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The agony of kid-pitch baseball

The first pitch nailed the first batter square in the solar plexus. He turned to us, his mouth a guppy’s, wheezing thinly; then tears spurted.I now know children’s baseball last year for the dream that it was. Baseball was “coach pitch,” in which nice coaches and parents, mostly dads, lobbed fatties to their little batters, who got a beneficent six strikes.This year the kids are pitching, and the balls go absolutely everywhere. They whack the batters in the head, foot and ribs, or whiz behind their backs. The kids often jump away from the balls, and I can see why.A young pitcher in Aspen one night was throwing so fast and inaccurately that the parents on his own team shouted, “Not so hard!”Last year, tepid hits often became home runs when throws were missed consecutively by everyone on every base.Now players often walk all the way home, on consecutive sets of (poor) balls.The erratic pitches are hard to hit, and the players are out in three strikes. When the kids do hit, they are so astounded they often forget to run, and then are nearly out at first base.Anxious parents call to kids to “Wait for a good one!” and they do, and then we all hear the chilling knell, “Strike!”Baseball isolates players in a way that soccer, with participants running and passing all over the field, mostly does not, although I’ve seen some lonely-looking goalies.I feel bad when any kid on any team strikes out, walking away with bowed head between thin shoulders, but especially when it’s mine.I start worrying, heart rate rising and stomach acid spreading, when I even see him on deck, swinging the bat to warm up. My nails dig deeply in my palms as he steps up. I’d give anything for those heavenly six strikes.Yet the only thing Roy, 8, has ever said was, “Mom, I have to practice more. I’ve been slackin’ on my hitting.” And later: “Mom, I have got to go to every practice and every game.”He was perfectly fine. He loves baseball. Apparently, any problems are mine.One night he got pegged in the head, but was unhurt in his helmet. “I was happy,” he said afterwards brightly, “because I got to walk.”Our team was a little ragtag this year, frequently short a player or two. On two occasions, a little brother was brought in, sturdily facing down the pitcher, and at least once a random friend, playing nearby, was, over his protests, drafted.For the season tournament, held mid-afternoon on a weekday, I left work early, hoping to catch the end of the game, but found it all over. None of our crew had made it past first. “They all struck out,” a parent summarized.For all I tell the kids I don’t care if they win, I felt sad they didn’t get to play a real game. Yet that night at dinner, when we each give thanks, Roy said, “I’m thankful I had a baseball game today.”And while baseball highlights mistakes, it offers everyone chances for redemption. I once saw Christopher strike out and then, two minutes later, catch – perfectly – a powerful hit to the outfield. A friend’s son is a moderate hitter, but celebrated for his dramatic slides into base.One night I looked over to see Roy, smiling and stealing glances at us, being strapped by two dads into leg pads and mask. He was catcher, and played it pretty adeptly, which helps a pitcher; an ump (Roy calls them “empires”) is more likely to call a strike when the ball lands in the catcher’s mitt. Roy’s friend Tanner was pitching, and Roy kept smiling and pointing at his mitt, at which Tanner aimed.Most mercifully, the games have a deadline: an hour and a half, or we’d be there all night.Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at aosius@hotmail.com.


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