The sun was high in a clear blue sky without a single cloud in it. It was on a the warm side, about 85 degrees, and everyone was sweating only five minutes after getting out of the car. The kids on the Little League baseball team were straggling in, some on bikes and others driven by a parent. A Parks and Recreation guy was just finishing up drawing the baselines with lime from a little push machine. I was standing behind the cage, a backstop made of cyclone fencing. Off the first base line was a little five step bleacher and a few of the parents were settling on it to watch the game. Our team was called the Marmots and the opposing team was named the Cheetahs. Each of the teams were decked out in regulation uniforms, the Marmots in red and white, the Cheetahs in purple and white. I walked out to the pitcher’s mound, which was actually a depression in the dirt rather than a raised hump and dropped a skinny white rectangle of rubber that marked the closest the pitcher could get toward home plate.
“Did you measure that?” hollered a father from the bleachers. He was wearing a Seattle Seahawks jersey over jeans. His most noticeable attribute was not his shaved head, but the fact that he was the approximate size of a two bedroom Winnebago.
“No tape.” I said. The Youth Sports Association was short on funds and therefore short on equipment. The little sledge I used to stake out the bases and home plate was mine. I felt lucky that the Association provided the bases, aluminum bats and a few balls. The kids had uniforms because we parents were required to purchase them, along with an “approved” mitt from a specific vendor with a contract. Seeing the price of the uniform, elbow pads, glove, batting helmet and rubber cleats explained why the owner of the store drove a Mercedes.
“Ya gotta measure that.” yelled the dad. “You can’t just take a guess. I mean, how’re these kids supposed to learn the game if you don’t follow the rules?”
“I could use a hand.” I said. “You wanna come out and pace it off for me?” His answer was a wave of his hand like he was swatting away a mosquito. I actually really could use some help, this was my very first day as a coach. The regular coach got caught up in a divorce and plead his way out of duty when his wife took custody of his son. That’s how Youth Sports got its coaches –it got parents of kids who wanted to play to step up to the plate, as it were. My son Aron wanted to play and so there I was. I had a general idea of how baseball was played, but I wasn’t really into the sport to the point that I understood all of the rules. For the most part I saw it as one kid tried to hit another with a projectile and the target kid tried to smack the ball into kids standing on little pillows arranged in a diamond. If they missed, there were a couple of kids in the outfield who would run after the ball and throw it halfway back to the pitcher. It was the luck of the draw who got it the rest of the way.
Once the bases were all in place, their positions evidenced by circular depressions similar to the pitcher’s mound, I got the clipboard with the scoring sheet and the list of team members. Their positions had been already assigned, and listed next to their names. The catcher was a stocky boy named Tony, heavy for his eleven years. He was easy to recognize as the catcher because he had shin guards and a mask. I sent him to home plate and then called the rest of the kid’s names and sent them to their positions. Standing on the pitcher’s mound was a guy who looked like a parent at first glance. A closer look told me it was a kid, but he had to be almost six feet tall when the rest of the team was lucky to make five feet standing on their toes. I walked out to the mound. “How old are you?” I asked him. He smiled a bashful grin and said he was eleven, going on twelve. I was five eight and I was looking up to talk to him. “Are you sure?” I asked him.
He yelled “Dad!” and the behemoth in the stands stood up and lumbered over with the plodding pace of a wildebeast.
“Whassa matter Bill?” he asked.
“Coach wants to know if I’m really eleven.” said the kid.
Bigfoot looked at me and said “The kid’s tall for his age. You gonna hold that against him?”
“No, it’s just a surprise to see someone his size. He looks like he should be playing on a high school team. Maybe college.” Maybe even the pros, I thought to myself.
“So, he can play? You’re not gonna hassle him?”
“Nope. But if the opposing team’s coach complains you might need to come up with proof of age. Otherwise they can claim a win by default.” I had no idea if that was true, but it sounded like it could be and I was talking to Mr. Regulations. He nodded and grunted and ambled back to his place in the bleacher mumbling something to the effect that if the other coach complained he’d rearrange him like a jigsaw puzzle.
The Cheetahs were first at bat, and a skinny little guy about four feet tall timidly moved to the plate, taking practice swings. His name, according to the sheet was Alain. Everyone seemed ready to go, so I yelled “Play ball!” The Cheetah coach held his hands in a time out gesture.
“You gonna ump this game? I don’t think a coach can be the umpire.” He was fanning through pages on his clipboard. Apparently he had a copy of the rules. I was glad someone did.
“No, I was just getting the game started.” I replied.
“We need to get a few parents to act as umpires. The Association didn’t have anyone for us. We need to pick out at least two, one for home and one for first base.” he said.
“Okay, you wanna get ‘em?”
“Sure. I got a couple parents of my kids who can do it. I mean, unless you think they’d play favorites.” he said.
“How about we each get one and we switch them up each inning?” I proposed. He shrugged and said okay by him. We each went off to our respective bleacher and called for volunteers. None of my team’s parents came forward until I said that if we didn’t provide an umpire then the opposing team would provide both and did they want to risk unfair calls? Finally a lady named Laura said she’d do it. I asked her if she knew the rules and she said she was a diehard Sox fan. I took that as credentials and led her over to meet the other coach. He had two fathers ready and willing to make calls. We played paper, rocks, scissors and Laura took position behind the catcher and Dave, one of the opposing team dads headed for first base.
