Tuesday, September 28, 2004

when i was a boy

I haven't figured out why yet, but watching a 10-year-old spit like a professional makes me smile.

Standing on the mound, face, ball and hand buried in a much loved glove, the brim of a sweaty cap moving back and forth the only indication that this little elf is shaking off his catcher's sign.


The catcher trots up to the mound. I can barely make out what the pitcher is saying. "Hey! Don't curl your fingers up like that! I can't read the sign!" I giggle. This is just too cute. Signs? Two pitches? When did they learn how to get even one over the plate?!

They all make me smile. Little accurate miniatures at that perfect scale of cuteness. Big enough so that they throw and hit with the grace of ballplayers and not the awkwardness of children, but not so big that they've stopped looking for four-leaf clovers in right field.

He spits again. I giggle harder and turn to look at the batter. A lefty. Weirdest stance I have EVER seen. Feet spread wide, toes pointed way out - fourth position maybe? - bat held high directly overhead pointing somewhere behind him. One of the moms yells out, "GET YOUR BAT BACK!" The kid points it even more directly behind him like he's about to cleave a log in two. "THAT'S BETTER!" You're kidding me, right?

Watching a 10-year-old pitch like a real pitcher is an even greater pleasure. Full arm extension, arched back, great follow-through, actually throwing strikes… The kid with the weird stance goes down swinging and the small, determined Roger Clemens wannabe walks back to the mound, concentration unaffected by the thrill of the strikeout. I get a little chill.

The next batter's up. He takes his bat and points immodestly to left field, looking strikingly like Babe Ruth. Quickly he pops up to the shortstop. Oh well. Some of them will learn a little humility eventually, but most of them are boys, and from my experience, don't really grow out of being boys until they're… well… never.
What I enjoy most, though, is not the pitcher shaking off the sign, nor even the foot stamping that occasionally follows to emphasize "no I REALLY do not want to throw that pitch". What I enjoy most is watching one player in particular. She is the only girl remaining in this age bracket, and she just makes me beam with some strange, unfounded pride. She's not my kid, she's just a kid who I've watched grow up in the league and who has always impressed me. I think partly she makes me nostalgic.

The next boy steps up to the plate - a very nice boy who picked up a bat and ball for the first time last year. He's still a little afraid of the ball, but shows a modest determination in the field that I admire greatly. He's not trying to be Jeff Bagwell; he just wants to be part of the team. The bench hollers at him, "C'mon! You can do it!" A slow swing barely gets a piece of the ball, but he legs it out and due to a bad throw by the catcher, he makes it to first. Absolutely beaming.

The girl's on deck, and watching her I think of Dar Williams' song, "When I was a Boy". "I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike…" I know what this is like. I grew up with a brother 8 years my senior. We played hockey in the kitchen with tennis racquets and tennis balls. We'd put on boxing gloves and "go a few rounds" (resulting in at least one bloody nose. His.) We'd hit golf balls and play baseball in the back yard. By the time I was 8, I was insisting on using a hardball, and even a black eye ("…well you told me to keep my eye on the ball!" - yeesh…) didn't break my enthusiasm. Soft balls were sissy. I liked the weight of the hardball, and I could throw. My brother once bragged to my dad "The kid's got an arm!" My response was "nope, I got two of 'em."

She steps up to the plate, chin set, aggressive stance. Just a small boy with her bat. Not a power hitter by any means. She used to be among the best, but the boys are starting to surpass her on what I suspect is an intimidating uphill battle of comparative strength. Right now, though, it doesn't in the least affect her enthusiasm. She's a fast runner and can almost always connect for a grounder, and she doesn't let me down this time either.

I climbed trees, and I had a fort. I didn't have dolls; I had a mitt. The bottom half of our back screen door was my strike zone and my impromptu catcher. I don't recall, but I imagine we went through a lot of screens over the years. Sadly, even though I lived my boyhood right around the time of the Bad News Bears, Tatum O'Neal had not quite made my entrance into Little League a reality. Even now, 25 years later, there's still only one girl in the 10-12 year old division of our league. How disappointing.

The next batter goes down swinging against our spitting, foot-stamping Pitcher of Immense Seriousness, and my little hero hightails it back to the dugout to put her catcher's gear on. The boys may be surpassing her in hitting, but she's got a heck of an arm (probably two of 'em) and one of the sharpest baseball minds on the field. She sometimes plays first, but more often than not she has the managing position of catcher. If I admire the pitchers their miniature wind-ups, I admire ten times more her handle on the game. The minute the ball hits her glove she's up, arm cocked, staring down the runner on second daring him to steal. It's just a beautiful thing.

Well, the game's starting up again and I just want to watch now. It's a good feeling. Relaxing. Amusing. But, I do have to say, I'm a little jealous. Remembering a time when I too was a boy…

(It's one of those weeks. This is recycled from the Upper Kirby Progressive 6/01)

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