Part 1: The Good: First Scrimmage

In the fall, the problem with baseball in the South is football. The kids are playing it. The dads and coaches are watching it. But they’re also aware that everyone else is still playing baseball, still scrimmaging other teams, and still entering tournaments. So they worry about how much time to give to other sports without ceding some competitive advantage to another team that may be giving more time to baseball.

Henry’s travel team has three kids (including Henry) playing football, two kids running track, and two kids who are also playing rec league baseball. No kidding. Double baseball. Those kids are probably lacing up their cleats five nights a week, minimum. With the way travel team tryouts work, there wasn’t much chance Henry would get a break from baseball, even though he needed one. My husband Will and I worried he’d get burned out, so when he wanted to play football with his school friends, we said fine (and quietly sought favor with the spirits who protect against concussions). I also signed him up for drama club; the kid loves to sing. The other activities (and the other activities of our other child) make us one of those ridiculously overscheduled families who eat out of a crockpot, standing up. Despite our efforts to diversify the kids’ arts and sports, baseball never seems to recede into the background of our lives. It’s always the thing we’re doing the most.

With a paid-for first tournament on the schedule for mid-October, Coach Larry is feeling the pressure to get the kids ready, to see how they do in a game situation. He schedules a scrimmage with a team named for a rather unpleasant arachnid (they practice at a ball field built by a pest control company). I’m driving Henry to the game, and he’s eating a smelly, slapped-together salami sandwich. And he’s too quiet. Even Flo Rida on top-forty radio doesn’t coax a hum out of him—no good feelings in the back seat. Finally he says, “I’m nervous, Mom.” I am too, kid. He knows he’ll pitch this game, maybe even start. I don’t tell him that I feel nerves stretching and winding up in my stomach too—it happens before almost every game.

This scrimmage has the potential to be just awful. The boys have had only three practices together, and, here’s the unfortunate part, they haven’t once picked up their bats. There’s been so much to learn about pitching, fielding, and base running that coach hasn’t even put them in the batting cage.

Henry doesn’t start the first scrimmage game on the mound. The pitching coach’s son does. What follows is pitching—on both sides—that has even folks behind the nets ducking and swaying. The crowd and coaches laugh when the good-humored umpire deadpans, “just a little high,” after a pitch arcs four feet over his head. Balls go behind batters’ backs, kick up dirt at their feet, collide with the backstop again and again. The catchers look bewildered as the wild, wild pitches just keep coming.

The Spark Plugs warm up three pitchers, and Henry is the third to go in, two outs into the second inning. The inning ends when the defense makes an out at second. He’s back on the mound again in the third inning. He throws some balls, balks, but finally gets into a rhythm after putting two batters on base. In an oddity that probably happens only when kids play baseball, he goes on to make four outs in the third inning. He strikes out two batters, but when the catcher drops the third strike, which would have made the third strikeout, the lucky kid runs to first. The inning continues with the bases loaded. The next batter pops it up in the infield and Henry catches it. Out three (four). The coach is fired up and pounds Henry on the back. And the worrier in me thinks, oh no, can he ever do this again? Is this as good as it’s going to get?

The kid somehow manages to get his nerves under control, even though I never really do. In his two at-bats, he walks and hits a grounder to short, who juggles it up over his head and into left field. If I’d been scoring the game, I’d have given him a hit, but Will scores it an error. Henry blows it when he tries to steal second and is thrown out. I’m almost relieved because he doesn’t need to start the season with too much success. On the ride home, he serves up his typical revisionism. “I wasn’t nervous,” he says rather easily. Usually I’d call him out, but today I keep my mouth shut. Baseball is proportionately more failure than success. I predict the coaches and the punishing nature of the game itself won’t let him glow for long. The Spark Plugs win 14-12 on just three hits.

Part 2: The Bad: First Tournament

The Spark Plugs have had six practices and played three scrimmage games together when the first tournament weekend arrives. After an early Saturday morning football game, we meet in the afternoon at a ball field tucked behind a plain white clapboard Methodist church in Cherokee County for “The Battle at the Big Chief” (tournament naming is always an exercise in rhetorical bellicosity—and, occasionally, the “battles” or “brawls” or “rumbles” live up to their names when coaches lose it—and it’s almost always the coaches who lose it).

It’s October. The skies are blue and cloudless. The temperature is mild, and Georgia’s infamous humidity has taken a bow and exited the stage until next year. The field is newly renovated, and the tall, black-planked left field wall is painted with a stern-looking Indian chief. The new chain link fence is rimmed with bright yellow plastic tubing, giving the whole field a neat, piped look. Someone has gone to the trouble of putting pots of yellow mums by the dugouts, tablecloths on picnic tables, and carved pumpkins on stacks of hay bales. Now that’s something you don’t see every day, a tournament that gets the Martha Stewart, glossy-magazine treatment (no rustic apple pies though—the snack bar gets as gourmet as Smoothie King). There’s a booming sound system, an announcer for each game, and (rather, unfortunately) a row of blue port-o-potties (Martha wants those out of the shot, folks!). The church may have let this baseball organization lease the field, but they aren’t opening up their doors to the over-hydrated masses. It couldn’t be a nicer day or place for baseball. Only the Spark Plugs lose. And lose again.

It’s a really rough first outing. In pool play, each team plays two games with an hour and a half time limit, and then they’re seeded for bracket play. There’s no run limit per inning, and the Spark Plug pitchers, Henry included, just can’t seem to get that third out in either of the pool games. The first match-up is against a team of boys who all have long wavy blond hair under yellow, flat-brimmed caps (the style these days). A few walks turn into a dizzying, spinning wheel of stolen bases. Any kid who makes it to first, steals around the bases within a couple of pitches. By the time the Spark Plugs get the chance to do some stealing of their own, it’s too late. The game ends with a final score of 12-5.

