Fall tournament season is about over. Most travel teams have moved their workouts indoors. Here’s a little bit about where Henry will practice in December and January. –S.A.
Several years ago, when we first walked through our house with the real estate agent, I fell in love with its familiar bungalow style and its history; for many decades a long-serving Cobb County sheriff and, later, his widow lived here. With a deep front porch, gray clapboards, and white battered columns, our house is like countless houses that you see settled comfortably into older cities—a house in the style of a popular pattern kit available from Sears and Roebuck. This year is its ninetieth birthday, and, though Henry has managed to break two lovely wavy glass windows (separate incidents involving a baseball and a golf ball), the house’s gabled roof, plaster walls and heart pine floors have sheltered our family nicely from the dreary subdivisions, strip malls, mall malls, fast food places, and endlessly multiplying drugstores chains—the generally soulless structures that pass for architecture in wide swaths of the New South.
In a county dotted with cheap, plastic yard signs that advertise tract houses “from the 190’s!” our house is practically historic by Atlanta suburban standards. Move out from our neighborhood in concentric circles and you’ll find rings of brick ranches and split-levels, which give way to the odd angles of rustic contemporaries and plain, vinyl-sided Cape Cods. Next come thick bands of McMansions with brick facades and cathedral entryways, and, eventually, you arrive full circle at the newest construction zones of bungalow-styled McMansions, oddly oversized versions of our little house. The ballpark where Henry practices is somewhere between the 1st and 2nd circle of Cobb County’s architectural hell, not limbo or lust exactly, but a land of run-down ranches, overgrown lawns, junk-filled carports, and moldering white resin chairs.
When we bought our old bungalow, my husband Will was pretty thrilled about the large outbuilding in the woods at the back of the lot. It’s a thirty by fifty foot board and batten structure with a concrete slab and a tin roof. We call it the barn, but that makes it sound rustic and picturesque—like a place with red wheelbarrows beside white chickens; actually, the only animals around are Scout, our Australian shepherd, and the occasional herd of deer that wanders in from the nearby Civil War battlefield park. The barn was probably built in the 1980s by a previous owner and used to store a rather large Recreational Vehicle. When we first moved in, I had visions of a little library out there, a place where I could unroll a few tatty Turkish kilims and unpack the dozens of boxes of books I’d filled through college and grad school.
But life with kids and jobs doesn’t exactly present lots of time for decorating (much less using) a reading nook. So the books have stayed in boxes, and we’ve put the barn to other uses. When Will turned forty, we hired a bluegrass band and a caller and invited scores of friends and family over for a contra dance. When he got a new job and a little extra money, we ran an underground power line and installed fluorescent lights and a small wood shop to fix all the things that need fixing on an old house. When Santa brought the boys Heelys and rollerblades and RipStiks, we added a line to the household budget for the health insurance deductible, begged them to be careful and turned the barn into a roller rink.1 And, when Henry entered his fifth season of recreation baseball, we installed a 50-foot indoor batting cage.
As I write it (and it feels oddly like a confession), the absurdity steps up to taunt me a bit. Why have we given over 1500 square feet of mortgaged space to baseball? At what point did a batting cage become the obvious way to fill up a room almost as big as our house or sacrifice some other equally important dream that specifically needs a wide expanse of level concrete? To be fair, Will is pretty handy, and it’s not like we paid someone to install it (okay, so that sounds very obviously like a rationalization). He found a guy on Craigslist who makes the nets, and he did the rest himself. He hung a sturdy backstop, ran cables the length of the barn, and attached clips, so the whole thing is retractable. But, now that it’s there, it’s not like we ever retract it. We have an indoor batting cage. To most of our friends and pretty much all of our family, we have taken the baseball thing a little far.
So, I may as well confess it all. After the cage was in place, we had to have a pitching machine (two of them actually, Craigslist again, where purchases come with strings attached, like, if you want to buy the one that works, you have to take the non-working one as well). Then we needed a huge metal-framed screen to protect the brave soul feeding balls into the machine. And as long as we have a cage, we might as well work on pitching too, right? So Will built a wedge-shaped pitching mound out of plywood and green astroturf, a pitcher’s pocket (a metal frame with a grid of nine squares backed by net to catch pitches), and a rack to hold a growing collection of bats. We have an indoor batting cage, pitching machine, and pitcher’s mound. I’m beginning to agree with our friends and family. We’re crazy.
So why a batting cage and not a garage band practice space or a hydraulic auto lift or a D&D gaming den and figurine painting workshop? Maybe if our kids had expressed different interests along the way I’d have my library, a quiet place to escape the boys and their incessant wrestling. Maybe we’d have missed out completely on the whole Cobb County baseball scene, and never known that the county Parks and Recreation Department manages close to 120 (!) baseball and softball fields spread out over its 340 square miles (and there are dozens more fields that are privately owned). So let’s go back to the start of the baseball stuff. Way back.
