Down and Away

 

Let’s start with a quick update on Jack’s little league season. He’s about 6 games in and we have yet to get a hit. At first he was hitting long fouls, pop fly outs, and drawing walks. But that past 3 or so games, he’s started the old pattern. Striking out looking. Weak, late swings.

Yesterday he had a game at 5 and asked me if I wanted to go have a catch that morning. We did that for a while, and then on the way home he started telling me:

“I hope I get to pitch today.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I’ve been working on this new pitch. It sinks down and away. It’s a 2-seamer, but I twist my hand…”

Insert MASSIVE eye roll from me.

See, here’s the deal with little league pitching – throw strikes. That’s all. I see kids out there trying to throw curves or change ups or whatever…they hit the backstop and bounce on the ground and get by the catcher. Throw hard strikes and you’re good. Try and throw junk and it’s a mess. So forgive me if I tuned out Jack’s explanation of new pitches.

We get to game time and the first half inning was a complete disaster. Jack’s team pitched like crap, fielded like crap, and before they even got to bat they were down 11-0.

When they finally got to bat, they scored a couple runs back, but Jack managed to end the inning by striking out with 2 of the worst swings ever. I think the last pitch may have actually been in the catcher’s glove by the time Jack decided to swing. Oh yeah – it is a slump.

Back in the field for the second inning and another kid on Jack’s team pitched poorly. So with two men on and two out, Coach K calls for Jack.

“Time to be nervous,” Shani said.

“Well,” I said to Shani, “given the score, it’s a safe time to pitch. Not like the game is on the line.”

Jack took the mound. The batter hit two foul balls for quick strikes, and then whiffed for strike three.

“He struck him out!” Shani cheered. “Go, Jack!”

“That pitch actually just did what Jack said it would do,” I said, a little unsure of what I’d just seen.

Next inning, top of the order. Double. Walk. And then…

Whiff! Strike out swinging.

I watched the catcher’s mitt this time. I’ll be damned if that ball didn’t start in the zone, and then dive down and away. Guy missed it by a mile. Two quick groundouts later, Jack got out of the inning with no runs scored.

Next inning: Strike out swinging. Strike out swinging. Single. Strike out swinging. Guys were whiffing left and right at Jack’s down and away pitch.

He came in for a third inning, and promptly walked the first batter. The coach pulled him, but his whole team was cheering for him. The boy was flying high.

After the game (they lost 15-8), Jack was smiling ear to ear as parents from both teams complimented him on his pitching. He grabbed 2 hot dogs from the snack bar (they’re free after the game) and stuffed them in his mouth as we drove away.

“I was mufflemumble change eye levels muffle stuffle.”

“You know, you no longer have a 0.00 ERA, because that guy you walked came around to score.”

“No. GULP. He came in on an E-6, so I’m still zero.” He went on for the next 10 minutes to give us his entire philosophy behind how he pitches.

We went out for dinner and he thanked our server without being told. Then when we went home, he was nice to his little brother. It was good stuff. So who knows how long that slump will last.

A few side notes:

Side note 1: Big compliments are due to Coach K. The umpire made a TERRIBLE call at 3rd base to end our team’s inning. Coach K was standing right there. He started to argue, but in mid-sentence he stopped talking and just jogged right for the dugout. I thought that was exactly the right way to handle that.

Side note 2: The Phillies have responded to Jack’s request to interview a player again. In a few weeks, Jack is set to go to the stadium and interview Tyler Goeddel.

Side note 3: Alex has written an article about great hikes in the area that the local paper is considering printing. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on that.

 

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The Meteoric and Painful Rise of Jack Nuckols, Pitcher

Nuckols

This weekend concluded the spring baseball season for Jack, and it was a rough one at the plate for our hero. There was a regression in his approach where at-bats were filled with tentative swings, attempts to draw walks, and head shakes as he shuffled back to the dugout following a called strike three.

