Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Play Ball!

Baseball season comes to an end this weekend, hamdolillah.

It's been practically a full-time job for me this season, baseball has, because Seamus plays on the Senior League, Aidan plays Kid Pitch and Kyra plays Coach Pitch. I told Ainsley that she was too young for t-ball because, hello!, I'm out of time here, and it wasn't until midway through the season that she discovered the truth.

Each team has practice one day a week, with most games on Fridays (a weekend day here in Amman) and a few during the week. Many Fridays my game day at the Dirt Pit starts at 745am and ends at 330pm. Sitting in the sun on concrete bleachers for an entire Friday is not good on the spine or the skin - I think each Friday spent on those bleachers has taken a month off of my lifespan.

The situation has been made easier by good friends who were willing to carpool. Paleo has a kid on Kyra's team and another on Aidan's (the league allowed us to keep the kids together because we're both doing the single-parent-spouse-in-another-country-thing and needed help!), so that cut carpooling down. Uhh-Ron, another UT spouse, has a kid on Kyra's team and is helping coach Seamus' team, so he did the bulk of the driving for the Seniors League.  Even the HS principal has helped out with carpooling from school. Globehoppers and STJ also have Seniors on our team, which helps for both the carpooling and the company at the field.

I don't think I would've survived the season without these other parents, and not a week has gone by when I haven't said a little prayer of thanks that they are all in my life.

The thing about baseball is that I know nothing about it, and never particularly aspired to learn much beyond: watch where you park your car if you don't want a ball through the windshield (when those seniors hit a foul ball, they can do some serious damage).

I've had to learn though, this year, because Bart is in Baghdad and he wants to follow the games. So every week I sit in the stands and email him updates, inning by inning. I think he might tell you that I've gotten better at this task as the season has worn on. In the beginning my updates were usually something like "Seamus got a triple! Well, maybe not  a triple but he hit the ball, and the other guy missed it so he went to second and then he ran to third when the next guy hit it so is that a steal? Anyway he's on third base. Yay!" Or "Aidan's team is winning but it's the top of the 7th, or the bottom? I think the other team had their turn but I was in line at the saaj stand so I'm not sure but I think he's definitely up by 1! Yay!" (Aside: I'm betting Bart was secretly emailing CL and STJ to find out what was really happening, but if so, he never told me.)

By the end of the season, though, I've gotten better at my updates. I think I have, anyway, and if Bart wants to tell you differently, he'll have to start his own blog. In his spare time. Of which he has none. So let's go with my version, shall we? In short: I've become an awesome sportscaster.

Seriously, though.

I've paid much more attention to the games this year, because I know I'm his eyes and ears, and I know he looks forward to my inning-by-inning updates, sketchy though they may be. 

Because I'm writing to him, he knows that Kyra is doing a fantastic job in her first baseball season. She can hit, she can throw, she is fearless out there and always grinning ear-to-ear at the sheer joy of baseball. They don't keep score in Coach Pitch (everyone's a winner!), which makes it fun, because the parents just clap and cheer for everyone alike.

He knows that Seamus has stepped it up this year, in his first year on Seniors. I was worried about moving him up, because he really struggled with the skills last year, and Seniors League is no-joke-serious. No snacks. No cheery "nice-try!" coaches. You don't perform, you don't play. And the kids range in age from 14 to 18 - some of the kids on his team have full beards and order beer with their dinner when they go out to eat. But I am so glad he tried out, because he has made amazing progress. He got over his fear of the ball and lost his sense of intimidation at bat, and now he is routinely hitting the ball and making some great plays in the field. He still screws up a lot, but you know what's great about that? First, Coach Kevin rides those kids hard, and they all respond, including Seamus, by trying harder. He works at it, because his coach and teammates demand it. And he is seeing that if he works, he gets results. It's also great that he's playing with the big kids. Undoubtedly, he is learning some new vocabulary that we might not use in our house. But I can't complain, because the older kids are fantastic coaches themselves. The kid at first base is practically off to college, 30 pounds heavier than Seamus and with a faceful of hair. But he is so patient with the young guys as they work on fielding. After yesterday's game, one of the older kids stopped Seamus and said "great game, see you at school tomorrow." You tell me: when you were in the 8th grade, did you ever have a senior in high school stop and acknowledge your presence? The mentoring that goes on between the young kids and the older ones is, I think, priceless. I'm sure there is some colorful language in the dugout. But the kids are all respectful to one another and in awe of their coach, and it shows. They had a great season, losing one game, tying another and winning the rest, even while they had at least 4 kids who were playing Seniors for the first time.

And then there's Aidan. Aidan has been struggling recently, in baseball and in life. This unaccompanied tour has been hard on all of the kids, but Aidan is really missing his dad, and when you combine that with our upcoming move and the usual almost-in-middle-school angst, he's having a tough time. He's a sensitive kid who tucks his thoughts and feelings away, keeping mostly to himself, but you can see it wears on him nonetheless. 

He's been struggling with baseball this season, too. Every so often he gets a hit, or makes a play, but often as not he strikes out, or fails to stop a ball thrown his way, and then you can just see his whole self sort of collapse. I hate sending Bart the "Aidan struck out" updates too many innings in a row - it breaks my heart when he lets his shoulders sag and trudges back to the dugout, trailing his bat in the dirt, especially as he's been working hard this season. 

