My husband Will suggested I start this mid-season lament with a little Tolstoy (slightly amended): Happy baseball families are all alike; every unhappy baseball family is unhappy in its own way. So I’m going with it: we’re unhappy. More precisely, I’m unhappy. What is sometimes called the Anna Karenina Principle explains a lot about the present baseball season: there are many routes to failure (or unhappiness), while there is only one route to success: avoid all of the many routes to failure. Henry’s team, the Spark Plugs, hasn’t managed to do this. I’m guessing that few teams do. Put a 3-inch diameter ball in the hands of a nine-year-old. Tell him to throw it inches from another nine-year-old wielding a 28-inch long, 2¼-inch diameter metal bat. Add running, catching, throwing, catching, stealing, throwing, sliding, tagging and a whole bunch of adults directing this snarl of traffic, and there’s no possible way to avoid one of those routes. Failure is the detour with the flashing orange arrow. Like it or not, in kid baseball, you’re going down that road a lot. Every single play offers up a dozen ways to fail, and, on some days, the boys seize them all.
When I talk with other moms, I’m reminded that mid-season malaise is everywhere. Put your kid on a travel team and wait as slow-simmering dissatisfaction thickens into unhappiness. By May, families have been with their teams long enough to wonder whether being with another team would have been better. Parents catalogue the slights suffered by their children; they re-wind and re-play certain outs and innings and games—always with different results. They blame coaches or umpires or, in their meanest, darkest hours, other kids. Run this mental exercise a few times and you’ll see why parents are already looking ahead to the next season of baseball. They’re positioning their kids for tryouts, chatting up new coaches, and putting kids in lessons at places where they hope they’ll get noticed.
It’s likely that coaches are unhappy too. By now they know what kind of team they have and how close it comes to the team they wanted or thought they were getting. They look ahead to the next season and think about which kids they want to take with them as they try out another recipe of players and families. Add more pitching. Subtract an infielder. Cut the mom with attitude.
I’m thinking about it too. How will next August’s tryout season go for Henry? Will his fastball or fast hands catch another coach’s eye? We should be enjoying these weekends of tournament baseball. And, honestly, the kid still is. He watches every Braves game, tweaks his batting stance to look like Evan Gattis, checks the tournament brackets online, and honks impatiently from the car to let me know he’s ready for the drive to Canton or Dalton or Villa Rica. He’s playing well in most areas of the game. His batting is the best it’s ever been (tip of the cap to his handsomely-paid batting coach). He’s settled in near the top of the batting order and rarely strikes out. His pitching has improved. From December to March he cut his ERA in half. His fielding, on the other hand, never looks assured. When a ball comes to him, I cross my fingers and will him not to bobble it, but he often does. So, at nine, he’s not a five-tool player. None of the boys on his team are. Some days, though, they all show up with the same wrench missing from their toolboxes. That’s what happened a few weeks ago, the day I decided—no matter what happened for the rest of the spring—Henry would never play another season of baseball for Coach Larry.
It was day two of a two-day tournament, and the boys were facing a tough team they’d lost to once already. The day before, on Saturday, the boys split their games in pool play, 1-1. The win was fairly easy, an uneven match-up. The loss was tough. For most of the game, the Spark Plugs trailed the Lightning, but the boys rallied in the bottom of the final inning with three solid hits. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, the newest player to join the team struck out swinging, and the Spark Plugs lost, 5-6.
On Sunday, in bracket play, they faced the Lightning again. Coach saw redemption in the shuffle of lineup cards. For an inning and a half there was no score; each team’s pitcher retired the batters in order. But then a kid on the Lightning singled to centerfield. They added two runs in the bottom of the second, three in the third, and four more in the fourth. The Spark Plugs’ only run came in the top of the third when a kid who’d walked scored on a passed ball. The Lightning never pulled their starting pitcher, and, when the game ended with a score of 1-9, the kid had thrown a four-inning no-hitter with eight strikeouts. It was impressive.
Winning would have put our boys into the championship game, tantalizingly close to the piece of gold-tone plastic hardware Coach Larry had been chasing for months. But as the game’s outcome looked more and more certain, it was as if he saw his trophy snatched up and carried off by an evil-looking crow. The further away it flew, the madder he got. And when it receded to a mere speck in the sky, his temper spun him into a rage—a man-sized Rumplestiltskin robbed of his gold and tricked by a bunch of nine-year-olds. He threw down his hat. He pounded the chain-link fence with his fist. He yelled. He stormed out of the dugout and paced three times around the snack bar. An assistant took up his position as third base coach. At the post-game meeting he was still seething. A talented pitcher threw a no-hitter, and he threw accusations: “You’re all scared of the BALL.” The list of ways they’d humiliated him went on and on, and when he’d spun himself into a second rage and walked away a second time, an assistant coach stepped up to pile on, as if the boys weren’t hanging their heads low enough.