Game after game slid by without a hit. Midway through the season, after another game where he went 0-for-3, Jack rode beside me in the car in a fragile silence. I tried the “get ’em next time” peppy-talk and got nothing. After a few more minutes, I spoke:

“What’s the matter, bub? You look real sad.”

That was all it took. It was like I had nudged a tall tower of blocks. He spoke back, his voice high-pitched with misery.

“I’m just sitting here realizing how bad I am at baseball.”

He fell into inconsolable tears, weeping into his hand.

“Why does the person who loves it the most have to be the one who is the worst at it?”

At this point I was crying too (I do that). I told him he was young and had years ahead of him. I told him that baseball was the hardest sport in the world. I told him he was brave. I tried all the regular parent bullshit you say, but he just kept right on bawlin’. It sucked.

The season kept on and Jack kept doing nothing at the plate. He looked lost up there. But then, with just a few weeks left in the season, Shani and I got an email from Jack’s coach.

Wanted to let you know that I’m pitching Jack for an inning tonight. Please don’t tell him beforehand.

So as Shani and I arrived at the field, Jack was off to the side warming up. He came back to the dugout and mouthed to us: “I’m pitching.” And boy oh boy was there a lot of emotion he was trying to cover up behind a cool face.

Next inning, out he went.

So Jack is a lefty and he’s small. He went out there and shot these slow, lefty loopers right in for gentle strikes. The inning went:

  • Groundout to the pitcher
  • Groundout to first base
  • Groundout to the pitcher

1-2-3 inning. Wowzers! I’d been expecting a walkfest mess, but it went great.

The next game, Jack warmed up again, was sent out, and put down another 1-2-3 inning. As Jack came back to the dugout, the coach came over to him:

“Jack, think you can handle another inning?”

OK…so a second inning. That is significant. One inning is giving a kid a chance to pitch. Two innings means a move into the stable of regulars who pitch for the team. Plus, this was the top of the order for a good team.

  • First batter: groundout to the pitcher
  • Second batter: line drive double
  • Third batter…

The third batter was a boy named Thomas who is one of the best hitters in the league. I frantically texted Shani to tell her who Jack was facing.

“Crapass” was her response.

But Jack pumped in a few of those loopy slowpokers and…

  • Groundout to the pitcher

Jack walked the next guy (men on 1st and 3rd), and then struck out the next batter.

OK, so to say I had a different kid on my hands from that day forward is a major understatement. “Self esteem” is an overused term, I think, but in this case it was like you could see Jack’s newly-glowing self-esteen floating over him like he was pulling around a balloon.

He took to lecturing Alex on how to sequence pitches. He used his prize money from the essay contest to buy a pitch-back and spent hours in the backyard announcing games with himself. Shani asked him if he was happy after getting out of the last inning:

“Yeah, I was happy, but when you walk off the mound you have to look like it was no big deal. That’s how you do it, Mom.”

He kept pitching in every game following and continued to get hitters (good hitters) out.

“I have a 0.00 ERA still,” he informed me.

The team was the underdog heading into a double-elimination playoffs. Jack led the game on the mound and looked shaky. It was raining and the ball slipped from his hand several times. He hit a batter (not hard) and walked another. Then a double ended his perfect ERA. They ended up losing that game.

Then the next game, with the season on the line, Jack took the mound in the 2nd inning and the loopy leftshot was consistently off the plate.

  • Hit batter
  • Walk
  • Walk
  • Walk

As he threw you could see him withering like a weed. After every pitch he would look imploring at the coach, begging with his eyes to be pulled.

When Jack finally came off the mound, he was anything but stone-faced. The team lost and was eliminated by the playoffs.

So a tough season? The team never really got into a groove and Jack didn’t either. But as I look back, I’m filled with gratitude and good feelings.

I love Jack’s coach. He has made it clear that he does not draft based on baseball skill – he drafts to get the nicest kids he can. And sure, lots of coaches say they do that, but this coach really does.

