The off-season has been long and dark and full of snow days. We’ve kept up a constant fight against the dark of winter with snow forts, sledding, snowball fights, ninja battles using ice boulders. But still there’s been something heavy about this winter, like my eyelids won’t open all the way.
But cracks are forming in the wall of darkness. It has been in the 50s this weekend, pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, the Baseball Today podcasts have started to be released daily, and Jack’s baseball season is beginning.
“Do I get a milkshake if I make the majors?” Jack asked me.
Each year the season has begun with “evaluations.” Coaches watch as each kid goes through fielding, hitting, and pitching drills. This informs the order in which they draft their teams. But this year they are not “evaluations” they are “tryouts.” 12 kids will not make the majors. 12 kids will play down with the 4th graders, while the rest of their 60+ friends go to play in the majors with the 5th and 6th graders.
The boy is in knots over it. Jack desperately wants to make it. This past Friday was the first of 3 tryout sessions.
We went for pizza before the tryouts and Jack barely talked other than to bark at Alex explosively. Jack was on edge. He ate only 1 piece of pizza to make sure he wasn’t weighed down by a full belly. Then he went out and sprinted back and forth in front of the pizza place. You only have to go to 2 tryout sessions, but Jack is planning to go to all 3 so they know how serious he is.
After pizza we arrived at the “All Star Baseball Academy,” which is a warehouse space designed for indoor baseball practice. See the map for reference.
In spite of the fact that you can see virtually nothing, Jack wanted me to stay for the whole thing. So stay I did. About 80 kids lined up to go through fielding drills. Jack was number 74, so I sat on the hard bench next to Alex behind the wall of dads.
Dads. Why is it when dads gather they always stand? They never sit. They stand and speak the strange dad language of sports observations and manufactured laughter. I did not partake; I sat with Alex and played Plants vs Zombies until Jack’s turn approached.
Jack’s first fielding drill went beautifully. Three grounders that Jack gobbled right up flawlessly, followed by three perfect throws. Fielding is Jack’s strength and he nailed the first round. I started to watch more intently – and not just Jack. The second round of fielding started and they were hitting the grounders a lot faster. I watched all the kids this time, and if I’m telling you the truth, I was rooting for them to field poorly.
Look…here’s the fact. Jack has had one hit in the past year, and that was a bunt. He doesn’t swing the bat. Great fielder. Great on the bases. Great attitude and teammate. But he doesn’t hit – and that’s a pretty major hole in his game.
Second fielding drill for Jack. He bobbled the first ball but recovered it nicely. Second ball the coach accidentally hit the ball way out of range. Jack ran, full-on dove and he almost got it. “Good try, Jack!” I heard a coach yell. Third grounder he fielded perfectly and threw a bullet to the coach.
Then they lined up for the batting cages. I watched him and he actually did all right. Guy, his coach from last year (famous for his inspired statistics and his clean language) was throwing for Jack. Jack swatted a couple and missed a couple, but he came out shaking his head. He wasn’t happy with how he did.
Then finally were the pitching drills which Jack totally bombed (but most kids do). Jack has a terrific arm when he throws the ball, but for some reason when he decides to “pitch” he cranks up some complex, limp-winged motion that barely reaches the batter’s box half the time.
Guy grabbed me as we were packing up.
“It’s all confidence with him,” Guy said.
“I know. He wants to make the majors so bad.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” Guy responded.
We talked about it at length, and we both agreed that it might be the best thing for Jack to be held back. If he was scared to swing last year, facing 5th, 6th, and 7th grade pitchers might not be the place to get comfortable. If Jack got held back he’d be one of the best players on his team and he might find his swing against 4th grade pitchers.
However, that is not Jack’s perspective. His friends are all going to make it. Jack would be the one of them who doesn’t. That means admitting to himself that he’s not as good as they are. Right now he’s part of them and in Jack’s head, he’s in their league. They may be better at hitting, but he’s better on the bases…they’re all in the same league. He’s part of the team. He has a role.
But to be sent down would clearly set him apart. He would not belong.
Ask Jack what his favorite thing is and he will tell you “baseball” without a second’s hesitation.
Not making the majors will hurt him. It will hurt him badly.
Note from the map: The circled area is a narrow hallway through which 60+ kids will be leaving their workshop and 60+ kids will be going in for their workshop, all at the same time. Oh, and all the kids have backpacks on with bats sticking out. It’s a disaster.