I love baseball. Not the way that a lot of people love it, where they can reel off stats of this player or that team and one-up each other on trivia. I love baseball for the poetry and motion, for the hope it gives, for the way it makes you believe again in wonder and miracles and faith.
Both my sons played and the beginning of the season was always fraught with tension. The first day — the nerves, the missed balls, the frustration. They practiced basic skills and watching them come back to form after a whole year off was like watching a retired musician struggle to finesse an old tune, once familiar, now only awkward. They had a difficult time dealing with their lack of grace, how how hard they had to work at it. Then it happened eventually: the skills worked, something ignited, and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. In one of my son’s first double-headers, he played second base and caught two line drives and got the man out on first both times. I think he floated off the field. He didn’t even seem to notice that they lost the game — all he knew was that the ball didn’t get past him.
I remember playing softball at his age. I remember the shock of the first line drive of each season, stinging in my glove. The smell of the grass, fresh cut on a spring day. Praying that someone would please hit a fly out to you so you have an excuse to out-run the mosquitoes. (Well, maybe that’s more of a Louisiana tradition.)
You’d have to understand just how much of a non-athlete I usually was in school to grasp the freakishness of the fact that I pitched, first string. It was my one cool moment, my one grace during the hell years of junior high. We were a championship team, unbeaten, with a coach who believed in fair play. Everybody got a turn, everybody played and we always won. When I had nothing else, I could pitch.
I zoned on the mound. I wasn’t this skinny, scrawny kid. I couldn’t hear the crowd, the chatter; it was me, that ball and that catcher’s glove. Rhythm. Motion. Rhythm. Motion. Strike.
When my oldest son was eight, there was no one to coach his team at the Y except this really sweet college girl who had been assigned to us, but who had never thrown a ball in her life. I volunteered and dragged my dad into it as well. My dad and I were still at the point in our relationship where I hadn’t quite forgiven him from being the royal pain-in-the-ass to live with that he had been and he couldn’t quite accept the fact that I wasn’t still the most-stubborn-child-on-earth, so it was an uncomfortable, prickly, strange sort of relationship between the two of us as we set out to coach this poor little orphaned team.
There were teams in this league who had already been playing together since kindergarten — most with the same coaches every year — and they worked with beautiful, efficient precision. Let me tell you, that was scary. They were over there saying: Here’s how to do a squeeze pay while we were saying: This is a ball. Here’s how to hold your bat. Here’s how to swing.
When we practiced, we worked with each and every kid, equally. We taught them everything from how to bat to how to slide to how to steal to the art of catching the fly ball… all the plays and the nuances of the game. They were shaping up into a fine little team.
Except for Michael.
You would have to see Michael to really understand. He was a tall, thin black kid with a sweet, cherubic face, but his eyes were just… vacant. Nobody was home. Every single time Michael drifted up to bat, I had to go over there and show him how to hold it all over again. He never swung at the ball. It whizzed past him, splat in the glove. Not only did he not catch anything in the field, he never really even seemed to know that he was playing baseball. I’m not sure if we heard him utter a single word during all those practices.
His mom and sister were there, day in, day out, cheering Michael on. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they were the only family who stayed for the practices. And Dad worked with him every day, drilling on those skills, giving him extra attention when the other kids had learned it and Michael was back at square one.
Michael played every game. That’s when I really saw my dad. That’s when I saw the man. He believed in fair play. He believed that each and every kid deserved their chance to try. He believed that the second string would improve greatly with game experience, and they did. He believed that it was more important what you teach the kid about life than how they do at baseball.
Michael had no clue. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have to call out to him to get him to turn around and face our field. I watched my dad keep encouraging Michael, both on and off the field. I watched him tell his mom how much Michael was improving, in front of Michael, so that they both could be proud of him. It would have been a lot easier to let Michael sit on the bench; I wasn’t entirely sure he’d even notice.
There are moments in your life when something clicks, when you hear the tumblers in the universe settle into place and you know — you know this was what it was all about. This was a moment you were meant for, because it changes everything.
We had split the team into two and were playing a scrimmage. Everything seemed exactly the same. Michael was up and I had to show him how to hold the bat again, remind him how to swing it. My dad shouted, “Hit me a home run, Michael,” from the first base line where he was coaching the runners. The pitcher released a fast ball and Michael pumped the bat around. It was the first time I can remember him swinging. I mean, actively swinging, with the bat going all the way around in the right kind of motion and momentum like you’re supposed to do when you swing at the ball.
He hit a home run.
I’m not sure who was more shocked: me, dad, his mom or Michael. Dad was so beside himself with joy, he was jumping in the air, shouting for Michael to run the bases. He said later that Michael’s face was so wide with shock and his mouth hung soooo far open, that he’d have made it around the bases faster if it hadn’t been for the wind drag. He ran the bases and came in to the entire team cheering. His mother and I went completely hoarse.
After that, he hit home runs just about every game. He started catching the ball, making plays. His eyes weren’t vacant any more. His mother told me he had started participating in school. They were able to move him up a class.
Michael was talking.
My dad and I were, too. We figured out some stuff, forgot and forgave some other stuff. We got to know each other then.
Now some would say that it was just a little league team, an unimportant game in the grand scheme of things. Possibly entertainment. Maybe the expression of craft, but never art, as if art has to be validated by others and hung in a museum or voted on by esteemed committee. That’s cynical, really, and it’s easy to be cynical. None of what we did was out of the ordinary–thousands upon thousands of coaches and parents do this every day. There was never another season like that one. But that moment, when Michael connected that bat to that ball, that moment of unadulterated joy… that was art.
I think, sometimes, we miss too much of what actually is art while we’re waiting for someone to label it so. I read a few things this week that transported me. They connected. This came at a time when I was exhausted and needing something to entertain me, to rebuild my faith, to energize me and it worked. I’m ending the week feeling happy and at peace and in the face of some of the things I need to accomplish, that’s pretty amazing.
Lately, I’ve been noticing the deprecating term “guilty pleasure” when referring to genre works as if there is some sort of literature police out there who are going to arrest us if we declare something worthwhile that isn’t on some sort of aesthetically acceptable list. I don’t have a clue whether anyone else would consider any of the books I read this week art. It doesn’t matter. Art arts. It creates within us a response. Our world changes.
They were art, to me. Like that baseball game was to Michael.
Michael changed that day. There’s hope in the arch of that ball, the swing of the bat, the beauty of a story. This is what I love. This is art.
What has changed you?