I love the coach’s wife. She is a mainstay in the stands; she beams and smiles through the entire game. She notices every kid’s success and revels in it.

I love sitting with rational parents. Drafting kids based on niceness means the parents are terrific. I’m not much for chit-chat, but I’ve really enjoyed sitting among them.

And above all, I love being a dad. Shani is in the stands next to me. Alex is running the snack bar or begging for me to buy him candy. The pace of a baseball game makes me sit back and realize that this is it. This is fatherhood. These are the moments.

So thanks to everyone for a great season. And beware, Jack has not let up on that pitch back. He will be taking the mound this fall.

How to Win at Little League: Duds, not Studs

When it comes to coaching a little league team, if you are trying to field a winning team, most coaches go about this completely wrong.

The wrong approach:

Coaches tend to focus on their stud kids. Discuss the draft with a coach and they will talk about the first 4 rounds. “I got Johnny round 1, Jimmy round 2, and Tommy round 3 – all 3 of those kids are awesome hitters!”

And that tends to remain the focus of their approach and their team. Those kids are the focus of their offense and the better the coach can make those kids, the better off the team will be.

Except that’s entirely wrong.

The right approach:

Ready for this? The key to winning is to focus on your lousy kids. Focus on your duds. Games do not come down to whether your stud kids perform. Games are decided on which team has the most “automatic outs”. And the lousy kids are the key to that.

In other words – you should spend the majority of your time working with your duds.

Let me provide an example…

My son was on a team 3 years ago that went undefeated. They were awesome and had 5 hitters who absolutely drilled the ball. We walked through the playoffs. The finals were in late June and we were the heavy favorite. We had crushed the opposing team twice already that season.

But here’s where it went wrong. Come gameday, the opposing team had only 8 kids show up. And the kids who were missing were all their worst players. In other words – they had no automatic outs. No duds.

That meant that their lineup kept going around and around through 8 good players – and they wracked up a TON of runs each inning.

For us, our studs played great. But then our dud kids came up and those innings fizzled.

Our studs played way better than their studs. But because they had no duds, they beat us.

Look at it this way…

You have 6 innings of Little League play. Most coaches are looking to score runs. That’s why they focus on their stud kids.

The right approach? Don’t worry about runs. Worry about outs. You have 6 innings – which means you have 18 outs. That is what to focus on. The team that plates the most kids before hitting that 18-out mark is the team that will win. Forget runs – focus on avoiding outs. Don’t try to be the team that scores the most runs. Try to be the team that avoids those 18 outs the longest and you will win every time.

In other words, focus on your duds. Turn a doubles hitter into a home run hitter? Who cares? It has no impact on how quickly you reach 18 outs.

Turn an automatic out into a singles hitter – now you’re talking.

A calculation to back the theory up…

Team A has 5 studs and 5 duds. And the coach spends his time working with the studs.

  • The 5 studs become SO awesome that they hit a home run every single at bat.
  • The 5 duds get out every time.

In 6 innings, Team A will score an astonishing 20 runs. Great job, coach!

Team B has 5 studs and 5 duds. And this coach spends his time focused on the duds.

  • The 5 studs underperform and only get a single every time they come to bat.
  • The 5 duds get out only half the time and the other half of their at-bats they get a single.

In 6 innings, Team B will score 30 runs. Team B will DESTROY Team A.

Here’s what else happens…

I can already hear the snarky comments about Little League not being about winning – so think about this side benefit when you focus on your lousy kids. Because if you believe all the standard talking points about wanting it to be fun and be about teaching…here’s what happens when you focus on your duds.

  • Those kids will never forget you.
  • You will be that kid’s favorite coach that he ever had
  • That kid’s parents will glow about you at parties and over coffee – which is not a bad thing if you live in that community

Listen, stud kids got a TON of attention. They’ll be fine. They already get all the glory and adoration of playing well.

But imagine if your work lets that dud kid be the hero. If that dud kid gets that big hit that wins the game? You will make a sports memory that that kid will never forget.

