They’re two magical words that carry a whiff of nostalgia and the promise that spring has arrived.
When I was a youngster, the start of baseball season meant a lot. Oregon winters, gray and wet, lingered long enough to put everyone in the state a bit out of sorts, and the thrill of spring brought with it the additional message that summer was rounding second and heading toward home.
My first opening day as a t-baller saw me put on a t-shirt emblazoned with Burgerville USA and a net backed ball cap without a logo on it’s cheap foam front. It was the 1970s, and little league looked a lot like a bunch of boys playing a pickup game in a vacant lot.
Today my son played in his first t-ball game, trotting out to the field with a uniform that a professional might wear: baseball pants, stirrup socks, and a jersey and cap with the logo of a local minor league team. They looked like six year old miniatures of a pro team.
I know what you’re thinking: this little essay is about to veer off into the garumphings of an old man, bitter he never got his name on the back of a jersey. Ever.
Sure, I look around and see that students today, from kindergarten, like the t-ballers I coach, to seniors in high school have more structured days and polished athletic experiences. I’ll admit that I don’t like kids specializing in one sport over another when they’re still young, and that some moms and dads get so caught up in what they perceive their daughters and sons abilities are that they lose perspective and do and say some foolish things.
But if I remember honestly, there were parents just like those sitting behind the backstop when I was a kid. And they were probably smoking.
Looking at my son’s uniform, I’d also do well to see that it isn’t just aesthetics that have improved. Safety today far outpaces the equipment of even a decade ago, let alone back when I was running around the outfield in jeans.
Even the system -the same system that makes the t-ball team look like they could step into Dodger Stadium- sets as a priority teaching skills and sportsmanship above competition.
I was surprised when I found out that in t-ball we don’t keep score. Every player bats through the order, each hitting a “single” at every at bat (whether the other team throws them “out” or not) and the last batter clearing the bases with a “home run.”
My job as coach, beyond helping the kids with the basics and encouraging them to do their best, is making sure every player gets a turn batting last and playing first base.
I might have thought it all a little “self esteemy” if I didn’t still carry with me the four decade old sting of striking out in t-ball and having to walk back to the bench and sit down. I cried like none of the players on my son’s team will ever cry about t-ball.
As a lifelong educator, former high school coach, and person who likes to think he knows a little bit about youth sports, when I see what our kids have and do, the opportunities and expectations, and the system that both pressures kids to succeed and cautions them against that pressure, I don’t feel like we’re in any kind of descending hand basket.
The world is different. That’s it.
Seventy years ago my dad played baseball with a stick on an all dirt playground in Los Angeles. He must have looked at my Burgerville USA shirt and thought how different the world had become.
And just as it was my parents’ job to help guide me through a world they’d never lived in, but had helped to create, so too it’s the job of all of us adults who work with kids: parents, educators, and coaches, to help them see what matters most: teamwork, fair play, and each other.
Coaching t-ball has given me a fantastic opportunity to get out every week and play with the kids.
The exuberance and sense of fun these six year olds bring, similar I suppose to what the kids on that Burgerville USA team brought back when Ford was president, gives me perspective on what I do as an educator, a coach, and a dad.
The kids will be just fine …if we teach them, love them, and show them we’re there for them when they catch a ball or drop it, when they hit a home run or strike out.
If they still did that.
With the practiced reliability of our national pastime, and the happy hearts that come with spring, it’s hard to argue against the notion that all will be well when we pull our caps down over our eyes, squint out across the diamond, and hear those two words: “Play Ball!”