Archived Opinion

The best reason of all to play

The best reason of all to play

It’s one of those late March days that can’t make up its mind whether winter is really over or might hang on for another of weeks. When the sun elbows through a patch of low, gray clouds, it’s warm enough to take off your jacket, but then the wind picks up and you put it back on.

The boys don’t care. Assembled in little clusters — one near the dugout, another on the bleachers, and yet another in the parking lot — they seem to be paying no attention whatsoever to the proceedings on the field, the tail end of practice for the Waynesville Middle School baseball team. Some of them tried out for the team and didn’t make it, while others didn’t even bother trying out, for one reason or another. So here they are in baseball purgatory, too old for Little League, but not on the school team either. This is what remains, a collection of boys who are neither here nor there, but still want to play the game.

Most of these boys are 13 or 14 years old, that magical age when their voices deepen, their complexions betray them, and their moods are held hostage by inexplicable forces. They are giddy one minute, sullen and withdrawn the next. I’ve known several of them for seven or eight years, from the time they played tee ball and their mothers fussed over them and screamed with delight every time they managed to make contact with the ball and run more or less in the direction of first base, or any direction really. 

I remember their tiny bodies in too-large uniforms that nearly swallowed them whole, as they crowded around a big cooler behind the dugout after the game was over, waiting their turn for juice boxes and little bags of Fritos. In those days, not only were the bleachers filled to capacity, but all along the first and third baselines on the other side of the fence, the players’ relatives sprawled in lawn chairs and on blankets, while some of the dads stood near the dugouts, shouting instructions to their addled sons. Sisters sat with other sisters, looking up from their phones or their homework only when their brothers came up to bat. The concession stand thrived, and somebody usually had a dog straining against a leash trying to get to the field. The atmosphere was pure baseball carnival.

This is something else altogether. The doting mothers have largely vanished, off to yoga or the grocery store or to take a younger sister to her piano lesson. Except for the players and two coaches, almost no one is here. For these boys, the carnival is pretty much over. Which leaves the game itself, and that’s the beauty of it. When these boys were seven or eight years old, there were enough players for seven or eight teams, or even more. Now, the coaches implore the players to scrounge up another couple of their friends to play so that we will have enough players to field two teams.

Very few people will show up to watch them play once the games begin in a couple of weeks. There won’t be Rice Krispie treats and little bottles of Gatorade waiting for them after the game, nor team trips to Zaxbys after a big win. Maybe a cookout or a pizza party after the season is over, if they’re lucky. There will be no participation trophies, and probably no team pictures, unless one of the moms is feeling nostalgic and snaps one with her iPhone.

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What remains and abides is the love of the game for its own sweet sake. The snap of a ball finding a mitt. The metallic ring of an aluminum bat whacking a double into the left field gap. The shaking of a head when a pitch half a foot outside is called a strike. Taking infield practice on gameday, with the starting pitcher warming up in the bullpen. Running out routine ground balls. Rounding first on a sharp single up the middle. Beating the throw from right field to score the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh inning.

All of that is yet to come, but on the first day of practice, it’s just drills, drills, drills. Playing catch, taking grounders, making throws, hitting the cut-off man. They run laps to get back into shape after a long winter’s hibernation in front of their Playstations. They knock the rust off their swings, trying to get their timing back. It will take three or four practices for that.

They punch each other, laugh, and complain about the running. When the coaches close the first practice, they talk about fundamentals, about playing the game right, about knowing every situation, about how the umpires are going to call anything close a strike, so they better be ready up there when the games start in a couple of weeks, and no complaining about bad calls under any circumstances.

It may well be that two or three of these young guys will take another step in their development and make the high school team in a couple of years, but for the majority of them, their days on the diamond are numbered and they know it. They’ve played organized baseball for most of their lives and look forward to it every March as the days lengthen in their daily increments. It has become a part of their lives.

Their coach tells them this just might be the best season ever. It just might be. They are no longer playing for their parents, or the trophies, or the cool uniforms. There is only one real reason left to play. The love of the game is all that’s left, and that’s the best reason to play of all.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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