I will end on a story…

A friend of mine coaches Little League and he is someone I think is a really good coach. He had a MAJOR dud on his team, but the coach worked with that kid.

In a tight game, the kid got a hit. Over the course of the inning the kid came around so he was on third and had the potential to be the winning run. The coach went and asked him…

“If I give the sign, I need you to get home as fast as you can. Do you know the sign?”

In a mix of terror and elation, the kid replied:

“I’ve never been on base before.”

Tell me that coach hasn’t already won the entire Little League World Championships? Amazing.

Game of the Year

This weekend was the finals for the “Dog Eat Dog” tournament in Jack’s Fall Ball League. Jack’s crew was the severe underdog – and it showed. The teams started plugging away Sunday night and it was quickly becoming a slaughter. By the end of the 3rd inning, Jack’s team was down 11-3.

The team was playing badly. They were making fielding errors, striking out on bad pitches, their pitchers were all over the place – it was a mess.

Add to that, the other team was amped up. They knew they were going to win and they brought their confidence to bear in a constant stream of chants.

G-O-O-D-E-Y-E…Good eye! Good eye!

Two out rally! Hit it down the alley!

God they were loud and it was affecting our team.

But it’s baseball. And baseball is a looooong game. Keeping that level of intensity up just isn’t possible. The other guys quieted down and sort of slept on their score. It was almost as if they didn’t notice our team creeping back into the game. Our pitching suddenly got great. Our fielders made routine outs. We stopped walking batters and got some strikeouts.

At the bottom of the 6th (last inning), Jack’s team was down 13-8. Last chance and they needed 5 runs to tie it.

To make it more difficult, the bottom of our order was up. Little League batting orders basically have the good hitters up front and the shaky hitters in the back. So we had to get through our shaky kids without 3 outs and try to make it to the really good batters at the top of the line up. A tall order indeed.

I’m gonna focus on 2 back-of-the-order kids. One of them my own.

First was Carson. Carson is the sweetest damn kid. He’s a kid whose body is bigger than his 11-year-old consciousness. He hasn’t caught up with his own size and strength yet.

Carson bats with this big toothy grin that turns into a painful grimace when he strikes out. He swings like hell with his strong frame at almost every pitch that comes his way. Most of the time he strikes out. Once in a while he belts it.

This time, Carson belted it. The crowd and the dugout shrieked with glee as he made it to first base and the kids chanted his name.

Then there was Jack. I’d say out of every 10 at-bats, Jack walks 5, strikes out 4, and hits once. Often his at-bats are indecisive between trying to draw a walk or trying to hit the ball.

The first two pitches came shooting in for strikes. This pitcher was right on. So now Jack, with the game on the line, had to try and get a hit. In came the next pitch…

Plink.

Foul ball down the third base line. Next pitch.

Donk.

Foul ball. Next pitch…

Plonk.

Dink.

Clonk.

Ping.

Donk.

Jack fouled off 7 consecutive pitches. And with each one the crowd and dugout was more and more on edge and into the at-bat. At the same time you could visibly see the pitcher getting more and more discouraged.

BONK!

A shot towards second and Jack was off in a flash. With his trademark speed he blazed to first base and just made it in time. SAFE! Better still, now the top of our order was up.

Three batters later…A single slashed past the third baseman. Jack ran in for the tying run with the winning run right behind him.

Walk off. A walk off win after being down by 9 runs in the 3rd inning.

The celebration was…well, you can’t fake that kind of thing or plan for it. And I think it’s a celebration that only baseball can produce.

All the parents in the stands sprang up and as one launched into the air. Shani screamed at the top of her range. The assistant coach at 3rd base ran across the field to the dugout, literally leaping with joy as he did. At least two kids on Jack’s team were crying.

They shook hands. They milled about. They hugged. Parents hugged and shook hands. Dads and moms patted various kids. No one wanted to leave the ballpark in spite of it being 9:00 on a Sunday night. It was, without a doubt, the game of the year.

