Not too long ago, the boys and I decided to get Will a bird for his birthday. My older son Thomas and I went to the pet store. I picked out a cage, and Thomas picked out a handsome green and black parakeet and some bird toys, including a tiny basketball hoop. For a few days, we hid the bird in various places (the barn, the front porch, the back seat of the car) until the chirping got hard to cover up with a loud cough or my younger son Henry’s always-on Tween Pandora station. We figured we’d better give the bird to Will a day early or risk ruining the surprise. He’d already figured out that we had feathers up our sleeves, but he played along during the big reveal. He named the bird Jeff Tweedy.
For a week, we let Jeff Tweedy get used to his new home. He sang and snacked on millet and shot some hoops now and then. Henry often parked himself in front of the cage to chat—probably the biggest Jeff Tweedy fan in the family. When we began training him, Henry was first to put his hand in the cage, and Jeff Tweedy welcomed the grubby, grabby fingers of a nine year old. Pretty soon, Jeff Tweedy learned the command “up,” and he would wrap his claws around Henry’s outstretched index finger and consent to being carried around.
Each time I passed Jeff Tweedy’s cage or listened to Henry singing “Kingpin” with him, I thought of Emily Dickinson.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul.
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all
Around this time, Jeff Tweedy was about the most hopeful thing happening in the A. family. He had a big voice, the table manners of a toddler, and a pretty good two point shot. This bouncy, chirpy tough guy cheered us as we trudged through all the mandatory May (“the month that seems like two”) events: school programs, class performances, and end of the year parties; afternoon swim team practices, evening Boy Scout meetings, and, on top of it all, more baseball than you would ever believe. It was nice to come home to his noise.
If, several columns ago, it seemed that hope was taking flight from Henry’s baseball team, well, we hadn’t seen anything yet. The spring season peaked in May, with four weekend tournaments in a row and several nights of practice each week. But all the playing couldn’t stop the slow entropy of a team that lacks a solid center. We faced facts: the season had been a losing one so far, and May offered little hope that June would be any different. The boys would probably continue to lose twice as many games as they won.
In Coach Larry’s eyes, when the boys win, they win because of what he’s taught them. And when they lose, it’s their own fault. They’re not “travel ball” material. One day they’re golden; the next day they’re dross. After games, Coach tries to lecture them into being better players (“they didn’t beat you—you beat yourselves”; “I can’t get out there and play the game for you”). The parents roll their eyes or shake their heads in dismay, and, the kids, released from the post-game post-mortem, slump into their cars where they can safely sulk or tear up. By the next game, they’re even more afraid of messing up that they freeze and forget the easy stuff; their bats go cold. And the post-game lecture gets longer. Lose. Lecture. Lose harder. Lecture longer. Tears.
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
After a really nice family quit the team, Coach temporarily shelved his fear-based coaching style. Not long afterward, the boys managed to win their first trophy of the spring, which was followed by a rather spectacular ten-game losing streak. The tournament was a “Spring Slam” up north in Cherokee County.
For me, a mother watching her kid weave together the good and the bad of this year of baseball, that string of ten losses is bracketed by two plays—the high and the low—that I’ll probably never forget (and, I confess, maybe I’m just writing them here, now, to make sure they don’t get lost in the crazy quilt of games—over 50 of them so far—a season that will, in several months, take on a general color and texture and wholeness, like other seasons, folded and packed away).
The way the bracket shook out at the Spring Slam, the Spark Plugs had to play the same two teams that had beat them in pool play in order to make it to the championship game. They put away the Chargers first, 7-3. Next they faced the Bears, a team they’d lost to and tied but never beaten in past tournaments. The Bears were the higher seed, so they got the advantage of batting last. For the first time in a while the boys were hitting well, with six hits over three innings. In the fourth (and final) inning, the Spark Plugs were up, 8-4, when the Bears came up to bat. After a strikeout and pop out, they scored one more run, 8-5, and put runners on first and second.
Henry was playing 3rd base. With the tying run at the plate, the whole place got louder by the second; you could feel that the momentum of the game was up for grabs. A ring of laurels hung in the air, ready to be snatched by batter or pitcher. The kid stepped into the box and fouled off the first pitch. On the second pitch, a belt-high fastball, he swung hard and ripped a ground ball toward the gap between short and third. And then, in one of those moments when I willed my memory to be more like a camcorder than a colander, I watched Henry dive for the ball, glove outstretched, his body nearly parallel to the ground. His hips hit the red clay just as the white ball disappeared into black leather, like an eye closing shut. Henry scrambled to his knees as the runner on second was advancing to third, lunged, and tagged him. Ballgame. Noise.
The coaches raced out of the dugout, and the moms around me high-fived as if we’d won some sort of World Series victory, instead of a chance to play for a cheap-looking plastic trophy. When I looked back out to the field, still marveling at what I wasn’t even sure I’d really seen, Coach Larry was swinging Henry up in the air.