I have a younger sister. When we were kids, I took ballet lessons. She took piano lessons. Our mom drove us in a 1980 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon to Miss Patsy’s dance studio or Miss Graham’s Tudor-style music room. She wrote checks, enforced practice time, and sewed velvet and tulle tutus. On weekends, our dad played tennis, or he jogged, or he brewed beer.2 Once he even brought home a wrecked 1946 Cessna 120 two-seater airplane and stuck it in our one-car garage. He spent a couple of years of weekends rebuilding it. After he finally rolled it out and attached the wings, he took flying lessons and got his pilot’s license. He flew it for several years. Then he sold it and took up golf. His leisure activities were varied and involving, in part, I realize now, because they didn’t involve spending time with boys and their sports. His weekends were his own; in the grand arc of childrearing, dance and piano recitals do not demand a lot of a father’s time. He would have loved having our barn back then.
These days we let our kids—who am I kidding?—we encourage our kids to do more activities than we ever did; none of my friends took ballet and piano. Dads may have been involved in the past, but from what I can tell today, they’re running youth sports like minor league franchises. Their kids’ sports have become their leisure activities, and the hours that dads, particularly the ones who coach, log at games and practices, in front of computer screens managing teams and tournaments, jack up the time spent on baseball somewhere close to an unpaid, part time job. Will has never coached a baseball team, but he’s doing his part to ensure the Cobb County baseball economy stays in its current expansion phase. So, we have a batting cage because Will’s hobby is building stuff, and also because he has always loved baseball, specifically the Atlanta Braves, whom he follows in a decidedly obsessive way—on blogs, on twitter, on sports talk radio, on whatever has replaced WTBS’s The Superstation on television. And we also have a batting cage because one day I stopped by my local rec department, slapped down a check for $125 and registered my older son, Thomas, who was in first grade at the time, for rec league baseball.
I learned very quickly that we started him in baseball too late (at seven!). It turned out that he was too old by a year for t-ball, so he went straight into coach pitch baseball. Most of the kids had been playing for several seasons already. It didn’t help that Thomas hadn’t yet decided whether he was a righty or a lefty; he had a glove for each hand. What he loved about baseball was every chance he got to bat, burping his ABCs in the dugout, and stuffing his cheeks with sunflower seeds.
Everything about that first season surprised me: the coach was so young! (28!) His kid was so good! Four over-the-fence home runs! The boys in the infield could turn a double play! The parents were actually paying attention and keeping stats! Coaches got into yelling matches with their own assistant coaches! Umpires ejected coaches who got into yelling matches with their own assistant coaches! Everyone—except me—knew exactly how many wins we had and which teams we needed to beat to take home the second place trophy in our division.
The amount of stuff those kids already knew about the baseball (and my kid didn’t know) was my introduction to the world of kids’ sports, which has—unbelievably—only increased in intensity as we’ve gone from rec ball to travel ball. During Thomas’ first season, Henry was too young to play, but little about what happened at the ballpark was lost on him. When he saw the younger brother of a kid on Thomas’ team dragging around a giant tournament trophy he’d won in t-ball, Henry zeroed in. He wanted a trophy too. He wanted to play. So, when he was four, Henry played his first t-ball game on a goofy-looking miniature baseball field with bright green “grass,” permanently painted-on baselines, and peanut-sized dugouts. He hit hard and ran hard and slid into home even if the ball was rolling around somewhere near the centerfield fence. His team took home the first place trophy at the end of the season. If Henry hadn’t taken to baseball, things might have been different (and we might be keeping the neighbors up at night with Neil Peart-inspired drum solos issuing from the barn).
It was always clear that Thomas never cared that much about baseball—he loved soccer and video games and anything involving guns and targets (the place where his enviable hand-eye coordination found its rightful place). But Henry’s quick feet and innate competitiveness showed me, in the end, what it felt like to have that kid who could play, the one making outs and getting hits. So, in the end, it was all on Henry. And we’ve blessed him (or cursed him) with a place to practice (or burn out early).
So, add together a mother’s newfound competitiveness, a kid’s very open ambition, a dad’s sports obsession, and 1500 square feet of unused indoor space, and you get a batting cage. I’d never thought of us as baseball crazy—that describes those other families with batting cages! Maybe our batting cage is ironic. But it’s not. It’s the place we hang out on free weeknights, where Henry plays tic-tac-toe with a fastball, where Thomas hits and hits and never has to run the bases, where sometimes even I swing the monogrammed Louisville Slugger that my dad gave me for Christmas when I was 21.3 Baseball’s toehold in our life started out small, but it advanced, bit by bit, until it was just inevitable that space plus sports equals a giant net—a pretty nice indoor training facility, really—that may, from time to time, give Henry an unquantifiable advantage as a player. Or, it may not.
1 Between two boys we’ve managed four arm breaks in all: soccer, rollerblades, bike, and Ripstik.
2 We lived in a dry county. He had to drive 40 miles to get to Tennessee and a package store that sold Carling Black Label beer.
3 It was the year of the Braves’ historic “Worst to First” season, and Dad and I watched the games together on a little TV (on the Superstation!) in our basement in Alabama. I bet if ballet had required volunteer coaches, he would have stepped up. He did a bang-up job managing the dry ice for Act II, Scene 1 of The Nutcracker.