When I left the army and we moved to California for my first civilian job, Gerrit was 5 and Tucker was about 3. We ended up living there for about two and a half years, and during that time the boys started participating in sports. Since we were living in southern California, the usual thing was to be part of a swim team. It seemed like a great fit and we all had a great time with it.
When we moved to Alabama it became obvious that we were woefully misguided.
I’m not sure if it’s true everywhere in Alabama, but in the Huntsville area baseball is the thing. You can start your kids off with t-ball when they’re 4. At 6 they move up to coach-pitch, and then at 8 they start kid-pitch. Somewhere along the line we parents are apparently supposed to start evaluating their chances of getting a college scholarship and ultimately going pro. This is so you can decide whether to pull them from park ball and join a travel team. Judging from the other parents, it’s very important to have this all planned out.
Poor Gerrit was nearly 8 when we got to Huntsville and had never played organized ball before. He could swim like a fish and had the ribbons to prove it, but according to the conventional wisdom he had already missed his window. It’s pretty tough to find out at 8 years old that your ship has already sailed. Gerrit didn’t seem to be too bothered by the projections though. Two years after he started playing he hit a home run, and the year after that he hit the only grand slam anyone in our family ever scored.
Tucker arrived in Huntsville at age 5, so he was only a little behind the power curve. He had the advantage of watching Gerrit and his buddies play, so his prospects for a pro baseball career weren’t quite as bleak, but Tuck was really more interested in football. He played baseball until he was twelve and then moved on to other things.
Philip was practically born on the baseball diamond. We moved to Huntsville before he turned 1, and he spent the majority of his early years being hauled back and forth to his brothers’ practices and games. Starting at about two he would stand with his back to the backstop as we watched the other boys’ games and hold his little glove up while I tossed the ball directly into it. He couldn’t really catch, but occasionally the ball would stay in the glove anyway. Over time he got a lot better at it. By the time he walked onto the field for his first t-ball game at four, he had a rep.
I bring all this up to illustrate that baseball was a big part of our lives for a long time. We watched a lot of ball and saw a lot of interesting “parental participation” during those years. Some of it wasn’t very pretty. In fact, I’ve about decided after watching some of them in action that the worst thing to ever happen to kids’ sports is parents. I suppose that the groomed diamonds and fancy uniforms are nice, but the price seems to be that the parents who paid for them feel like they’re authorized to hang around and pass judgement on everything from their own kid’s performance to the decisions made by the coaches and umpires. I’m not sure it was a good trade.
Over time there has been enough “irregularity” in parental behavior that our park has joined many others in developing a “Parental Code of Conduct”. Parents now have to sign this before their kids can play ball. Something about that seems so wrong…
But my story today isn’t about bad parental behavior. It’s about how parents watch baseball differently.
When Philip was eleven, there was another kid playing at our park named Reggie who was twelve. Reggie was a big kid. In fact, Reggie Ragland just got picked up to play linebacker for the University of Alabama next fall, so when I say big I really mean BIG. Even when Reggie was twelve he was huge.
Reggie also had a reputation at the ball field. When he came up to bat coaches moved their players waaaaay back. Some parents didn’t want their boys pitching to him because the pitcher had to stay on the mound and couldn’t move any further back. It was scary looking down the barrel of Reggie’s bat, so more often than not Reggie was just intentionally walked to save everyone the anxiety.
None of this was Reggie’s fault, of course. He was just a kid who wanted to play baseball. Recognizing this, some of the coaches did their best to treat Reggie like any other player. Of course he wasn’t just any player, and something was bound to happen sooner or later…
Something did happen, and it happened during a game against Philip’s team.
There was already a runner on third base when Reggie came up to bat. Philip was playing first base. The pitcher had been instructed to pitch to Reggie just like he did to the other boys. Folks in the stands perked up because everyone wanted to see Reggie crush another one.
The first pitch was delivered right over the plate and Reggie swung with everything he had. He connected and, as if to confirm the fears that parents had been expressing all summer, the ball went straight back toward the pitcher.
The pitcher was still twisted around as a result of his follow-through, so the ball hit him on his side, right at the hip bone, then caromed up and over towards first base where it practically landed in Philip’s glove. In the mean time, the runner on third took off towards home. The pitcher hadn’t seen the ball coming towards him, but when the pain finally registered he began running in circles around the mound screaming. After a couple revolutions, he collapsed into a heap and cried.
Here’s where things got interesting.
Every mother in the crowd immediately leaped to her feet, drawn to the cries of the wounded pitcher. They all started calling out for someone to check on him, convinced that he might be seriously hurt.
Meanwhile, every dad in the crowd had put together that Philip’s catch at first base meant that Reggie was out, and that the base runner had left the bag without tagging up. They (well, we) all started hollering for Philip to throw the ball to the third baseman so he could tag the base. About the time the runner realized his error and started back, Philip made the throw and the third baseman tagged the bag. Runner out – double play.
The pitcher ended up with a big bruise but nothing worse. Philip and the third baseman got praise from the coach for keeping their heads in the game. The men in the stands got dirty looks from their wives for being heartless. And Reggie eventually ended up with a full scholarship to play football at ‘Bama.
Not a bad ending for a pretty exciting game.
But most importantly, it all happened without a single violation of the Parental Code of Conduct.
originally published 3/8/12