The Spark Plugs. That’s what I’m calling Henry’s new travel baseball team. Know that the actual name has a similarly explosive quality, but it’s just a bit more cool (if you’re nine), like what you’d name an energy drink if you weren’t trying very hard. The head coach and his assistant are clearly proud of their team branding, and Will, my husband, reminds me that my opinions in this area matter not at all. His view is that if you build the team—and they’re building this one from scratch—you get to name it, design it, and staff it. I show Henry the team logo on the web site.
ME: What do you think?
HENRY: It’s… you know… [searching]…it’s like… you know…
ME: Like what?
HENRY: You know, like a tattoo.
Right. If there’s one thing my kids should recognize after several summers with season passes to Six Flags White Water, it’s tattoo-influenced design. Imagine a day at a low-rent amusement park in the South, only everyone is wearing a swimsuit. White Water, Cobb County’s own concrete and chlorine oasis, offers visitors an advanced seminar on tattoo placement and style, an aesthetic that bleeds into everything around here, even baseball.
I have friends who live ten minutes from White Water and have literally never told their children that it exists, that a 50-acre water park is right behind some scraggly pine trees on the main highway through the county. But the car tags in the parking lot tell another story. People drive in from surrounding states to take it all in and let it all out. I’ve learned not to get too crinkly-nosed about tattoos; through four years of baseball, I don’t think Henry has had a coach (or coach’s wife) who hasn’t had one. So, while I don’t love standing in line in my modest Land’s End tankini to ride the Bahama Bob Slide, idly contemplating what led the guy in front of me to get a bicep tattoo of a pistol aimed at the Gerber baby’s head, I just accept that inked is the condition of a lot of skin in these parts of the South.
Henry gives the iron cross-inflected Spark Plug logo a shrug, “it’s cool.” He’d probably rather play for a team named “The Braves,” with a tomahawk logo in blatant violation of copyright laws. You won’t see any travel team uniforms with stirrups and sanitary socks or a jersey with a happy cardinal perched on a wooden bat. That sort of baseball nostalgia doesn’t seem to penetrate the travel ball world. I gather that a popular new team name these days is The Honeybadgers. And there are still lots of ‘90s-sounding leftovers too—teams called the “Xtreme,” the “Force,” the “Fury,” and the “Mayhem.” I’m pretty sure the Spark Plug coaches won’t be selecting the throwback uniforms I’ve always loved either. The direction this is all heading is motocross style.
Will talks over the team’s offer with Henry, and he’s on board with joining the Spark Plugs. It seems he mostly wants to avoid playing for his safety team, the one started by a former coach. That’s fine by me since I hate his humorless coaching style, which features plenty of yelling, offset only by ironic grumblings the kids just don’t get. After Henry’s pitching performance during tryouts, he’s already moved on—to visions of himself alternating between pitcher and catcher, never leaving the infield. I’m pretty sure there’s bare patch of red clay in the outfield that he’ll have to hold down, but, like him, I hope it’s not his full-time job on this team.
A week later, silly season is over—at least for us. The coach sends out a spreadsheet with the team roster, along with an invitation to meet up at a local Mexican restaurant. I scan the names on the list and recognize no one, so I do what just about everybody these days does when contemplating a long-term commitment, romantic or otherwise. I start googling names. There are the usual LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, but also a surprise from georgia.arrests.org. When we arrive at the El Rodeo later in the week, I recognize one mom immediately. She looks just like her mug shot.
I make a slow, deliberate circle around the table, extending my hand to everyone there. Our family is new to this team, and it turns out many of the kids have played together on various all-star and rec teams. The other parents seem to regard us somewhat warily; our kid is an unknown quantity who could bring something to the party or just crash it. Even I’m not sure which. They’re probably all thinking does her kid play my kid’s position because I know that’s what I’m thinking as I put on my best gracious-Southern-girl smile and try not to make any enemies. Mrs. Mug Shot is drinking beer and laughing loudly. Later, during the coach’s first speech to the team, he calls her out by name for coaching and general noise making from the stands. He may be smiling, but I sense he’s serious about this particular parental sin.
Next to her is a strong candidate for Team Mom (if I weren’t trying to behave at this early stage in the season, I’d probably call her The Scrapbooker, one of those moms who gets sentimental about motherhood and pastes extensive evidence of her efforts in chronologically organized volumes). She’s already wearing a red t-shirt with the team name in gold letters across her chest. I put this down as evidence of a BeDazzler. I have to admit, she also seems very nice, if a bit eager with the camera. (Sure enough, within 24 hours she’s created a Facebook page for the team introducing these eleven “elite” players).
