by Kevin Franklin
Sometimes, you stumble upon a moment where all of your senses are brought to life like an orchestra reaching a crescendo. It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shaking, just a particular sound, like a song on the radio, maybe a smell that reminds you of your grandmother’s kitchen at the holidays or perhaps even a feeling of déjà vu which leaves your mind spinning.
I have a five year old nephew who played in his first T-ball game today. He is my older brother’s son, a child of bottomless energy and an Irishman’s sneer. It is always a big day when a kid plays in his first baseball game. No expectations are necessary, only the hope he or she will have fun and eventually make enough money in the big leagues to allow for the expense of keeping the water running while brushing your teeth. Clench-jawed optimism that he or she will excel all the way through high school where major newspapers bang down the door for an interview with the parents who can claim, “Yeah, I taught him everything he knows. I’m the REAL story here…”
The game started at 10:30 Saturday morning. When I arrived, my brother’s entire family was there, cross-armed and anxious. Chuckling parents lined both sides, offering encouragement and promises of pizza after the game. Behind us were slightly older kids playing a Little League game and beyond that even older players actually playing something that resembled functional baseball. It was a projection of where this first game could lead. We shepherd the children towards the games we love in hopes we can some day claim another convert to the shrine of baseball. We want to pass along our joys and interests, hoping the youngsters will pick up the torch and do the same for their children. We want to have them keep score next to us at the park, get excited when they pull an Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard from a fresh pack of baseball cards and ask us what it was like when Tug McGraw or Brad Lidge registered that final out of the magical seasons of ’80 and ’08. We want them to be the fans we think we are ourselves. If all else fails – the generation gap, teenage angst, arguments about school – we still have sports to tether that commonality. How many of you out there called a parent or relative after the 2008 World Series to share your joy? How many of you called those same people after the disappointment of the 2009 Fall Classic to share your grief?
All of these thoughts came rushing at me the moment I saw him in the field. There he was, chewing on his glove, dancing that pendulous hip dance all children of five have mastered and waving to his parents as the ball rolled past him. My brother and I did not care about his hitting, fielding or baserunning. I looked at the other children in the field and they were doing the same things, windmilling their arms, looking through the webbing of their stiff little gloves and throwing to the wrong base. They were nine little bodies with oversized heads bobbling on their stems like a loose tooth. The wind was cold and rude, but the kids did not seem to care. They were giants on this day.
Batted balls would trickle off the tee and all nine fielders would rush to the ball like iron filings to a science class magnet. Collisions on the edge of the infield resulted in a hilarious pile up as gloves and hats went flying in every direction. Parents collected in the dugout when the fielders came in to hit, snapping pictures and offering hopeless advice. Ah yes, the parents. For the most part, the parents were very supportive and proud, regardless of what was happening on the field; all except one. Apparently, someone left the lock off the cage of a particular parent. She was loud and carried an odd sense of entitlement with her. When she spoke, which was often, it was raspy and rough, as if she gargled with sandpaper. With her was a perpetually grinning (and not in a good way) teenage daughter and her glacially slow boyfriend whose back pockets were so trendily hanging behind his knees. Normally, I would not have given this woman a second thought, but what she said to her son made Aileen Wuornos look like Betty Crocker:
“Look over here! Hey! I’m gonna beat you!”
My brother and I looked at each other incredulously. “I’m gonna BEAT you???” What kind of garbage passes for white trash these days? The coaches, to their credit, kept level heads, even as Miss Congeniality stood in the gateway between the field and dugout. It reminded me that some parents just don’t get it. The kids are not there for us; we’re there for them. I turned my thoughts to the children, who were still dancing and swinging their arms in naive joy. I realized I was looking at future doctors and scientists and writers and laborers and criminals and politicians and bankers. Their whole lives are in front of them, just as they were in front of us the first time we picked up a baseball and waved to our parents in the stands. Every kid was on equal footing for maybe the last time in their lives. Some will excel at sports, some will not. Some will live long lives, some will not. Some will be good parents, some will not…
The beauty of the game of baseball is that it has remained relatively unchanged in the three centuries in which it has existed. You throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball and run the bases. Seeing my nephew revel in the excitement of his first game reminded me of just how simple and wonderful the sport remains. It was an initiation into a bigger world, not only for him, but for we adults. When you are five years old, life is simple. There is no need for reflection or reminiscing. Watching those kids today made me feel young again, if only for a short while. I hope my nephew remembers these times when he is my age and not only how it made him feel, but knowing how it made us feel watching him.
And I hope it’s a crescendo.