My girlfriend’s 15 year old kid had played a year of Little League and hadn’t picked up a bat or glove since. This was an opportunity for us to bond, but the odds were stacked against us.
With almost three feet of snow on the ground, its odd to be thinking about baseball, but try-outs for the high school team are right around the corner and my girlfriend Lori’s 15 year old is keen to earn a spot.
When she told me that Tommy wanted to play Babe Ruth baseball two years ago, I looked askance. The kid had played a year of Little League and hadn’t picked up a bat or glove since.
“They take everyone,” she assured me. “Can you help?”
“Of course,” I said, wondering if this was a good idea.
For starters, I was the first boyfriend Tommy had met. His parents’ divorce was still an open wound. Yes, this was an opportunity for both of us, but the odds were stacked against him. Babe Ruth was for kids serious about the game. I’d been a Little League All-Star, but hadn’t gone on to Babe Ruth. The field was regulation size. Pitchers threw curve balls. Coaches played to win.
Try-outs were in three weeks and it was the middle of February; two-and-half-feet of snow covered the ground. I took Tommy to a batting cage. We tossed a few balls in the indoor throwing area. The kid was eager, but wild, clearly lacking fundamentals. I tried to give him some pointers, but everything I knew was from an era long ago. I hadn’t swung a bat since a company softball game, twenty-years ago.
The next week, Tommy took a lesson with a pro. I stood in the batting cage, observing. I was surprised at how much batting had in common with golf. The stance, the coordination of hips, hands and arms, all things I’d learned from a couple of golf lessons.
Try-outs were held in a gymnasium. The place was packed with boisterous kids on one side, nervous parents on the other; the coaches huddled at center court. Tommy was assigned to a group and given a number—they’d be assessed on fielding, throwing, catching, and batting.
A whistle blew and the chatter quieted. “Group one,” a coach hollered. “Numbers one through four. Now!”
The kids meandered out, hesitant. Another whistle blew. “Move it,” the coach screamed, waving the bat like a traffic cop. “You, here,” he said, pointing to the foul line.
Five sets of children later, there was still no hustle; many missed their marks. “We don’t have all day,” the coach screamed, sounding like a drill sergeant.
Lori squeezed my hand hard. As I watched each successive group, I realized Tommy was the worst kid here. I wondered if he knew, but he went out there as if he belonged. Lori couldn’t watch and it was probably a good thing because it wasn’t pretty. Her son botched the fielding and throwing, but he did make contact on the batting tee.
Tommy left the try-outs upbeat and I told Lori later that day, “He may be the worst kid in the league, but if he’s up for it, I’ll work with him.”
As winter gave way to spring, Tommy and I played catch a couple of times a week. We went out to a field and I hit him balls. He took more lessons. Working with Tommy reminded me of my first year of Little League. I was also the worst kid on the team.
Both of my parents were British. Dad didn’t know baseball and he had no interest in learning. We never had a catch, we never even watched a game on TV together.
Tommy’s first official team practice was difficult to watch, but he was either oblivious to the situation, or unfazed. He was thrilled when he put on his uniform and those shiny new cleats.
That first game, the field was freshly cut and the red dirt of the infield was raked just like the big leagues. A part of me was envious, wanting to get out there in the worst of ways. Lori was a wreck.
“He’ll be fine,” I assured her. But once I saw how good they were, well … these boys not only possessed solid fundamentals, they also understood the nuances: taking leads off of bases, knowing when to steal … these guys could turn a decent double play.
Tommy platooned in right field and batted last (the coach allowed each boy to hit, something not mandated by the league). When Tommy finally came to the plate, Lori closed her eyes. The kid stood tall and didn’t blink as he swung and missed. More cautious on the second pitch, he watched strike two. The next one he missed by a mile. Tommy stepped back in the batter’s box not realizing he’d struck out. The umpire had to tell him to go back to the dug-out.
Mom was gutted, but once the inning ended, the kid jogged out to right field like a pro.
