Boys, Baseball, and Life

Baseball practice was underway in the large grassy field at Sandoval School last evening. The coach, a short, spare man in chinos, a tee shirt, and, of course, a baseball cap, pitched to squirts a few feet away. “Squirts” was the only word for them, little guys no older than six or seven, maybe even five, barely comfortable in their own bodies yet. In turn, they caught, or tried to catch, the ball, threw it, as if they were in the far outfield, to another guy, who tossed it back to the coach.
Captivated by their boisterous enthusiasm, I stopped to watch. By the time they’d each been through twice, I had their measure.
There was the stocky one in the green shirt, who let the ball land at his feet, and threw way wide. It didn’t stop him from trying, or from having a good time.
The one in orange also had a good time, shouting the loudest encouragement to his teammates, but he really wasn’t keeping his eye on the ball. He caught it well enough, but didn’t seem to care much that his throw was short. He’d turned around to head to the back of the line before it even reached the catcher. He was there just for the fun. Nothing wrong with that.
Another little guy knew the moves and already had the grace of a born athlete. He held his glove like he knew what to do with it, and when he caught the ball – no surprise – did that sort of backward dance some outfielders do, before using a powerful (for a six-year-old) overhand to land it neatly in the catcher’s mitt.
Then there was the one in white. When his second turn came round, he went into a low squat, knees wide. Coach let loose a volley of Spanish, the words floating away from me on the breeze. I thought maybe he wanted the kid to straighten up, but no, he was just talking about style, and every boy from then on imitated that stance.
“He’s the one to watch,” I thought.
The three or four competent players will do little league, maybe high school teams, then they’ll give it up. My green-shirted friend is having fun now, but sometime soon he’s going to realize this is not his métier. Judging by his build, he’ll be great at wrestling or football. Orange Shirt could probably be good if he chose to be, so the question is, will he decide it’s worth it?
My born athlete is a cipher. He has the raw talent. If he wants to, he can be great, but it all may come so easily to him that he never feels challenged. In that case, he may not reach his full potential, joining the competent boys in short careers.
But the one in white had paid attention last week, and knew the drill. Like the athlete, he made a perfect catch and a perfect pitch, though he put effort into it. You could see he’d practiced. He already appears to take pride in his skill, and already wants to do better. Sure, he was yelling and horsing around with the others, but he also careful paid attention to his pitch, and to the catcher’s moves as he caught and tossed the ball to Coach. He has what it takes to succeed, in this or any other field.
I guess parents, teachers, and coaches sum kids up in this way all the time, then try to help each child in the way that will work best for them – suggesting football for Greenie, maybe special tutoring for the ones with talent but little motivation. Non-parent that I am, it was new to me, and interesting, that you could guess so much so quickly.
Then I let it all go to just watch. I’m not in any leadership role; it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong. I found myself smiling at the sheer American-ness of the scene, with its bright green swathe of grass and the soothing repetition of the practice – pitcher – boy – catcher – pitcher, the excitement radiating from these someday champions. Spring and baseball! I could almost hear the crowd in the bleachers.

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