“You boys got Coach Larry another trophy,” Coach said when they gathered around after the game. I probably would have rolled my eyes at that—and its implication that it’s all for him, but victory washes away the bad taste for a spell, and I was just proud and happy for Henry and for all the boys who’d practiced a lot and played a lot and lost a lot and were probably relieved as much as anything to know they’d get a four-inch gold-tone plastic baseball player atop a disco-style pedestal. But the boys went on to lose the championship game—the trophy read “Runner-Up”—and then lose some more.
The Spark Plugs played two more tournaments without a single win. We drove east to Suwanee to lose and then north to Holly Springs to lose, where the boys played at a ball field in a picturesque rolling horse pasture. This park was something to behold: dugouts and a dangerous-looking score box made of corrugated tin roofing; high on 6 × 6 posts speakers sheltered with garbage cans blasted 1950s rock and roll; a sign warned that heckling umpires would get you ejected (no refund!). At the chain-link fence just behind the third base line, all the Spark Plug little sisters clustered around a charming trio of horses that wandered over for a pat on the nose and nibble of stale potato chips.
The parents, meanwhile, had begun their slow separation. From my perch on a hill overlooking the field, I could see that families had set up separate camps. No one was in the mood for socializing, and certainly not after the boys lost all three games, bringing the losing streak to eight.
As the end of the season nears, we all know that this team will spin the boys off in different directions, to other teams in other corners of the county. It’s easy to be friendly when the boys are doing well. Losing draws borders. A team that wins, wins together, and a team that loses apportions blame in lowered voices. We had to listen harder for Jeff Tweedy’s song all the way up in Holly Springs.
On the other end of this ten-game losing streak was the second play I’m committing to this digital substitute for a functioning memory. We drove west, to Carrollton, where the boys played the Barracudas, a team they’d always beat. For a while the game was all pitching; after three innings, the score was 1-0, Barracudas. Henry was on the mound in the top of the fourth. He got off to a shaky start by walking two batters, who quickly stole second and third. Then a kid flied out and another grounded out to second, scoring a run, 2-0. Henry walked another kid, who stole second on the first pitch to the inning’s sixth batter. I could tell Henry was rattled. He has a nervous habit of taking his hat off, shaking it, and putting it back on again, and he couldn’t keep his hat on his head. He knew that he could blow it all with the wrong pitch.
Coach walked out to the mound and Henry pushed the ball at him, sure that he was getting pulled (and probably hoping for anything to get him out of this jam). But Coach said a few words and jogged back to the dugout. Henry set up and pitched from the windup. Ball. Strike looking. Ball. Strike swinging. On the 2-2 pitch, the kid hit a weak grounder right back to Henry, who scooped it up cleanly. But instead of throwing to first for an easy third out, he threw it back to the catcher, who tried valiantly to tag the runner coming home but missed, 3-0. Coach lost it. He tore out of the dugout screaming at Henry, “WHERE do we throw the ball? WHERE? WHERE?” And with Henry’s fear-filled eyes frozen on the coach, whose lecture had just gotten underway, the third base coach sent another runner home, 4-0.
The inning went on and Henry stayed on the mound, only now he wasn’t taking his hat on and off. He was wiping away tears with his shirtsleeve, the first time I’ve ever seen him crying on the field. Another coach yelled, “Throw angry!” and he did. Two of the fastest fastballs I’ve ever seen him pitch came right down the pipe and the kid in the box just watched. On the third pitch, he swung and hit the ball right to the first baseman to end the inning. Henry ran for the dugout, his face a blotchy red. The other moms looked at me a bit sympathetically. I looked down at my phone, where I was keeping score, wishing there was a way to assign that last run to Coach. I didn’t walk over to say something banal or consoling to Henry. He was alone up out there on that little bump of dirt, standing a little taller, with a little further to fall. But now, sitting on the bench, his teammates drew close, encircling him protectively. Sometimes a kid is just the goat. And sometimes a kid doesn’t need his mama.
And sometimes he does. At practice the next week, I sat in my camp chair with an armload of paperwork while the boys ran infield drills. My phone rang. “Bad news,” Will said. “Jeff Tweedy is dead.” Well, shit.
When Henry was loading his bat bag into the trunk, I figured I’d better just tell him. I was unprepared for what happened next. He let out a howl and then just sort of fell into me, unsteadied by an emotion I’m not sure he’s ever felt before—this kid of nine years with four living grandparents, three living great-grandparents, and one not-dead dog. I hugged him and drove home with one arm around his shuddering shoulders. He cried in his bed that night and cried on his way to baseball camp in the morning. He seemed to roll everything that was bothering him into that one bird-sized void. By afternoon, Henry was asking when we could get another bird.
I guess we could have spared him this initiation into grief with a lie or a sneaky substitute (and Will and I debated it on the phone that night—a tempting parental punt like the one with Ketchup II, the beta fish who seamlessly took over for Ketchup I, who perished in a poorly planned flea bomb). But we didn’t punt, and I wanted so much to patch up the kid’s hurt. Later that week we went back to the pet store and picked out a new parakeet. “Do you want to name him Jeff Tweedy II,” I asked.
“No, Mom,” Henry said with a stern look at me, “it’s too soon.”