When Bart was here for a visit, the two of them played catch in the driveway, day after day. They both needed that time together, and it drove Aidan crazy when Kyra would try to join. The day after Bart left for Baghdad again, Aidan had a particularly awful game. He struck out every single time at bat. He missed some catches at third and got demoted into the outfield, where he failed to stop the ball every single time it came his way. He was trying. But somehow it just wasn't coming together. He missed his dad, he was feeling defeated and it showed. I just sat there on my concrete bleachers and tried not to cry. Tried. But failed. I had to pull my hat down and put on my biggest sunglasses so nobody else would notice the crazy lady in the stands, crying when her son struck out. (I'm becoming way too cry-ey these days somehow. Thank the lord for waterproof mascara.)

The next week, last week, was the last game of the season. We went back to the field, he and I, and he was determined to do better. I was determined to not cry, no matter what. I parked it next to Mrs. Slytherin in the spine-crushing concrete bleachers of death and got out my phone so I could email Bart my "he struck out" emails. And indeed, he struck out. But the next time he walked. The teams were fairly evenly matched, so the game was close throughout. Toward the end of the game, when he got his last turn at bat, I turned to Mrs. S and remarked "I don't care who wins, but is it too much to ask that my son gets just one decent hit? After that, who cares? I just want one good thing to happen for the kid."

He marched up to the plate, planted his feet, and - and he hit the ball, right between the pitcher and the first baseman. He made it to first base! 

Much celebrating was heard in the stands, not just by me, but by other parents who knew he'd been having a hard time. Everyone was happy for him, and I was grateful to them - even parents on the other team - for cheering their loudest.

I cheerfully settled in, not paying too much attention to the score, happy that my little prayer, petty though it was, had been answered. Turns out we were ahead, 9-8, but the other team still had one more chance at bat. (Bottom of the inning, I think that's called? Or top, maybe? Why can't they just call it the "last half"?)

Our pitcher, who is fantastic, struck out one kid. And a second. It was down to the last out of the game. A big kid stepped up and whacked the ball, high and fast, into the outfield, straight at Aidan. I cringed and prepared for the worst. Aidan jumped into the air, glove extended high above him.

And do you know what happened next?

He caught the ball.

He caught it. He came down to earth and looked in amazement at the ball, nestled safely in his glove. Then he looked at his teammates, who looked back and, as it sunk in that he had made the game-winning catch, all whooped and hollered and jumped on him. They fell into a pile of happy kids, Aidan at the bottom, and this mom started crying again. Seriously, she did. What is her problem? It's just a freaking game.

Except when it's not. It's a test, in a way, and Aidan passed that day. I whipped out my phone to email Bart, right then and there, because I knew he needed to know what had happened. I figured it might even make him cry, too, right there in his office full of tough federal agents. He knows what it means to Aidan. And I know what baseball means to the two of them, together.

Bart emailed me back later, writing, in part "As unbelievable as it seems, today’s events will stay with Aidan – even a small part – for the rest of his life. They will diminish to a spark and then someday – when he has kids of his own and his boys/girls get up to bat, these events will resurface and he will be able to tell them 'I get it – I was once afraid too… and then this happened, so I know you can do it.'" 

I don't think I'll ever really learn to love baseball. 

But this season, for the first time, I think I finally figured out what it means to the kids. The ways in which it helps them build character, to work together, to support each other. I finally figured out why it is so important for so many dads to play this game with their kids. I figured out why Bart was crushed to miss the season, perhaps more than anything else he missed this year. I figured out how huge it is that a kid can step up to the plate, over and over again, to face his fears, to swing and swing and swing again, missing most every time, but still coming back to that plate, inning after inning, one lone kid against the world, in the hope that some day, he just might get good enough to send a ball sailing over the fence.

Now if I could just figure out why they bunt sometimes. I think I'd know everything there is to know about baseball.


Sean Gorman said... [Reply]

I have soooo many memories of baseball -- Minor league, little league, my Dad as my coach, Bart as my teammate. Lots of friends and stories, so many of which, to Bart's point, I still remember very clearly. Very happy for Aidan. This post made me tear up and laugh, Donna. Thanks for both. -Sean

JWJones said... [Reply]

Congrats to Aidan! Bunting is a way to advance players on first and second base. Often called a sacrifice play because the batter can be put out at first if the pitcher can make the play.
A well bunted ball is a beautiful thing.

Deborah said... [Reply]

So very happy for Aidan. I loved this post.

Kristi Lonheim said... [Reply]

You describe a day of Amman baseball so well that I actually find myself missing sitting in those concrete stands, cheering on family friends and students.

Nomads By Nature said... [Reply]

I'm blubbery just reading this. Give a hardy "well done" to Aiden from us, even though he doesn't know us and that's kinda weird. I too have a struggling middle schooler so I totally relate with the watching and hoping and cheering from the sidelines while your heart is hurting just a bit for them.

Bart Gorman said... [Reply]

Thanks so much for this - it was a great baseball season because of your play by play and color commentary.

Please. Write your own stuff.