Tommy struck out two more times.
During his final ‘at bat,’ Lori squeezed my hand so hard, I thought she was going to break a bone.
“You can do it, Tommy,” we called out.
The kid missed the first two pitches by a mile; then by some miracle, he stroked a ball up the middle. We jumped for joy as if we’d won the lottery. The other parents thought we were nuts.
The next two batters got hits and Tommy ran the bases, scoring. His teammates high-fived him in the dug-out and the kid smiled, tossing his helmet by the backstop as if he’d done this a hundred times.
Several games went by without Tommy getting another hit, but I kept practicing with him throughout the season. He also took a couple of more lessons. At one, the pro said to him while looking at me, “Your dad should practice this with you during the week.”
“He’s not my dad,” Tommy said, throwing his bat down.
Divorce is never easy, and awkward moments like this do arise; it didn’t help that Lori and her ex disagree on most things.
Tommy stood by the batting cage, sulking. I told the pro to give us a moment.
“Look, I’m not your dad,” I said to the kid. “And I’m not pretending to be. I know he loves you very much. I’m your mom’s friend, and if you’re interested, we can be friends too.”
The kid put his batting helmet back on and stepped back into the cage.
At game four, Tommy’s dad showed up. Lori and I were in the bleachers; Dad hovered behind the backstop. When the game ended, I introduced myself. He was cordial; Lori kept her distance.
“Tommy’s never shown an interest in baseball,” he told me. I shrugged.
My parents separated that first year in Little League, and they were divorced by my last, the season I made All-Stars. I don’t remember much of that first year, but our team did win the championship. I still have that trophy because it reminds me of how I overcame difficult odds at a young age.
That first year, my team also took an excursion to a Phillies game. Connie Mack Stadium was a dump compared to the ballparks of today, but it was still heaven to me: the spectacle and scale was overwhelming and I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Many fathers joined us that day, but not mine. It wasn’t until I took Tommy to Yankee Stadium in April that I’d remembered that disappointment. I recognize now that my dad’s absence had nothing to do with me, but back then, I believed it was all my fault.
Mom got remarried that summer I was an All-Star and we moved to a different town. Those were tough times for me and I sought escape through music, trading a bat for a guitar. I never played organized ball again.
I don’t know if Tommy’s motivation came partly from the anger over his parents splitting up, mine certainly was, but I also loved the game, and here I was all these years later, experiencing Babe Ruth through him.
The kid made a spectacular catch in left-field during one game, he also got a handful of other hits, but his stats were far from remarkable; his dad didn’t make another game during the regular season.
As it turned out, Tommy’s team also ended up in the playoffs, making it all the way to the championship. Perhaps in this case, Yogi Berra’s adage, its Déjà vu all over again, fits like a vintage, Rawlings baseball glove.
Although Tommy didn’t get a hit in the big game, he did experience the euphoria of winning with teammates. His dad showed up, and I was happy for them, but it also forced me to take a back seat during the game. Watching them together, I was envious and surprised at the feelings. Perhaps I was using Tommy to reconcile issues with my father. The last thing I wanted was to jeopardize his chance of connecting with his real dad, but I had to admit, part of me was wishing he hadn’t shown up.
Two years later, Tommy’s trophy still sits in his mom’s kitchen. Hopefully when he’s my age, he’ll still have it to remind him of his courage during those early years of his parent’s divorce. Although he didn’t make the freshman team last year, he did play Babe Ruth and he started in center field. By the end of the fall season, he was hitting lead-off.
I’m still working out with him, but we’ve got a local pro fine-tuning his game. He’s definitely got a shot to make the team this year, but he’s not a shoo-in. The kid has great heart and an excellent attitude, but I do worry about what will happen if he doesn’t make it this year.
Regardless, his mom and I are proud of what he’s accomplished; but short-term, that’s not going to do Tommy much good if things don’t work out.
I’ll be there, no matter what.
Image credit: macman715/Flickr