I have high hopes for one dad with a cartoonish grinning baseball tattooed on his forearm. I shake his hand, and he apologizes for hitting Henry with a pitch (twice!) during tryouts. Another dad leans in to tell me Mr. Baseball Tattoo played “semi-pro” ball and will be an assistant coach. I’m not sure what semi-pro ball is, but I know Henry needs baseball coaching beyond what Will—who played soccer—can give at this point. In time, all the parents on the team, including us, will step into assigned roles, just as the boys will take up their positions at first, second, and short.
After the preliminary speechmaking concludes, the head coach distributes two-page contracts for all of us to sign. I’m pretty sure the parental agreement, which contains some fifteen clauses, is non-binding, but he means business, and there are a lot of things—in addition to coaching from the stands—that are verboten. Parents have no say-so about the lineup and no right to complain about who starts or how much playing time a kid gets. The kids better be at practice early, and the fees better not be paid late. My husband, usually unconcerned where someone else’s rules are concerned, doesn’t seem to have a problem with signing. He points out that all travel teams have contracts and that we signed something similar last year. I don’t remember this. What I do remember is that Henry’s old coach didn’t have a bit of trouble cutting a kid from the team two months into the spring season, and it was for violating clause number three on the player contract that Henry is busy signing in the loopy cursive letters he is only just learning how to make in third grade. Thou shalt not cry.
The most emotionally fragile boy on Henry’s team last year was a good contact hitter and skilled outfielder. But he never made friends with the other kids and sulked about his own errors, even the smallest ones that every kid makes a thousand times over. His father drove him 50 miles, across two counties, just to play on our little start-up travel team. The moms would huddle to fret about him when he’d slump out of the car with a tear-streaked face, when he’d hang back in the dugout, his face buried in the chain-link fence, when he’d turn his back on the infield and stare off into the woods behind the scoreboard. One day, during a tournament game that had the boys down by one run against their biggest rivals, the Catfish, he stepped into the batter’s box and swung so hard at a pitch that his bat crashed into the left side of his helmet. He dropped the bat to the ground, hung his head, and the tears just came. That little rectangle of white chalk imprisoned him, clamped his feet to the ground. He wouldn’t step out of the box, pick up the bat to swing again, or even look up at the coaches and umpires who circled around him. He just stood there, eyes on the dirt, tears falling. It was a painful five minutes, with our coach telling the kid just to put the bat on his shoulder so the pitcher could pitch, and the other team’s coach shouting at the umpire that his pitcher wasn’t going to throw to a kid who wouldn’t look toward the mound. Finally, our coach lifted him up and carried him into the dugout.
The coach cut him from the team that night. He was eight. Or maybe seven.
Henry’s new player contract requires complete loyalty to coach and team, that he show respect at all times, that he give “110%” and that he never question a coach’s decision or an umpire’s call. And—here the coach throws a bone to the moms present—he’ll have to turn in copies of his report cards quarterly. Good one.
At the end of the night I’m dying to ask Will about his impressions of the Spark Plugs, to run down the dramatis personae of the team. What I’m really anxious about is whether there’s even one family among the ten we met tonight that we might have something in common with—other than baseball. Can we really spend two or three nights a week and two or three weekends a month with them? Listen to their politics? Learn the names and vocations of their in-laws and cousins? The eating preferences of their children? Their SEC teams? Their tastes in art and literature? (Okay, that probably won’t come up.)
As usual, it’s impossible to talk about stuff that the kids shouldn’t hear when they’re actually in the backseat of the car furiously tapping pixelated blocks in Minecraft, eyes on screens but ears ever alert to the possibility that the words stop for ice cream might drop into the conversation.
The car is silent except for the heavy-breathing grunts of zombies and the crunch of spawning blocks. I’m thinking about what those other ten families will find when they do exactly what I did—spend 10 seconds with Google and my husband’s name. I can predict exactly what the first listing on the results page will be: the IMDB entry for the illegal drug-themed documentary Will made a few years out of college. And the second listing: choice clips from said documentary illegally uploaded to YouTube—with tens of thousands of views. I knew we should have sent a cease and desist letter about that. Well, we’ve already signed. We’re all under contract now.