I walked away too. I thought about walking away forever because what Coach said next was just stupid. He told the boys to get some body armor because at the next practice he’d tattoo seam marks on their ribs. He was going to cure them of their fear of the ball by hitting them with the ball. It was all so rational, really. But just as the kids would miss the irony of that last sentence, they missed the manic quality of Coach’s speech. They’d never know that he’d forget his own threats and that next Wednesday’s practice would probably be just like last Wednesday’s practice. Henry’s first words to me as we walked toward the car were, “Mom, I need some protection. Coach is going to hit us with balls.” At nine, kids believe what their coaches say. But this coach must have forgotten that moms are all about the whole protection thing.
In the car after a loss, we have an unspoken rule: no discussion of the game. Will and I don’t ask leading questions, make veiled accusations, or re-hash errors. We don’t speak of the coach or the other players. We tune the radio to Q100 and sing along, even if it’s Maroon 5 for the zillionth time. On this day, apropos of nothing—or everything—Henry said from the backseat, “Mom, do you remember a few weeks ago when you interviewed me and you asked if I thought my coaches took baseball too seriously? Well, I want to change my answer. They do.”
Some unhappy families suffer silently through their own unhappiness. They endure a coach’s temper tantrums and wait for sunnier moods and a few wins to clear out the clouds. But this tantrum gave more than just our family a reason to look around. It was something of a reckoning. There are six kids, including Henry, who’ve stuck with this team and this coach since August. But there have been at least ten other kids who’ve worn the jersey for shorter periods of time—a turnover rate that could (should?) raise eyebrows. Soon, one more Mom would peel the Spark Plug jersey off her son, never to put it on him again.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one wondering whether it might be better just to walk away or the only one thinking about how to protect my kid from worse things than bruises. I wasn’t the only mom to email the coach that threatening to purposely hit the kids with baseballs crossed the line of responsible coaching. By the end of the week, another family said enough and pulled their son from the team. I liked this mom a lot. I sat with her sometimes. She would talk about the death of her beloved four-year-old daughter, not six months ago, and how grief was her shadowy companion now. She knew suffering in a way I won’t even allow myself to imagine. And she believed, for a while, that baseball, with its camaraderie and joy and occasional moments of sublimity, could lift up her grieving family, make her solemn son smile. Until it didn’t. She didn’t agonize or fret about quitting the team because this was an unhappiness that she didn’t have to carry with her. This—this she could fix. It looked so easy—the way she just picked up a weighty, joyless thing and tossed it out the cargo door.
Good coaches aren’t born. A booming voice, a head full of baseball, or a competitive streak don’t inevitably make someone into a leader of men. Or nine-year-old boys. Like good ballplayers, good coaches are made through practice, through trial, through their own detours into failure. This latest departure from the team was Coach’s failure, and he knew it. And he tried to learn from it.
And then things got a little better. At Wednesday’s practice, Coach apologized to the boys. Coach tried positive. He said next time and shake it off and good swing and hold your head up. The following weekend, he handed out lightning bolt helmet stickers and high-fives, even when the boys lost another tough game by one run. He told them they played with heart and that he was proud. And, the next week, the clouds parted a bit more and the boys hit better than they’d hit all year and gave him two wins in a row.
So, will our family survive the season? Of course. Will often reminds me that this is Henry’s deal; it’s what he wants to be doing. And he still loves baseball in spite of the adults who somehow manage to take the fun out of everything. I know that I’ll back off. I won’t go to every game. I won’t sit too close to the moms still plotting revolt or scripting dramatic exits. I’ll lose myself in the minutiae of scorekeeping, in the splendor of spring in the South. After a long Saturday at the ballpark, Will and I will mix a gin and tonic and head for the shade of our deep front porch. The leaves of the oaks are new and bright green. Above the neighbor’s bamboo thicket, a red-tailed hawk circles slowly, ignoring the chase of an angry crow. The Tibetan prayer flags strung between the porch columns flutter, as breezes carry away the words of their faded mantras. I imagine hundreds of prayers drifting on thermals, settling gently on a rust-red clay diamond somewhere. Turn away from unhappiness, I will tell myself. What was it the Buddha said? Happiness is learning to want what you already have.