The season is over, but Little Man is still wearing his uniform, dirty and stained from that last tournament game. It is hard to let go of something a boy loves so much.
The Reds were a Little League team with a whole lot of heart, and a fair amount of talent to go with it. It was Little Man’s first year to play, and that early spring night of practice, a chill hung in the air when he nervously walked out onto the field for the first time. He was a seven-year-old on a team of mostly eight-year-olds. Several of them were entering the season with four years of play already under their belts. They could field with consistency, and hit with precision, racking up stats that would rival grown men in the Majors.
Little Man had none of that. He was without question the weakest player on the team. That first night, he had no concept of baseball. He had never heard of RBI’s, double plays, or cut-off men. He did not know how to hold a bat, and ducked every time someone threw him the ball,but after that first practice, he talked excitedly about baseball all the way home. One taste of The Great American Pastime, and he was hopelessly in love.
In no time at all, he developed a fierce commitment to his team. No one could outwork him, or felt a loss any deeper. One day, as we rode along in the car, and he sat contemplatively in the back, he told me that he did not have to think about what sport he wanted to play in the fall, or the spring that followed. It was baseball for him, or nothing at all.
Which is why it is so heartbreaking that, for Little Man, success was so elusive. Oh, he made improvement, certainly, but time and time again, the outcome at home plate was the same for him.
Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.
The last game of the season was a battle. Coaches were focused. Boys gave it their all. Parents lost their voices from screaming encouragement. Little Man had a strong hit that made it into the outfield. He stood victoriously on first, as one of his teammates ran across home in his wake. Later on, Little Man made it across home plate too.
But in the end, The Reds fell, and the season was over two games sooner than anyone wanted it to be.
I saw Little Man fighting back tears as he packed his bag to leave the dugout for the last time. I watched the battle for control of his emotions play out in those green eyes as he wrestled his broken heart into submission. By the time he stepped out of the dugout, and took his place with his team to listen to the Coach’s speech one last time, he was fully composed.
The coach called on each boy in turn to stand, and tell the team what they liked most about the season. When he called on Little Man, he stood quickly to attention, looked his coach in the eye and said, “I learned to play.”
“Yes, you did.” The coach replied. “Yes, you did.”
He told his coach good-bye, and that he would see him in the fall. Then, he stoically walked to the car with a third place trophy in his hands.
The minute he made it to the safety of the backseat, he collapsed into sobs. I stood at the door, my eyes filled with tears.
“What’s wrong, buddy?” I asked. “You had a great hit.”
“I just wanted a few more games,” he wailed. “Let’s just go!”
I climbed into the car, and we began the solemn drive home as warm summer winds drifted in through our open windows, and the fireflies crept from their hiding places to light the night.
After a while, his tears subsided. I watched in the rear view mirror as he strapped his trophy into the seat belt beside him for safe keeping, and choked back tears of my own.
I think a lot of us enter parenting with this idea that we are in a position of being mighty overseers of our children. We are so sure of all we will teach them, certain that the years that follow will find us molding their character, fueling their dreams…
What I never realized was how humbling the journey would be for me. When I held my first newborn, no one could have told me how much my children would refine my character, or how much they would teach me.
“I bet that first-place trophy is as big as me,” Little Man said wistfully as he wiped his tears. “But, we did finish third out of twenty-something teams. That’s good.”
I gazed lovingly at my boy in the rear view mirror. Courageous. Resiliant. Loyal, and passionate.
And I knew beyond any doubt that when I grow up, I want to be just like him.