Quick Update

This will be quick. 2 baseball-related updates.

1) Fall Ball started and Jack already has a hit. The typical drama we go through each season about “will he finally get that hit?” is just not to be. I think he’s somehow over the hump. First game, first at-bat he smoked a ball that bullseyed the shortstop’s glove for an out. Game two, Jack drilled a ball right down the third base line for a double.

So I’m not sure what kind of tension I can bring to this fall ball season. Maybe we’ll get another run-in with Psycho Coach.

2) I have paid an obscene amount of money to get 2 tickets for Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium. It is next Thursday and there will most assuredly be a related post. I am pulling Jack out of school early so we can get into the game for batting practice.

Alex is not attending. He and I struck a bargain. Instead of getting to go to the game he gets an ENTIRE carton of ice cream all his own.

A Tale of Two Sidelines

Alex had a soccer game this weekend, and I happened to notice something on the sidelines. Check these two photos out.

Here are the dads from my town:

photo 2

Here are the dads from a nearby town:

photo 1

Look closely. Look at the difference in the clothes, the postures, the expressions.

Which dads do you think are discussing skills their 9-year-olds need to work on? Which dads are talking about coaching philosophy and team strategy? Which dads are taking mental notes of pointers to provide their kids after the game?

Which dads are having more fun watching the game?

Which dads yell things like: “Cross it! You need to find the open man!” Which yell: “Nice job!” and “Good try!”

I don’t name the town I live in on the blog, but it’s a town full of wealthy white people. Dads are lawyers and investment bankers. And truth be told, I don’t often feel like I fit in that well. Interestingly enough, I found myself on the midfield line, exactly between the two groups.

On one hand, I’m an unconditional rooter. I love watching Alex hop around out there. I sit during the game and I don’t watch as if I’m a paid consultant. I don’t wear athletic gear to watch soccer as if they’re going to call me in to play forward. I do not own a visor.

Yet on the other hand, there is a deep and irresistible competitive asshole in my heart. I squirm as Alex fails to go after the ball. I want to yell: “Don’t just stand there and watch the ball roll after you kick it! You’re not playing golf!” And while I never yell that, I will yell things like: “Keep pushing forward, boys!” and “Get tough on defense!” as if it was a video game and I could control the kid/players with my voice.

I will make a final comment about the town from photo #2. That is the town where “psycho coach” is from. This coach dropped the F-bomb at Jack in a baseball game and later challenged our coach to fight in the parking lot. I wrote and award-winning blog post about this incident.

The coach was reprimanded by the league but not removed as a coach. But in response to this, several parents from that town threatened to pull their kids from the league if the coach was not removed. The guy stepped down. So while they’re chill on the sidelines, they stand up when it really counts.

*Important note: the post won no award. I made that up.

 

3 Feel-Good(ish) Little League Stories

I have 3, count ’em, 3 baseball updates to share with you. All are heart-warming in their own way. Let’s start with…

1) Baseball and Burgers

I got together for lunch with my friend Randy this week. Over burgers we had ourselves a good ol’ fashioned baseball bitchfest. Both of us have sons in little league and it was a wonderful hour of swapping stories and affirming for each other what mature, well-balanced sports dads we are as opposed to all those maladjusted dads our sons are surrounded by. Aren’t we the best? Well, we think so too.

In all seriousness, we talked about keeping it in perspective, about times our sons had been the hero and the goat, and about how goddamned expensive baseball equipment is. We also swapped horror stories of deeply misbehaved kids and parents. I can’t write the stories I know from my town (and I’ve got some doosies). Half the people who read this blog live in my town and even if I didn’t name names, they’d figure it out for sure. So it was fun as hell to tell these stories to Randy.

Randy had some good ones too, one in particular that I love.

Randy was coaching a game and there was a play where the baserunner and infielder got tangled up on the basepath. The runner was called out. The opposing coach (we’ll call him Coach Asshead) got into it with the umpire something fierce. After finally losing the argument, Coach Asshead stormed back to the dugout and said to his kids:

“All right then, from now on we’re running over anyone in the basepaths.”

