Little League Lost. Babble.com.Tova Mirvis
From the first pitch, I was worried. My ten-year-old son, Eitan, didn’t have the same confident stance as the other kids on his Little League baseball team; he didn’t take major-league-imitating practice swings. For the first few games, Eitan didn’t swing at all.
He’d stopped playing organized baseball years before, after a season of T-ball and half a season of Farm League. In the land of T-ball, there are no outs, and everyone is a winner. In Farm League, the world darkens: there are still no losers but there are outs. When Eitan emerged unprepared into this barely-competitive world and was tagged out on one of his first at-bats, he started to cry, feigning injury to save his pride.
Always a sensitive kid, each of his at-bats became a major tribulation. After a few more outs, and a few more crying spells, he didn’t want to go to the remaining games. The following season, he didn’t want to play again, and not being a force-your-kids-to-do-activities-that-will-require-you-to-drive-them-around-two-or-three-nights-a-week-at-dinnertime kind of mom, I didn’t make him. He played baseball for fun in the backyard and still loved the Red Sox, but despite my husband’s fond memories of playing Little League until he was in high school, I assumed that this wasn’t going to be something in which we took part. So Eitan wouldn’t play sports – there were lots of other things he could do.
Not until my younger son Daniel emerged a rabid sports fan – enacting entire baseball games in our living room, which he narrates in the exact intonation as the announcers on ESPN – did the subject come up again. Daniel was clearly destined for the T-ball field. Maybe it was just sibling rivalry, but his younger brother’s enthusiasm made Eitan reconsider his previous steadfast stance.
“Do you think I should play?” he asked me this past spring, his face a mask of ambivalence and uncertainty.
Or maybe that was my face. In the ensuing years, I’d heard him recount too many stories of “not being good at sports,” and I was wary of wading back into an environment in which I knew he would feel immense pressure. Here was one of those choose-your-own-adventure moments of parenting: Do you force them to go or let them bow out? Do you tell them to toughen up or do you wrap them in consoling hugs? Do you steer your kids to those areas in which you know they will succeed, or encourage them to try new things, even if you can anticipate the meltdowns and self-castigation?
I also wondered why Eitan was interested in playing, when he’d disliked it so much the last time. Had he imbibed the message, out there in the world (and however unwittingly in our house), that boys should play sports? I thought about all those studies celebrating the positive effect of sports on self-esteem, and wondered if for every kid whose confidence is bolstered there is another kid who is scarred by the humiliation.
“Why does he have to play?” a friend asked me when I called to bemoan the potential weeks of baseball ahead, assuming that we (read: my husband) had talked him into this.
“He doesn’t have to. He wants to,” I said.
That was the kicker: As nervous as he was about his athletic abilities, he wanted to try again. Swallowing our own nervousness, we decided that if he wanted to play, we wanted him to play. My husband practiced with him. We reminded him that many of the kids would be older and had played continuously for the last number of years. We talked about good sportsmanship and trying your best, which sounded like platitudes as I put them forth, even though they were what we really believed, right? It’s about trying something new, about physical activity and good sportsmanship. Most of all, it’s about remembering that it’s only a game.
For the ten weeks of AAA Little League, which Eitan was now old enough to play, we stood on the sidelines, next to parents with fold-up sports chairs and detached confidence in their kids’ abilities. In AAA, there are not just outs but winners and losers; somewhere between T-ball and AAA, it stops being cute to run the bases in the wrong direction, to have the ball perpetually roll underfoot. Thankfully, the degree of intensity – on the part of the players, the coaches and the parents – is at least publicly reigned in. This was Little League 2.0, in which we’d all signed a “Zero Tolerance Policy” stating that we would not berate, belittle, demean, nor would we care excessively who won or lost.
But zero tolerance or not, it was hard not to care, really care, how my son played. It’s easier to relax when your child is playing well, harder when you’re worried that your kid will be at bat with the game on the line. Standing by the field, I was all too aware that the other parents may not belittle or berate but can still quietly bemoan. I glanced anxiously at their faces, searching out surreptitious signs of dismay at a bad play. I created my own system of rooting. Forget teamwork. I was happy when his teammates struck out or made a bad play, wanting to spread the errors around. What I wanted most was for Eitan to feel good. I found myself rooting not for the team, but for my son’s sense of himself.
The season moved on, and Eitan began to actually swing the bat, an accomplishment in its own right. The first time he hit the ball, he reigned in his delight, but I could read the joy behind the stifled smile. I cheered loudly each time he made contact with the ball, aware that from the outside, I appeared to be an over-involved, rabidly competitive parent.
They won the season championship, in extra innings. But to my surprise, it was equally rewarding to watch Eitan’s composure when he didn’t hit the ball. His shoulders melted as he walked back to the bench, but there were no tears, no outbursts of anger. By the end of the season, in which he made some good plays and some bad ones, a quiet confidence settled in, as much from his pleasure at what he could do as from his acceptance of what he couldn’t. Though I never fully relaxed, I no longer felt so nervous when he was at bat. I stopped worrying that he wouldn’t be able to handle the disappointment. I stopped thinking I needed to protect him from it.
His team, as it turned out, was really good. They only lost two games. They were in the City Series. They won the season championship, in extra innings. At the end of what turned out to be a surprisingly close game, Eitan was at bat and with two players on and the game-winning RBI in his hands, he swung the bat. Here was the moment we had feared, and which I knew he (and we) had secretly hoped for: the storybook ending of the struggling kid who prevails in the end.
In the real-life version, Eitan swung the ball, he hit, the ball was going, going . . . foul. After that he struck out, but his team won in the next inning, off the bat of the star player. Though it would have been nice for him to make the game-winning play, in that moment, I remembered a different triumph for which he deserved to be hoisted onto a sea of shoulders. Toward the end of the season, Eitan had come into the kitchen as I was packing snacks for another night on the field. Dressed in his uniform, dancing around in anticipation of the game, he said to me, “It’s fun being on a team. Even if I struck out every time, it would still be fun.”
He’d grown over the course of the season. So had I.