Baseball Mom: The Big Game

I’ve been attending these Junior Varsity games of Ryan’s and they’re fun. I watch the boys, talk with parents and listen to the banter from the dugout. As always, Ryan is laid back. He’s not a starter, but fills in to pitch as closer on occasion, takes his place in left field usually somewhere around the fifth inning, and in between innings, runs out to the foul line to throw warm up pop flies to one of the outfielders. He’s always smiling, and throwing goodhearted punches into the arms of his buddies. He tells jokes sitting on the bench. He makes my life as a baseball parent non-stressful.

As I think about Ryan’s older brother Ben’s experience, I am reminded how different a position I was in. Ben’s seriousness carried over to me as a parent and most of the time, my stomach knotted with anxiety. There is no more gratifying and worse feeling than being the mother of a starting high school pitcher. Much of the game rides on the arm of your child, and you can’t help him. That feeling overwhelmed me on May 20, 2006…

Ben was the starting pitcher in the State Championship High School baseball game. The team had traveled to Colonial Heights the night before, and Ben woke at 5:00 the morning of game day. He wandered down to the hotel lobby, surprised to find the head coach there.

The man had coached the boy since he was nine years old playing Little League ball. “What are you doing up this early?” he asked Ben.

“I could ask you the same thing Coach. I’m feeling sick to my stomach. I could puke.”

“Me too Ben, I couldn’t sleep for my stomach turning flips. I guess it’s the excitement, coming this far and knowing that in seven hours, all the learning and teaching comes down to one final game, seven innings, forty two outs. You know, my Daddy always said, ‘You have twenty-four hours in a day and you can only play baseball for two of them, you better play hard.’ These next two hours of baseball are what we’ve been practicing for since you were in little league.”

“I just think it’s nerves, Coach.”

“Yeah, that too, ” his mentor agreed. Then he leaned back in the lobby chair and closed his eyes. “I have one piece of advice for you Ben.”

“What’s that?”

“Go out there and have fun today. You’ve worked hard for this and have the skill you need to win. Just go out there and enjoy it. Not many boys get the chance. I never did.”

Ben took the mound, and his buddies, all the boys he’d played ball with since seventh grade, slapped his glove with theirs and took their defensive positions. They read each other’s thoughts, knew what to do without saying a word. The whole stadium was quiet.

Four innings went without a score. The pitchers dueled. In the fifth inning, Ben came up to bat. The other team had pitched him killer fast balls all game, and he was just missing them. After two strikes, the pitcher made the mistake of throwing Ben a slow curve. He waited for it and when he swung the bat, the ball shot in a line drive to the fence in the right field corner. The six foot six inch slowest runner on the team hit a stand-up double with no outs. He bounced up and down on second base in his excitement, like a kid in Kindergarten.

The coach called time and asked for a courtesy runner for his pitcher. Ben and Rowan high fived each other as Rowan took Ben’s place on second. Ben went to the bench and just like in little league, he gripped the chain link fence as if his hold on it could insure Rowan the swift feet he needed when Hunter came up to bat.

Hunter hit the ball down the first base line. The coach waved Rowan around third and on to home. The ball came in to home from right field on a line. Rowan slid out, dragging his hand across home plate, as the tag missed him. The team had one run. It was Ben who came across the plate on the feet of his teammate, Rowan.

Ben continued pitching. It was the bottom of the seventh inning. Miller was winning 1-0. They just needed three outs. Two came easy, a pop fly and a ground out to first. Nothing’s ever been easy for Ben though. Being a big kid with learning disabilities made school, baseball, and making friends a struggle. Playing in a state championship game would prove no different. His pitch to the third batter missed its mark. The kid got a hit up the middle. Ben faced the next hitter with a runner on first. That was ok, he just had to get one out, no harm done. The next batter connected with two strikes on him and suddenly Ben had the tying run on second base and the winning run on first.

The team began to sweat. Ben took off his glove and wiped his hand across his face. He took his hat off and put it back on again, pulling the brim down with purpose. He looked over at his coach, who called time, and walked slowly to the mound.

”How does steak sound for dinner tonight Ben?”

“What Coach?”

His coach smiled. “Just trying to take your mind off the batter, that’s all. Look, you just need one more out, just one more. Remember what I said, it’s all about pitching smart, not hard. Keep it low and outside. This boy’s been swinging at those all afternoon and missing. Start with your slider and let’s see what happens. And Ben…”

“Yeah Coach?”

“Have fun.”

They smiled at each other, “Yes sir,” Ben said.

Ben threw the first pitch, a strike. The crowd was on its feet. He threw the second pitch, a foul ball, two strikes. The crowd was holding its breath. Just one more, one more. He threw the next pitch and the bat connected. A shot toward third. Marshall dove and snagged the one hopper, got to his feet fast, and threw the ball in the dirt to first. Kevin, a sophomore who played first when Ben pitched, stretched out and snagged the throw. The first baseman’s foot held the bag, his arm came up fast to show the umpire he had the ball in his glove. The umpire called the runner out. Ben’s team won.

The boys threw their gloves and hats in the air. They piled onto one another in the field like a bunch of happy puppies. The crowd screamed, jumped up and down, cheered and hugged one another like they had been the ones to catch that last out. Ben thundered off the field and picked up his coach in a bear hug.

The players took turns holding the State Championship trophy, having their pictures taken with it, kissing it. The Coach pulled his car to the middle of the stadium parking lot, opened the doors to the jeep, cranked up the stereo to the team’s theme song, ‘My Girl’, the one from his own baseball days. The boys danced.

“Hey Coach,” Ben called over the music. “What do you say we go get that steak for dinner? I’m starving.”

The game and the day had worn me out. Ben wanted steak and all I could envision was a hot bath and bed.

 

Baseball Mom: The Big Game © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read the first two in M Dawn’s baseball series here and here.

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