The second game is even uglier, and Henry is the starting pitcher. They’re playing a good team whose own starting pitcher is Henry’s friend and former teammate. Watching these two boys pitch to each other is my favorite moment of a long day of kids and their sports. On the field, the boys seem like boys again and, for once, not so serious about baseball. In the stretch, each holds a gloved hand up to his face, covering up a grin. Though each boy looks determined to strike the other out, each gets a hit off his friend. For Henry though, the bottom of the first inning goes on way too long. With two outs on the board and no help from his defense, who make error after error, he throws a lot of pitches. How many? Well, the other team goes through their lineup twice.

When the coach finally pulls him, they’ve put 10 unearned runs on the board. Things don’t turn around and the game ends with a final score of 18-3. Henry’s shoulders sag and he looks defeated. He’s played one football game and two baseball games today and lost them all. It’s eight at night and we haven’t been home since eight this morning. We pack up, bid the big Chief good night, and, once the wagon doors click shut, ask Siri to find the closest place that serves beer.

Day Two of the “Battle at the Big Chief” arrives and the blue sky is gone. In its place are gray clouds and grayer moods. Two losses in pool play have wiped away any Martha-Stewart-styled happiness. Pots of yellow mums don’t cheer the moms, who look anxious. I can see that Henry is already a bit down—grumpy and thinking about what he’s going buy at the snack bar when the game is over (Coke and a red Push Pop).

Today is the first bracket game, and it will turn out to be the only bracket game the Spark Plugs play in this single elimination tournament. Before the game begins, the coach asks Will what he thinks about Henry pitching again. He threw 21 pitches in the first game yesterday and 37 pitches in the second game; he was always just one pitch away from putting away the batter, one pitch away from a pop-up that someone behind him would surely catch this time. But he threw 37 pitches in a single inning, until Darryl, the pitching coach (he of the cartoonish baseball tattoo), finally pulled him.

I’m beginning to think that Will and I are at a disadvantage with this whole pitching part of the game. Our concerns (don’t overdo it on the arm!) and the coach’s (win!) don’t always align. I know Henry shouldn’t be pitching too frequently, throwing too many pitches, but I don’t know how many is too many or what to say to the pitching coach when he shrugs and says, “it all depends on how his arm feels.” But today Coach Larry really wants to win. He’s putting in what he sees as his best pitchers, both of whom pitched yesterday. Henry heads to the bullpen to warm up.

The team they’ll face, the Madness, is the number two seed; their boys have been playing together for two years and they’re used to taking home trophies (they will eventually claim the Big Chief’s gold too). In the second inning, Henry goes in and throws another 20 pitches on top of the 58 he threw yesterday. He doesn’t trot out to the mound in third inning; he finally tells the coach his arm is tired. Tired, he tells me later, means sore. This loss is bad. Really bad. 18-1 awful. And that thing I sensed in Coach Larry when I first met him, that dangerous current, rises up, visible to us all. The game against the team he most wanted to beat ends with a base-clearing homerun that sails over centerfield’s head and rolls to the fence 260 feet away. The umpire makes a two-fisted X, calls “ballgame,” and the boys line up behind first and third for the customary paean to good sportsmanship (really more like running high fives, cursorily proffered). From my chair near the first base line, I hear a seething Coach Larry spit out the word humiliating between streams of tobacco juice.

Oh, how the adults in baseball carry around their own dirty batbags, and then just unpack them in front of the kids. The post-game meeting is something of a revelation. So far this fall season, the boys have won two games and lost five, but this loss opens up an old cut and the coach’s mood is black. The post-game meeting is always a little depressing after a loss, but some days go lower than others. Coach feels like a loser, and he lets the boys have it. He catalogs their errors, assails their efforts, questions their tenacity. “I want bulldogs out there,” he shouts. “BULLDOGS!”

And I guess you’d say he over-shares a bit. But he over-shared after yesterday’s losses too. Today he flat out tells them how much he wants to win, how competitive he is in everything he does, how he turns the smallest things in his life into competitions. Yesterday it was about how nothing is guaranteed, how his cocky attitude got him kicked off his high school baseball team. Today it’s about how they might get kicked off his. The boys look at him and look away. This speech is not for them. It’s for him. He’s working through something right before our eyes.

From behind mirrored Oakleys, in an edgy, manic tone, Coach Larry delivers the news that he’s going to make these boys “fight” for their positions and he’s going to sit anyone who misses a practice, shows up late, leaves early, or doesn’t give “110%” effort out there. Will and I look at each other. We’re both thinking it’s starting already. Baseball crazy.

There are five kids who have yet to get a hit in a game; three of them are kids of the four (count ‘em!) coaches. Awkward now, but they’ll figure out how to hit off another kid eventually. I’ve known this team is going to do a lot of losing—it’s inevitable at this age. Most new teams need some time. Coach Larry has to have known it too. But after three losses in the very first tournament the boys have ever played together, he’s ready to re-think the team. It feels a little desperate. Maybe he looked at the talent and decided that he wasn’t going anywhere with these boys. Maybe he thinks, in some perverse way, that he can scare them into being better players. He ends the meeting abruptly, “I’m going home to catch the rest of the Falcons’ game. Somebody please tell me they’re still winning.”

Part 3: The Coming Purge

At the next Spark Plug practice, two new kids jog onto the field and join the warm up. As the coach is fond of saying, Welcome to travel ball.