Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Haiku: First World Problems

Beach house. Open floor
plan. Thin walls.  Hollow core doors.
Good luck sleeping in.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Hanging Up Cleats

My 12-year-old's cleats are still in the entryway.  They've been there since last Tuesday
evening, when his little league team lost in the championship game of his in-house league's "World Series."  Since he doesn't play on the travel tournament team in the summer, his season is over.  We usually insist on the kids putting away shoes that they're not going to wear again soon; the entryway is too small for extra shoes.  I haven't told him to put his cleats away yet, though, because it feels really different to tell him that when it's almost certainly the last time.

We started pitching to him in our tiny backyard when he was two years old.  It started with a plastic bat and a big supermarket ball with Winnie the Pooh on it.  Because his mother and I both love baseball, there was no question that we'd try to share that love with him.  He loved hitting that ball in the yard, and he got better and better at it.  We went through a sequence of bats and smaller and smaller balls until he was drilling pint sized wiffle ball home runs over the hedge into the neighbors' equally tiny back yard.
Outside an Erie Seawolves (AA) game, age 3

After one season of tee ball (which felt like a regression after batting live pitches all that time), he joined our neighborhood youth league, progressing through three levels with rules that more and more match real baseball.  He's had better and worse seasons, finally settling in as a reliable fielder, mostly because he's always been a smart player who knew what to do based on the game situation.  He loves playing catcher, and that's an important position because kid pitches aren't super accurate, and baserunners can steal at his current level.  At the plate, he developed a fear of the ball around when he started facing kid pitchers, and it's dogged him.  One season, he accommodated it by dancing in the batter's box, his skinny butt bouncing around above springy knees.  This year, despite the fact that he was one of the oldest members of his team, he reverted to not swinging when he should and even diving out of the box.  All of this is to say that as much as he loves and knows baseball, he ended up being in the middle of the pack on his team in terms of overall contribution.

So he's decided that, unless something big changes, this is his last year playing baseball.  He'll return to his school volleyball team in the fall, and he's thinking about ultimate frisbee in high school.  He shoots a lot of hoops at recess.  But he's officially given up one career path - professional baseball player.

So his cleats are still in the entryway.  When I counted up the years, I realized he's played eight spring seasons, plus almost as many fall "developmental league" seasons.  He's only 12!  Collectively, our family has spent a significant amount of the last eight Aprils, Mays and Junes on the sidelines of his games.  When those cleats go away, it will feel like a chapter is closing.  And it will be.

Before the World Series, his team had to advance out of a best-of-three semifinal series.  They won the first game handily.  The second game was much tighter, and it got to be tied in extra innings (the seventh, since standard games are six innings).  Charlie's team - the home team - got two on with one out in the bottom of the seventh when Charlie came up to bat.  His confidence issues at the plate loomed.  The last thing I wanted to see was him looking at a called strike three with runners on first and second in that situation.  After a few pitches, he made contact and grounded a ball toward the second baseman.  It probably should have been an out, but he didn't field it cleanly, and it rolled under his glove.  The runner on second was fast, and he took off.  When the third base coach saw the ball behind the second-baseman, he sent the runner, and he scored.  Charlie had hit the walk-off series-clinching RBI single to send his team to the World Series.  There are no pictures or video of the event.  When they won, I saw Charlie run back from first base to get jumped on by his teammates, and I happened to be nearby down the third base line when he emerged from that celebration.  I don't need video; I will never forget the look of relief and satisfaction and excitement on his face.  Big-eyed, sweaty and thrilled.  He has always approached baseball from a team-first perspective - the loudest rooter-on of his teammates, playing wherever coaches told him to play, learning from his elders and encouraging younger players.  When the chips were down, he came through for his team, and they won, and helping the team meant the world to him.

A few days later, walking home after the World Series loss, Charlie laid his head on my shoulder and cried.  I asked him if he was sad because they lost or sad because baseball season was over.  He couldn't really answer.  I told him that losing is sad, and ending is sad.  Later on, he said wistfully "I didn't want another stinking runner-up trophy." (His team lost in game three of last year's World Series, too.)  

It's not just this season that's ending.  Maybe Charlie knew that and just couldn't articulate it.  We can't fight it.  Childhood must end.  Adolescence - with its leaps and storms - must commence.  Successful parenting prepares for departure.  But for now, as if a brake against the inevitable, his cleats are still in the entryway.