I try really hard to not be THAT dad, the one at the Little League game that berates the umpire and his “hidden agenda” over every missed ball and strike. You know, the one who says “That’s horrible!” out loud when a kid misses a diving catch in center field or overthrows 2nd base on a steal attempt, but shouts encouragement when his own precious all-star misses a routine grounder or throws a bouncer to 1st base when a moonshot from short would beat the runner by ten feet. Usually during my kids’ games, I try to stay distracted through Facebook or YouTube, because I know that deep inside this calm, seemingly ambivalent exterior lurks a hyper-competitive monster that will do anything to rattle the other team’s pitcher, or insult the lineage of the field umpire for committing the egregious sin of calling one of my team’s players out on a steal attempt. You see, it’s a self-preservation kind of thing. Secretly, I’m kind of glad when my work travel schedule takes me away from some games…”Wow, sorry, honey, I really wanted to go to that game, but this Indian reservation outside Springer, New Mexico, really wants me to come show equipment at their STEM festival…for iPads that they don’t have.”
I know my limits, so I try really hard to seem disinterested…but all that monster needs is an opening, just one crack of daylight…
Tonight, our 11U Nationals (a team made up of 3rd and 4th graders, but forced to play 5th & 6th graders this spring due
to the league director being an asshole to the team having six Triple A players on the fall roster…even though one never played) woke up that demon. Our gang was down to eight players tonight due to a season-ending foot injury to our starting first baseman, so they would already be taking an automatic out when the 9th batter was up. Still, they were up 4-0 after the first inning. The second inning saw a series of errors by our fielders, and the score was 4-2 when Emery came to the mound for a relief appearance.
He pitched well, and with the bases loaded and one out (score now 4-3), the batter popped up a ball between 3rd and home. Emery called off the catcher, who either ignored him or didn’t hear him, and the two collided on the 3rd base line. Emery crumpled to the ground, ending up flat on his back, not moving. The ball rolled away from him, into foul territory. The umpire made no signal. The runner on 3rd came home. Everyone started shouting for the catcher to pick up the ball…and Emery still hadn’t moved.
Then THAT Dad showed up. I raced to the opening in the fence and ran onto the field. By now, the coaches and umpire were gathered around Emery. As I approached the group hovering around #15 on the 3rd base line, I thought the worst: knocked out, concussion, broken nose?? No, even worse than that…I thought that the coaches would have to pull him, Dee and I would have to take him to an ER, and we would have to forfeit the game because only seven players would be left. I don’t know which of these would have been worse.
Fortunately, there was only a trickle of blood running from his nose when he was helped up, and after a few minutes of strategically-placed tissues and applied pressure, he was able to continue. He pitched his heart out, but when the top of the 2nd was over, we were down 6-4.
We came back to take a one-run lead in the bottom of the second, but due to the backup first baseman’s best Bill Buckner impression and a missed pickoff by the pitcher (after Emery was pulled), we entered our last at-bat down 9-7…and our missing 9th player as the 2nd batter, which meant an automatic out.
For the monster that lives inside me, this was all too much. Now, the backup first baseman should have never moved up to AA ball, the umpire’s strike zone was as inconsistent as a 19-year-old’s politics, and why on earth did we send the first batter of the inning (the smallest kid on the team) to the plate and allow him to swing???
Ground out, automatic out, strikeout looking…and just like that, the season was over. I silently gathered up my chair and our snack bag, and slunk away. The backup first baseman’s dad came up to make small talk, but I was having none of it; after all, his kid’s error cost our team a run when we had two outs.
As the team gathered around Coach James, an amazing thing happened: my heart softened to hear Coach James tell the kids how proud he was if them for playing a level up all season, and still finishing 4th in our division, and 7th out of 16 in our league…about how proud he was that, down a player, we almost pulled off a huge upset to start postseason play. And then it happened…one of the players asked Coach James if he would be coaching the Nationals in Fall Ball, and even though his answer has been the worst-kept secret since Lebron’s Decision announcement, it still hurt to hear it: “No, I will not coach in the fall.”
That many nine and ten-year-olds gathered in a small space outside of a Little League baseball field, and you still could have heard a pin drop. FieldsFam has always had good fortune with Emery’s baseball coaches, like Coach Jack and Coach Jon in our Lakeland City Baseball seasons, and Coach Jason and Coach James in North Texas. Now, it may be time to find a new coach. For anyone who knows Coach James, you understand how hard this is for our own little Laser Show…Emery adores Coach James, and I think secretly wishes that he was Emery’s dad. If I say something, it doesn’t matter, but if Coach James says it, it is like a Gospel Truth delivered on a cloud from Heaven, all golden and shiny and self-evidently important.
Now, the monster was in full retreat. Instead, memories of some really great times (and some hard lessons) from the last three seasons flooded back, and I was so thankful that I have been able to keep that monster in check this long…because if I hadn’t, my youngest son might not have been able to learn as much, or to fall in love with baseball as much, by being around a man like Coach James.