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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My Field Of Dreams

Here's a piece I wrote on April 30, 2001...

My daughter played her first baseball game yesterday.

She’s almost 7 years old, so the full skill set is still in development, just as with all of the kids at her age. They’re still trying to master which way to hold the glove, when to run on the bases, how to get the ball from one player to another.

They work on this skill a lot. In practice before the game, a simple game of "catch" with one of the other kids quickly becomes a game of "go get the ball" for both of them. For some reason, it’s a little harder aiming at a target your own size than it is tossing it back and forth with Dad in the yard. But they’ll get better the more they do it, and we'll keep practicing each day at home.

They’re still working on some of the basics of the game, like knowing where and how to play your position. There has been some improvement since the first practice, when the batter hit a slow grounder between shortstop and third base. Neither of the players in those positions was paying any attention, distracted by a plane flying overhead, so they were completely unaware that the ball had rolled by them. But some of the other kids noticed, and they all started running for the ball. It was eventually picked up somewhere in left field by the first baseman, who threw it back towards the infield, where it bounced, rolled, and hit the shortstop -- who was now finally looking towards home plate -- in the back of the leg.

As much trouble as a simple grounder can be, a pop fly is trauma-inducing. At this level, a ball hit in the air is more harrowing than hail falling on a new car dealer’s lot.

Some of these kids have obviously watched the pros play, because they’re all set to imitate the big leaguers. Ask them to toss you the ball, and they have to go into a full pitcher’s windup. I swear one of the kids stepped into the batter’s box, tapped home plate, and then used the bat to smack her sneakers as if she were knocking mud out of her cleats.

Every team has specialists. The kid whose head is too small for the batting helmet, which falls off whenever he runs. The kid who comes to bat and points to the outfield in Ruthian style as he takes the first of three mighty swings, none of which comes close to the actual pitch. The kid who can field the ball cleanly but refuses to throw it, insisting instead on chasing every runner personally.

My daughter has shown a special aptitude for groundskeeping. That patch of grass gets worked over by her feet more than the hardwood floor at a flamenco dance class -- all while wearing the sneakers with the heels that light up every time she takes a step. She’s the first pyrotechnic grass grooming gal.

Meanwhile, in the parents’ bleachers, we’re shouting the usual phrases of encouragement: "good swing," "nice try," "way to go," "you look cute in that catcher’s mask." Any batted ball that gets past the pitcher is enough to start a standing ovation. One father threw in a "good eye" to his at-bat son, who was surprised to hear that the ball had even been pitched.

Fortunately, we don’t have any adults who get overly excited -- no bleacher rage, yet. No one has shown the tendency to run on the field and scream at the 13 year old umpire just for having the temerity to call their son out on a close play at second base. Frankly, we’re all just happy that the runner and the fielder remembered to move towards second base in the first place.

None of this matters, of course, as long as they’re having fun, and there were a lot of smiles on their faces yesterday. They have no idea what the score is, how many outs there are, what inning it is, or whose turn it is to bat. And they couldn’t care less, as long as they get to play and wear the uniform.

Ah, the uniform. The highlight of my daughter’s day was putting on the hat, the pants, the socks, and -- how cool is this? -- the shirt with her own name and number on the back. Talk about your ear-to-ear smile.

After the game, on the way home, I commiserated with her over a strikeout in her final at-bat. I told her that when I was 8 and started playing Little League ball -- there were no leagues for 6 and 7 year olds then --I struck out a lot, too. Lots of kids did, and always have. But, I told her, as the season goes along, you’ll get better and better.

She thought about this for a moment and then turned to me with a big smile and asked, philosophically, "Dad, can I sleep in my uniform tonight?"

Yes, because you obviously have your eye on the ball.