Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sporting Life

by Pat Hart

My first role in Little League was as little kid playing on the sidelines at my brother’s games. We, the congress of little kids, squatted on a dusty, rocky slope, engineering a violent avalanche or a giant’s rampage as we sent cascades of loose rock over fragile grass and leaf villages. A fine brown dust coated our tanned skin, a rime of sticky sludge mixed with the remnants of a blue Popsicle, gummed up the corners of our mouths.

Brushing the dirt off our shorts created a pleasing dust cloud. First, we noticed that the more dirt, the bigger the cloud. Then, the harder you smacked the back of the shorts, the bigger the cloud. Soon we were all sliding down the hill, leaping up and frantically smacking our own butts. By synchronizing our efforts we could create a cloud that, with the help of a gentle breeze, reached first base. It was when we began manually loading the shorts, dropping fistfuls of fine dirt down the back of our pants, that one of the mothers noticed us.
She jerked the back of her son’s waistband open and looked in:

“He poured dirt IN his underpants!” she exclaimed to the other mothers.

Soon we were all subjected to this humiliating inspection by an exacerbate group of waistband snapping women and sent to sit in the grass on top of the hill for the remainder of the game.

Today, I am one of the seemingly docile mothers arranged in a line of portable chairs, the non coaching Dads drifting behind us, the younger children playing and inventing new ways to coat themselves with grime.

…seemingly docile…

The experience of watching my son play baseball is a wicked blending of agony and pleasure. Joy and despair lay down side-by-side and the game twists them together. By the end of the game, you feel stretched and sticky.

My son is an All-Star. He was king of his regular season team. He could pitch, hit, field and, after a downpour, walk on puddles. His father and I sat on the sidelines graciously, modestly, accepting compliments from other parents on his prowess.

Later, we would crow to each other: What a great play! Did you see that hit? -WHAM a homer! How agile! How talented! How wonderful!

Then the slump came.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

It’s a high fly! -BOINK out of his glove.

Picked off base.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

And before you know it your darling of the diamond is sitting on the bench and playing left field. The other parents say things like: “He almost got a piece of that one.” And: “Joey had a slump once, oh it was terrible.” And you think, ‘Yeah, well Joey’s not having a slump now is he?’

Now every single, stinking game seems to come down to my kid, at bat, bases loaded with two outs.

Whiff, whiff, whiff.

And even though you’re his mother you want to yell:
“Get out of the game, you bum!” which, frankly, does not meet virtually anyone’s idea of motherly behavior.

After one such horrific game my husband and I stood grimly on the sidelines while the coach imparted his final words of encouragement to his bedraggled team. A much-dimmed All Star team crawled out of the dugout, each quietly walking with his parents to the car. The victors bounded around us in the darkening parking lot, their parents recounting their moments of pride as their son performed some incredible feat of baseballism.

My son, two strike outs, two dropped balls in the outfield, one which caused the winning run to score, buckled himself in next to me. Choosing, he thought, wisely to ride home with the kinder, gentler me instead of Dad.

“Well,” he said. “I’ve played better games.”

I wish I could report that I, with calm encouragement, helped him analyze what went wrong, created a plan to target certain skills and then, in a crescendo of nurturing support, bought him an ice cream cone. Together we sat on the bumper watching the sun go down, laughing at the dollop of ice cream on the tip of his sunburned nose.

Instead I said: “I’ve never seen you play so poorly. That was the worse game you have ever had.”

My son’s face registered a shock so profound and deep; his eyebrows shot up so quickly they knocked his cap askew. My honest, unvarnished, unmotherly assessment of his playing elicited a few comments from my son the ones that haunt are:

“But you’re my mother!”
“I thought I was having fun.”

There are two different schools of parenting: Nurture and Subdue. Nurture parents believe their child is a fragile, precious flower that they, through perfect parenting, will cultivate into a fully bloomed human specimen, suitable for planting in the oval office. Ont he other hand, Subdue parents view their children as exotic invasives; unsown, foreign plants invading and disrupting the natural, peaceful garden of their lives.

The strain of All-Star baseball had driven me to switch camps –the hell with miracle grow, time to fire-up the weedwacker. In a few days my son, his psyche rather brutally trimmed, returned to the field and put a permanent end to his strikeout streak.
And though my brief vacation from full time self esteem building paid off in improved performance, I still find myself sitting on the sidelines ambivalent about my role.

I now frequently take breaks from watching the games and yesterday I noticed the little kids, the player's younger siblings amusing themselves with a new game. They were leaping from the third tier of the bleachers and landing flatfooted in the dust. When they landed a spray of blue liquid shot up between their toes. I nudged the mother next to me and pointed at her youngest son.
“Hey, Joan,” I said. “Patrick is pouring Slurpee into his sandals…”


Tory said...

I sat through years of watching my Dad and bro. in a church baseball league. They were really, really bad for year after year, always coming in at the bottom of the roster. After, my brother and Dad would sit in the car, planning how their next game would be better. Then, one year, everything came together, and they ended up second in the league. Then they go discharged from the league for swearing.

While they were bad, though, I remember the perennial discussion, "Are we here to have fun, or here to win?" The answer, "It's fun to win!"

Joyce said...

Excellent post, Pat!

I think you did the right thing telling your son he played a bad game. We don't do our kids any favors when we coddle them. Hearing the truth helps them out later in life, when they fail an exam, don't get the part in the play, etc. Too many kids are raised with the idea that they're "special" and expect everything to go their way. Life isn't like that.

You sound like a great Mom!

Christa M. Miller said...

My kids are still little, so I haven't had to tell them any hard truths yet, but from experience I can say that sometimes they do need the people they love most to tell them they can do better. I believe in unconditional love, absolutely, but you didn't tell him you wouldn't love him anymore if he didn't improve - just that you knew that he could, which is definitely another way of saying "I love you." Thanks for the good example!

lisa curry said...

Pat, I know from firsthand experience that watching your All-Star son yield an un-All-Star-like performance at baseball can cause you to temporarily abandon your parenting principles. I rarely let my kids drink soda (or, as it's better known here in the 'Burgh, "pop"), and I NEVER let them drink Coke, Pepsi or Mountain Dew, because caffeine transforms them into weapons of mass destruction. But last 4th of July, Sean's All-Star team was getting the snot beaten out of them at every game, and Sean appeared to have dropped into a coma at shortstop. So I sent his dad into the dug-out with a can of Pepsi -- and not the caffeine-free variety, either. I tell myself it wasn't so bad, because it worked -- he woke up and played ball -- and after all, some mothers give their kids Mountain Dew and Pepsi every day. But there's this little voice in my head that says, "Yeah, but YOU don't, and he knows it. Just wait -- in another 10 years when he gets busted for using steroids, you'll have to live with knowing you set him on the slippery slope of using performance-enhancing substances at the tender age of seven!" Who ever knew parenting was going to be so difficult?

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