The end came Thursday night with the batter going down on two outs with three called strikes in Delco. The second and third graders barely had time to register the disappointment before lining up along first base to wave their caps toward the winning opponent. It was impossible to be angry at the little dudes who’d just vanquished your own little dudes for a slot in the championship game.
No one, you’re thinking in that moment, has actually lost. It only says so on the scoreboard. The real competition already has been won. Every young Little Leaguer who set foot on a baseball diamond these last 12 weeks has prevailed over a dismal pandemic year. Kids who came out of isolation and its quarantine lingo of “death,” “infection,” and “virus” took a chance on how to be normal again. On learning how to play like kids again after fearing the worst for nearly every moment of the past year of their young lives.
The kids got the job done.
When the boys and girls on my sons’ inaugural Little League teams first came out for practice in March, they did so with masks on. Same with dads and moms on the field and the sidelines. COVID-19 infection rates were high. Long-awaited vaccines were barely squeezing into the suburbs of Philadelphia in sufficient enough quantities to satisfy extraordinary demand. The kids and adults got to know each other only by names. Facial features were obscured, chairs were safely distant.
We were emerging from a year of hell. We nudged our kids out because, enough already. Because after a year of watching them turn pasty-faced and paranoid in front of computer screens at home, after a year of no birthday parties or mixing with other classes even at school, it was time to start punching back at the forces of nature that had stolen so much from so many.
My husband became an assistant coach by accident of understaffing.
It was a gift. The man who’d once been a high school outfielder in Montgomery County and remains a stalwart Phillies fan in adulthood was suddenly playing ball again in Delaware County while juggling work and the worries of dadhood. Dare I say he was on Cloud Nine.
I was the green one in the mix — besides the kids, of course. I knew the game as a fan but was utterly perplexed about the ways and means of this rite of spring as a parent. I got sticker shock at Dick’s Sporting Goods. I hunted down hand-me-downs and even scored a bucket of used balls at deep discount.
A former preschool teacher heard my Facebook scream. She invited me to her front door and offloaded an unwanted backpack and a pair of old bats from when her now-big boy was at the front end of elementary school, like mine. I thanked her with olive oil, chocolate, and a smile.
Good karma was pushing this pandemic resistance project forward.
The first grader joined what they call machine pitch. He could barely catch an underhanded lob from two feet away. But this was as entry level as things got for kids too young to have learned the game before COVID shut it all down. The ball in machine pitch flings out of a spinning feeder so fast that, when it ricocheted off the bat and onto his shin at Practice No. 1 or No. 2, we got instant tears, a pledge to “shake it off,” and a day-old bruise the size of a golf ball. The kid flinched just about every day after that whenever the screamer came toward him.
The second grader, who at least had played tee ball once, hooked into a slightly more sophisticated minors division. For the first few games, the kids were so unprepared from having been stuck at home that no one pitched straight, no one caught a thrown ball, and just about every score came off a pileup of RBI walks.
It was beautiful.
The kids were outside. The parents were outside. The kids and the parents were outside and around each other. All of this novel. The grass was green and getting greener with each passing day. The spring turned from chilly to hot to chilly to wet to hot again. The sun baked the pasty white off the boys’ necks and cheeks. Dad coaches baked, too. They sneaked hard throws to each other during breaks in practice drills. You started to wonder how good they once were. You started to think that they, too, missed being kids at play, and that maybe this was where they were trying to remember that again, too.
You realized that everyone out on this field, on the sidelines, on the bleachers, was grateful. As each week passed, more of us got vaccinated, fewer neighbors were contracting COVID-19. Masks came off. We saw each other’s faces. The coaches were no longer muffled while shouting into the outfield:
“THROW THE BALL! THROW IT IN! THROW IT IN!”
Nervous looks in the batter’s box in March gave way to swaggering smiles and blurring bats by June. In the dugout during games, the kids would flip each other’s caps off when they weren’t cheering each other on. You could swear they’d all grown taller in just the 12 weeks of play.
Yes, they’d figured this out. How to be kids playing with kids. And so had we.
As I said. It was a win.