Randy went right after him.

“I heard that. Did you just tell your kids to run over my kids? What kind of thing is that to tell those boys?”

“You…you misheard me. I didn’t say that,” Asshead grumbled back.

“I didn’t mishear you. I heard you just fine. Now here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go into that dugout and tell your team you were wrong.”

Coach Asshead muttered as he walked away, and then under Randy’s glaring eye, Asshead went into his dugout and told his kids not to run down the opposition after all.

Is Randy a real man or what? Warms my heart, indeed.

2) The End of a Season

It was about midway through the season that Jack was benched for 3 out of the 6 innings. Being on the bench 2 innings and in the field for the other 4 was the norm, and Jack noticed the demotion.

I wrote his coach (Gary) a carefully worded email:

Dear Gary-

Not sure if you we aware, but Jack’s been on the bench for 3 innings the last 2 games. If you think that’s right, then I’m 100% behind your decision. You’re the coach. But if you weren’t aware, I wanted to let you know. Jack takes pride in being a good fielder and he leans on that a lot since he knows he’s not hitting well.

100% un-dickishly,

-Mike Nuckols

Gary caught up with me at the next game.

“Thanks for letting me know. I didn’t realize I had done that. Look, I know you don’t know me well, but I’m all about these kids havin’ a good time. I don’t want anybody on the bench more than 2 innings. I’m sorry.”

In truth, I knew Gary was going to be cool about it. I knew from his demeanor in games and from the way he treated Jack in the batting cages. I also knew because of Gary’s son.

Gary’s son is our best player. He’s hit a homer in nearly every game and once he hit three. He’s our best pitcher and an excellent catcher.

But beyond that, Gary’s son is also out best teammate. He is constantly encouraging and pushing the other kids on the team. He’s the leader. Jack pitched an inning in our last regular season game, and Jack hasn’t pitched in 2 years. Gary’s son was the catcher and he provided a constant stream of confident affirmation that guided Jack through.

I see a kid behave like that and I feel damn good about his dad being my kind of coach.

So this week was the final elimination game and we were losing 12-8. It was our last inning and we were down to our last out. The batter swung and got whacked in the thumb with the ball. After some tears, the kid toughed it out and then hit a grounder to end the season.

Teams shook hands; dugouts were emptied for the next team. As the kids were shuffling out, the head umpire for the league happened to be going by. In seconds a swarm of our kids and parents were accosting him.

“It hit him in the thumb! That’s hit by pitch! He should have taken first base, right? Right?”

They were disputing our last out in an indignant mob.

Coach Gary marched in with a big smile and declared: “You know why he was out? Because the ump said so. Now shoo!”

In my opinion, that was the RIGHT ANSWER to teach these boys.

So big thanks to Coach Gary. We lucked out this season.

3) The Season Continues

Final tale, and this is quick. The playoffs are over for Jack’s team – however they are by no means over for Jack.

These boys (and my boy in particular) don’t just go to their own games. Every game has a solid 20 5th-graders lounging in the grass watching the game, playing some mysterious tennis ball pegging game, and generally milling about. It is the social epicenter.

The prime spot is the scoring booth where you can watch from the window above home plate. Jack has even managed to run the scoreboard a few times, which has been an occasion for exquisite pride.

This Saturday, Jack got up and was at the field by 9 AM for the first game. Then he and his friend Max stayed for the next game. He called up for lunch money and to re-up on sunscreen* around 11:30. I handed him a five dollar bill and he turned and headed back towards the field.

“How many games after this one?” I called out.

He he held up 2 fingers and kept walking. All day that boy was going to be at that field.

