Time: 7:15 p.m.
Location: Home Field
Situation: Scrimmage Game
Offender: Dad in the Opposing Team’s Dugout
My kid is on the mound for the 9U Spark Plugs’ second scrimmage game. Kris Medlen is on the mound for the Braves at Turner field. The Spark Plugs are playing a AAA team from East Cobb Baseball, the premiere travel ball organization in the county. The Braves are playing the Cardinals in a one-game Wild Card playoff that will get ugly before it gets sad, as Atlanta realizes that this is Chipper Jones’ very last MLB game. Ever. In the parking lot, car doors hang open and you can hear a low-pitched chorus of Joe Simpsons on AM radio. Everyone at the ball field has one eye on the scrimmage, one eye on an iPhone streaming the Braves’ play-by-play, and one ear tuned to the radios in the parking lot. The crowd at Turner field is louder than usual; no longer a dull white noise in the background, voices rumble in like angry surf.
As pitcher, Henry is sweating it. Medlen, on the other hand, is killing it. As usual. He gives up only one earned run, but the Cards score two more on errors. In the first inning, Henry walks two batters and, with fielding errors, five runs score, three of them unearned. He’s rattled. He should have been out of the inning already, and he’s pissed at his team and pissed at himself. He drags himself into the dugout, slumps onto the bench, and commences violating Clause Three of his travel ball player contract. He hangs his head and hides his tears. To his coach’s credit, he puts Henry back on the mound for the second inning. Nerves, he says. He’ll settle down.
At Turner Field, things turn ugly. An epically bad infield fly rule call sends jittery fans over the edge. The Braves trail the Cards by three, and, amid jeers and outrage at the umpire, hundreds of beer cans and water bottles rain down on the field. The parents at our little ball field wander around, trying to figure out what’s happening at Turner Field. Joe Simpson chastises the usually reserved Atlanta fans for acting like Phillies fans. I see my older son sitting at a picnic table with a parent from the East Cobb team; they’re sharing a pair of earbuds, listening in wonder to the play-by-play of bad fan behavior at Turner Field.
In the second inning Henry begins to throw some better pitches here and there. He strikes out one batter who swings on a high change-up. Another goes down on a fastball. But batters get hits off him and fielders drop easy pop-ups. That last out is just out of reach. As usual. And then one of the East Cobb dads decides it’s time to throw his own trash out on our little diamond. It’s probably his kid at the plate.
He shouts from the dugout, “Hey son, the pitcher’s struggling—the ump’s gonna give him every call. He’s calling everything a strike!” I sit up straighter. So you have to yell it out to everyone that my kid is struggling? We’re all watching the same game here, you know. Henry throws a fastball. The batter watches. The ump calls it a strike. The dad gets agitated and throws out some more trash. He yells it again. Again, loud enough for everyone to hear. “He’s struggling out there! BIG STRIKE ZONE!”
What a jerk. Yeah, he’s struggling, but why would a parent broadcast it from the dugout like he’s Joe Simpson? At a scrimmage. At a nine year old. If he wants to coach his kid or criticize the umpire, there are plenty of other ways. It feels to me (and I’m probably a bit sensitive here) like he’s trying to intimidate my kid. Apparently such sketchy psychological tactics (by parents!) are just fine in travel ball. At a scrimmage. On a nine-year-old. Henry strikes the kid out.
The Spark Plugs lose 12-4. The Braves lose 6-3. The umpires lose. The infield fly rule wins. Again.
I think later that this little scrimmage with that rude dad was a sort of test. If I’d acted on instinct, marched over and told him his remarks were “unkind” or “unhelpful” (or something lame served with a bit of nervous laughter), he probably would have said with a shrug, “This is travel ball. If Little Johnny can’t deal with the pressure he needs to go back to rec ball.”
And there’s a part of me that knows travel ball is not for the softhearted or thin-skinned or easily intimidated. And the kids have to be tough too. For now, I wish Henry could play the game on its own terms, not the game bent by a parent’s will to control that which he ultimately cannot control: the eyes of the umpire and the inviolable laws of physics. But we all watch, and we all throw stuff and scream things in the hope that this time it will change the outcome. And sometimes it does, just not tonight—not for these kids and not for the Braves.
Time: 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday
Location: Commercial Ball Park
Situation: Second Tournament Game
Offender: Dad of a Kid on My Kid’s Team
We pull into the parking lot of this ballpark built solely to host baseball tournaments and make as much money as possible off the parents who come to watch them. It’s mid-afternoon and Henry has five brand-new shiny staples in the back of his skull. He played the first bracket game here in the morning, spent the break between games at his coach’s swimming pool, where he performed an ill-advised back-flip off a diving board that had far less spring than he’d guessed. He hit the back of his head on the board, ripped a two inch gash in his scalp, bled profusely, and we were off to Urgent Care, which, on Saturday, is the nadir of parenting duties. Three hours and five staples later, Henry walked out through the sliding doors in a bloodstained uniform and asked to go back to the ballpark, even though he was under orders not to play. Head wounds tend to need some time to heal. Or clot.
