When the little league game is 24 to 13, the adults should stop keeping score.
To the kids, it’s still a game, even if spectators want to classify it as competition. Runs, hits, throws and catches are all part of the game; the score only happens when the need for some sort of outcome means more than the process of playing.
Playing, which is different than winning or losing. Playing, which is what kids do.
A hundred years ago, when I dedicated the summers of my elementary school years to the art and science of wiffleball, my friends and I took the game seriously. I grew up on an untamed acre that had been an orchard before my parents bought the land and built a house. In the space between the back of house and a towering black cherry tree was enough room to build a ball field.
We scrounged bases, mowed foul lines into the tall weeds, and fashioned the remainder of a stout wooden fence post into a permanent ballplayer who stood in shallow right field, a mitt attached to the diagonal two by four we’d nailed there are arms. We pulled a cap over the top of the post, painted on a face, and took to calling him Cool Hand Luke.
My dad became a hero when he brought home a length of mesh fencing that we turned into an outfield wall and an actual home plate salvaged from the college where he worked.
It was a labor of love, and a stadium as grand in our minds as Wrigley Field.
All of us played little league as well, and loved baseball, but wiffleball was something different. This was ours.
No adults were ever involved in our wiffleball obsession, except when my mom would bring out snacks or occasionally pick up a bat while I honed my curveball and slider.
We certainly kept score, played tenaciously, and took what we were doing as seriously as Pete Rose did an all star game, but it was also a childhood world of “ghost runners” and quirky home field rules (hit Cool Hand Luke and you got a home run).
I know my memories of those summers are tinted with the sepia tones of nostalgia, but even so, it was wiffleball that I thought about when I sat at my son’s little league game last week and watched a parent from the opposing team assiduously keep score.
Earnest in her work, she tromped up to the scoreboard she’d brought with her every time a six or seven year old crossed home plate and flipped the plastic number to show the crowd the score.
The crowd, not the players. The players didn’t seem to care.
It reminded me, in its way, of a parent who once came up to me at a student award ceremony. She carried her son’s certificate and held it up to me as she made eye contact. “This doesn’t have a date on it,” she said. “Some of the other people’s do,” I assured her that it was okay; these were department and teacher awards, nothing overly formal. “But,” she frowned, “what about colleges?”
Her son, who had stayed behind, might have been happy to have his teacher recognize that he’d done some good work. She was keeping score, or worried that Stanford was.
I’m not bemoaning the world today, or suggesting that there was something uniquely magical about my own growing up. What does strike me, however, is the parallel between the parent keeping score in a lopsided little league game and the adult attitude that everything that can be measured, recorded, and put on a college resume should be.
Sometimes play is play.
Sometimes good work earns congratulations and nothing more.
Sometimes it’s the experiences of childhood that matter more than the accomplishments of childhood.
I’m certain that a week after the fact my son does not know whether it was his team that scored 24 or 13 runs, though I’ll bet he could describe what it felt like to hit the ball out of the infield.
As an educator and a dad, I celebrate the times when our kids -both youngsters like my son and high school students like those I work with- don’t keep score.
I love it when we adults get out of the way and allow them to play for play’s sake, learn for the love of learning, and experience life not because it will look good to a college admissions officer, but because those experiences are theirs.
I don’t fault the parent who brought the scoreboard to my son’s game, but a part to me wishes she could have stopped flipping numbers and enjoyed watching the kids play.