AND FINALLY…While it felt great to write about baseball, I will make the obligatory pitch for our iPAd app: Kid Dad Fun. Click this image and it will take you to the download screen.**

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*Point of dispute: the call for sunscreen. I was out running an errand when Shani called to say: “Jack called for money and sunscreen. Can you swing by the field?” But I knew the truth. Jack called for money; Shani was the force behind the sun screen. Or so I thought. I called Shani on this later. “No,” she said, “he called and he was the one who asked money and he said he needed to re-up on sunscreen.”

Now that is a boy who knows how to work his momma.

**PleasealsowriteareviewoftheappontheAppStoretellingeveryonetheyshouldbuyitandrateif5stars!

 

 

 

At long last…Milkshake

PING! went the sound of the aluminum bat. A hard grounder between the first and second basemen. And before anyone could even take in the fact that Jack had made contact for the first time this season, Jack Nuckols was standing on first base.

I will tell you, the boy’s smile was something to behold. It was one of those smiles that pushes out uncontrollably and makes your face tremble with the effort of holding it.

I did not get a video or a photo. It happened too quick and I was too busy experiencing it to record it.

However…I did mange to track down Alex, who was wandering with the pack of younger siblings. A bunch of little girls were busy throwing each other’s shoes over the fence and then having Alex scale the fence to retrieve them. I was able to record Alex’ reaction:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JpJ8bd3cko&feature=youtu.be

So at long last, Jack Nuckols has a hit. Also of note, he swung and connected on his next at bat. It was a pop out, but perhaps this monkey is off my boy’s back.

photo

Walk Off Victory

Jack’s coach wrote an email to me a Shani:

“I wanted to check in and make sure Jack’s enjoying himself. The assistant coach and I are coming up with ideas on how to get him that first hit. Once that happens his confidence is going to kick in and he’ll be hitting like crazy. Jack doesn’t seem down about it at all – he’s always so positive and such a good teammate. But I wanted to make sure.

Obviously, we like this coach a hell of a lot. So this Wednesday we were really hoping Jack would get that first hit. But it was not to be. In fact, our pitchers really struggled, which led to lots of unexpected pitching changes and fielding switches. In the confusion, Jack spent 3 innings on the bench and none playing the infield.

The team lost, and he was sad about that, but other than that he seemed fine. Until bedtime.

Now…just a note. Every night after Jack’s lights are out, he runs a complete physical and emotional diagnostic on himself. He may have seemed fine as he ran around like a lunatic before bedtime, but now that it’s 9:50…

“Can you come up? My leg really hurts.

“I have a bug bite and it itches soooo bad. I can’t fall asleep.

“Today I was playing kickball and I got called out, but really I was safe.

And now he was thinking about the game. And the season. And the lack of hits.

He called Shani up first. I could hear them talking. Shani’s chipper compliments and Jack’s sulky retorts. I couldn’t hear the words, but I didn’t need to.

This went on for a while. Then Shani tagged out and called me in.

“What’s up, Jack?”

“I can’t get a hit.”

It was all piling down around him. He could keep upbeat through a few games, but after 5-6 tries and still no hits, he couldn’t hold off the gloom any longer. There were tears. He was down on himself. Baseball is his favorite thing; it’s central to his identity and how he thinks of himself. It’s his place in the world.

I take a different approach than Shani. She lays on the compliments in a wave of cheeriness and warmth as thick as frosting. She’ll point out the things he does well. She’ll tell him to hang in there and it will happen. I try to be the pragmatic voice of reality. I suggest he practice more. I point out that the pitchers are more accurate, so he’s got to stop trying to draw walks and swing away.

But really, it doesn’t matter what you say. He can overcome any objection you throw at him.

 

Objection: “You walked in the first inning and scored.”

Rebuttal: “So…that pitcher was terrible.”

Objection: “You played that line drive in the 4th inning perfectly. That saved a run.”

Rebuttal: “We still lost. Plus I was on the bench half the game.”

Objection: “You cured cancer.”

Rebuttal: “Who cares. It’s not like people aren’t still dying on dengue fever.”

