means bats are used for one season and rarely more, and the trade-in value for last years’ bat is nonexistent.  We have quite a collection that I keep for burglars or in case the HOF calls us later..
     We endure all of that, because baseball is important to our grandsons. They love practice, they love the camaraderie with their teammates, they love the uniforms, they love the equipment and they especially love the games.  We accept the sacrifices, and believe their participation in athletics is an important part of their development as citizens and as people both socially and physically. We can live with the last minute notice of practices, the distance from our house to their house to practice to their house and back to ours that takes more time than the actual practice itself and the exorbitant costs for equipment associated with the game.  What’s hard to accept is when your kid doesn’t start, or, perhaps worse, play.
     My initial grandparent reaction when that first occurred was to yell at the Coach, question his integrity, his family history, his baseball knowledge, coaching skills and intelligence (all in one run-on sentence), but I held back and kept my opinions to myself. I quickly found myself otherwise occupied in desperately trying to restrain Nana from organizing other parents into an old west posse with ropes and torches breaking into the dugout to tar and feather one or all of the coaches and posting the whole scene on Facebook as a warning to others that might have the temerity to think her offspring might be seen as anything less than the reincarnation of Mickey Mantle. The struggle, by the way, was real. After calming Nana -somewhat - with a reminder that grandchildren would probably not be allowed to visit her in jail, my third inclination was to march over to the dugout with a stern “I’m holding myself back” look on my face, grab the grandson by the hand and tell him - loudly - “we’re leaving this crap and going somewhere that your obvious athletic talents will be appreciated.” There may or may not have been a disdainful sniff at the end of the sentence aimed in the coaches’ to punctuate my displeasure.
     We tried to imagine all the reasons the stupid Coach might not be playing our grandson. Did he miss a practice? Does he really think the other kid is a better player?  Does he really think HIS kid is a better player? Is he saving our kid for a key point in the game? Does he know so little about athletic ability that he cannot recognize an obvious talent? Is he really that stupid? Does he have a deathwish?
     Nana and I sit under the tent fuming and trying to decide the best course of action, the ones that might most effectively express our displeasure with the Coach’s decision to the greatest degree, when we notice our grandson - the one that we believe has been treated so shabbily - is standing in the dugout cheering his team.  He yells “great play!” when the shortstop fields a grounder and throws out the runner. He screams “what a pitch!” when the pitcher throws a called 3rd strike to an opposing batter. He yells “nice catch, buddy!” when an outfielder catches a fly ball. When his team is batting he doesn’t sit on the bench and hang his head and scowl (as only a teenager can) to show his disgust with the Coach and with the team and with his lot in life.  He is encouraging the kids that strike out, congratulating - loudly - the kids that get a hit or steal a base or get a walk to get on base. He is, in other words, being a great team player. He understands that the Coach is volunteering his time, is missing time with his own family to hold practice for all the other kids even after a full day at work, and giving up his Saturdays to spend time with other peoples’ children. He’s often buying bottled water and Gatoraide and snacks with his own money for his players, and doing his best to see that everybody gets to play even while he’s trying to maneuver skill levels and still have a chance to win the game. Does he make mistakes? Why sure he does, but he’s out there giving it his best win or lose, and most importantly giving his TIME to kids. Imagining nefarious purposes and intent behind his decisions as to who plays when begins to look rather foolish when we see the example our kid is setting.
     Nana and I looked at each other sheepishly, sat down and quickly shut up. Our grandson reminded us of what we told him we expected from him from the beginning - be a great teammate first and a great individual player second - and things will work out the way they’re supposed to. Maybe - Mr. or Mrs. Parent or Grandparent - if you’re not happy with your Coach’s decisions you could put yourself on the volunteer coaching list for next year. They probably have room.
     Something else Mama said came to mind just about then; “Son, everybody has a purpose in life.  Sometimes that purpose is to serve as a bad example.” I’m just glad our grandson showed us what good sportsmanship means before we became the bad example Mama warned us about. Way to go, kid.  Way to go.


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