His team had won the first game and they were looking to move up through the bracket. We walk toward the entrance gate and prepare to hand over some cash ($5 a person, no discounts for kids). Pacing back and forth, peering between the woven slats of the privacy fence is the biggest hothead dad on our team, a guy so high-pressure that his own son looks utterly cowed every time he stands in to bat. After each pitch, the kid steps out of the box to search for some sign from his dad, who never seems to stop coaching him. He coaches him walking onto the field. He coaches him walking off. He coaches him between every pitch.
Will and I look at each other. We know immediately that he’s been kicked out. It was only a matter of time, really. But he’s unabashed in his banishment; he looks at us—almost defiantly—and says that, yeah, he’d been kicked out. Then he starts in on the coach. Our kid’s coach. His son’s coach. Hothead Dad didn’t like the way his own son’s coach was coaching his son, so he blessed him out. In front of the kids. In front of the other parents. Within earshot of the umpire.
Apparently our coach yelled at his kid, who was playing right field, to back up the throw to first, and, in doing so, the coach stepped over some line drawn by Dad, who sees himself as the only coach who matters. Never mind that he’s not actually a coach for this team at all. But today the umpire wasn’t having any of it. (We, the parents, have had plenty of it). The umpire listened to Hothead Dad berating the coach and said, in effect, to hell with that nonsense. Poof! Ejected! Pick a fight with your own kid’s coach, be especially generous with the profanity, luck into an umpire who takes his job seriously, and you can kiss your spectator status good-bye (no refund on admission). So, once again, the thing that trashes an afternoon of baseball is not actually five staples in a kid’s head, but a parent who can’t give up control—to the coach, to the whims of the game, to the kid, who is, after all, just a kid who wants to play (ball).
Time: Could be During Any Game
Location: The Stands
Situation: A Defensive Error
Offender: Okay, It’s Me This Time
So, I do it too, only a little more quietly, a bit more indirectly, and minus (most of) the profanity. Try as I might, I can’t sit stoically, like other moms, bite my tongue, and watch in silence as a poorly fielded ball, a misfired throw, or a missed catch turns the boys’ precarious confidence to dust. I can tell myself these kids are just nine, but there are just some errors that elicit an unbidden horror. So, in those moments when the outcome of a game seems hang on a wobbly changeup, I watch on edge, as the ball leaves the bat and selects an infielder with whom it will share a Missed Connection so grand and devastating I’m temped to look for it the next day on Craigslist:
You: a short third baseman, adjusting an ill-fitting cup and wearing a dreamy expression. Were you thinking about whether you’d rather drink blue PowerAde or red Gatorade or which curse word is your favorite or whether it’s better to choose a fire or water-type starter Pokemon?
Me: a muddied-up baseball, pulled from the pocket of a bored umpire before falling into the hands of a beady-eyed pitcher. Seconds out of that relationship, I spun towards you, but your unfocused eyes lost sight of me and I rolled between your legs, only to be plucked up for a quick once-around with a sweaty-handed outfielder. He must have known I’d have rather been with you and he let me go. But no. We just missed each other again, and I landed in the glove of another. And another. And in the dirt. But you, Third, you’re the one I really want to be with. Wanna get together at the next pitch?
As the botched play pinballs around the infield, before I even know it’s happening, an audible “no” escapes my mouth, grows into a more panicky “no-no-no” until it crescendos with a loud “NO!” which trails off in a quiet “oh noooo,” each ‘o’ rolling with the ball into a patch of dirt known as disappointment.
Kids choke all the time. Telling the error not to happen as it’s happening is not going to make it not happen. But, like Jerk Dad or Hothead Dad, I cast my own spell and try to talk the bad thing into not happening. I want so badly to control it, and I know that I can’t. It would be better to shut up or walk away like Will does. Or leave the park to go home and run the lawn mower or the leaf blower or the vacuum cleaner. Better to pick up than add more trash to an already littered-up field. Better not to become like Hothead Dad with unpredictable geysers of anger at something smaller than one of life’s footnotes—an hour of baseball played by nine year olds.
But, after all these years in the stands, I still haven’t figured out how to close my eyes (and my big mouth) and step outside the momentary terror of the error to look back over the longer story of the game, the weekend tournament, the season, my child’s ever-shortening childhood. So I talk to the ball, coach it where I want it to go. I tell it to stop, when nothing stops, really. I can no more control the ball or what happens out there on the field than I can stop my child from growing up. I know this. I can only hope that this time I don’t forget it too loudly.