 

He needs both Shani and I. I took a management class where they said you have to be both nurturing and demanding. So together Shani and I hit both of these things.

NOW…to not end on a sad note. I will point out that the Science Olympiad was this Saturday. Jack was part of the team representing his school. The final event was water rocket launching. This is where you build a rocket out of coke bottles and launch it into the air with a water pump. Jack and two of his friends were our school’s water rocket team.

The competition is for which rocket stays in the air longest. So you put a parachute on your rocket. But these things are a bitch to get right. Out in the field we watched rocket after rocket fire high into the air, and then plummet down just as quickly. In the first round, out of 18 teams, only 2 parachutes actually deployed. Jack’s group went last and like most of the others, the parachute failed.

Come the second and final round, their rocket went launching into the air, turned to head for the ground…POP!

You would have thought someone hit the pause button. The parachute spread perfectly and the rocket froze in mid-air. Then it started drifting slowly…slowly…downwards.

Suddenly our section of the bleachers was emptying. Jack’s entire team of 25 kids took off in a mad, joyous rush out of their seats and charged across the field after the rocket. After a long, graceful descent the rocket landed in, of all places, a baseball field. Jack bound over the fence, grabbed the rocket and leapt victoriously into the crowd of screaming teammates.

 

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Tuesday Ballgame with Thursday Post Script

There’s been a lot of rainouts, and the prediction was for more rain Tuesday. But at 5:30 I found myself in 70 degree weather with a slight breeze. Jack’s game was on. Shani and I sat on the top row of the bleachers so we could lean back against the metal bars. Alex joined the swarm of kids that collectively ran back and forth around and in front of the bleachers.

Dinner was a pretzel with lots of spicy mustard and a hot dog, salty inside a mushy bun. Perfect. This year it’s better than ever.

It’s become baseball. In six innings of play there were two walks. A routine ground ball is a routine out. The runner goes top speed and they still get him by a step. It’s an out every time, but every time its only by a step. That magic formula of time and distance has been reached.

Most innings no one scores, a few times no one even got on base. It is efficient, almost terse. Clean. Routine. A thing of overwhelming beauty to me.

Jack only got up twice. Each time he makes the walk from the dugout I can see his determination. He is looking inward as his 10-year-old brain is resolving to make this one count. As he draws up to the plate I feel like everyone in both bleachers gets quiet and leans in, coiled with hope that he’ll finally get a hit.

But this game is based on failure. The best hitters fail 70% of the time. The most powerful sluggers fail to hit a home run in 3 of 4 games.

Jack looked indecisive, but not his normal overwhelmed. He alternated between attempts to bunt and long, sweet swinging strikes. He struck out both times.

But I feel like he’s finding his center; he’s a pair of binoculars coming into focus. Soon it will snap. His bat will touch that ball and he will be on first base unable to stop smiling. And from there it will build. He recently scored his first goal in soccer after a year of being scared to go after the ball. Now he’s scoring practically every game and taking tons of shots.

On a side note, in the final inning a kid hit a high high pop fly into foul territory heading towards the far bleachers. Alex was standing with some kids, both hands in his pockets. WOOSH! That ball shot straight down and was inches from Alex’s head. It grazed his foot it was so close.

Alex didn’t flinch. Just gleefully snatched up the ball and sprinted for the snack shack to hand in the ball for a free fruit roll up.

We headed home – the game was played in 1 hour and 23 minutes. We turned onto our street and I heard bangs on the car roof so loud I thought acorns were dropping on us. Then it was raining holy hell. I pulled into the driveway, grabbed my bag, and hopped across to the front door. It was a joyous, loud rain thick with the summer smell of ozone. The boys followed, shrieking with joy as the leaped into the house and out of the downpour.

 

Thursday Post Script

Jack had batting practice tonight. I arrived at 7:30 to take him and a friend home. But they didn’t want to go home. None of the kids did. Instead they raced up from the cages to Field 1:

 

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It’s good baseball. Could watch it all damn day.