“Play ball!” hollered Laura, sounding remarkably authoritative. She was forty-something, medium build, and had brown hair tied in a French Braid.
Bill, on the mound, wound up and zapped a fastball that went right by the batter who swung a full second behind the ball’s passing. The ball made a whap! sound as it connected with the catcher’s mitt, the force bowling Tony over backwards into the backstop. He got up, dusted off and returned the ball to Bill with some pepper of his own. I smiled that Bill shook his hand out after catching Tony’s return. The next pitch hit the little guy, Alain, smarlty on his batting helmet. The helmet flew off and Alain tumbled sideways to the ground. I ran over and checked on the little guy. He stood and brushed a buildup of dirt from his uniform and smile weakly at me. I asked him if he was okay and he smiled again and nodded. Laura told him to take his base.
“Hey Bill,” I said, “let’s take it a little easy, okay? You got a lot of power and your buddies here don’t weigh enough to stand up to the inertia of those pitches of yours.”
“Dad!” he yelled. “Coach wants me to lay down on my throws.” Bigfoot lumbered back out to the field. The opposing coach joined the conference at the mound. A discussion ensued about Bill’s ability to throw the heat and how the rest of the kids were, like, half his size. The opposing coach, a guy named Randall, asked Bill’s dad how old his kid was. Dubious about the answer, he asked for proof. Bigfoot started poking Randall’s chest, forcing the coach to step backwards at each prod. Randall, who was average build was still getting annoyed with the verbal abuse he was getting along with the pokes in the chest.
“You need to take your seat or I’m gonna have the ump eject you from the field.” said Randall. Bill’s dad looked over at me.
“He’s got a point. We’re trying to make this fun and teach sportsmanlike behavior. I think you better sit down.” Then I did the unforgivable, I called up our team’s standby pitcher and told him to relieve Bill. The boy, another eleven year old named Bernt, looked pleased and went to the mound and held his glove out to Bill for the ball. Bill, not happy about being relieved, threw the ball well over the backstop where it disappeared into the parking lot. Laura came out from home plate and told him he needed to take the bench for two innings for bad behavior. All of the kids in the infield and standing in the dugout areas were now watching the developments in earnest. Bill reached out, grabbed Laura and pushed her down on the dirt, landing hard on her rump. She immediately hooked a thumb over her shoulder and told Bill he was ‘outta here.’
Wildebeast looked at me and said “You gonna let some skirt fuck up the game? My son can win this thing for the Marmots, no problem. Without him, the rest of these losers stand no chance.”
“Hey man, my son is one of the people you’re calling a loser. I think it’s time for you and your kid to hit the bricks.” I no sooner finished the sentence and Bill’s dad threw a left that hit me like a side of ham fired from a cannon. He was stepping toward me to hit me again when we all heard a pank! noise. The angry dad looked confused and fell over face first into the ground. From behind him appeared his son, holding one of the aluminum baseball bats.
“He was gonna hurt people.” said Bill. He was hyperventilating.
“Whoa, whoa! Kiddo.” I said. Blood was pouring out of my nose and my teeth were stained red from a split lip inside my mouth. “You can’t go hitting people with baseball bats.” Bill, who was standing by with a shocked expression shook himself as if to clear his mind.
“My dad had it coming.” he said. “My mom hits him and he hits her with stuff all the time. It’ll be okay.” He looked at his dad, trying to lever himself back up to his feet. “Look, Mr. K., I really want to lay. Can I stay? I’ll play left field.” I looked at Randall and Laura, who Randall was helping get her feet.
“I don’t know…” she said.
“Well, I’m for letting him try. But I think dad needs to hit the showers.” I said. Randall was nodding.
“Dad there definitely needs to go. I’m gonna file a grievance with the Association and get him banned from the games. But Bill definitely needs to sit out a while. I don’t think much of being pushed.”
I looked over at the kids, and both teams seemed to be packing their stuff. “Look, the kids came out here to have fun. Let’s let ‘em all play.” Randall and Laura looked unsure, but then one after the other, they said okay, so long as the wildebeast left the sports field. Bill’s dad said he wasn’t going anywhere, and if he chose to leave, he’d take his son with him –that they had some talking to do. We were discussing that when a county deputy sheriff nosed his patrol car onto the field and stopped just short of the cluster of adults in discussion. It took a minute to bring him up to speed and he spun Bill’s dad around and bent him over the hood of his patrol unit. He put nylon cuffs on the oversized giant and read him his rights.
“Wait a minute!’ he shouted. “I’m the one got hit.” The deputy didn’t reply, he just pulled the big man upright, marched him to the back door of the unit and put him in the car.
The deputy came back over to the group. “I’m going to take him to the substation and hang onto him for a couple of hours and let him go. I don’t think we need to take it any farther than that. Anyone object to this?” he said. We all shook our heads no, and the deputy smiled and walked back and got in his vehicle. With a quick wave, he pulled off the field and left. People pushing and calling names and getting thunked with bats was not what this was supposed to be about. I looked over and saw Bill was sitting cross legged in the dirt by himself. I went to him.
“I’m sorry.” he said, his eyes tearing up. “I saw him punch you and, …well, I had the bat –I didn’t think.” he said.
I put an arm around him. “You really shouldn’t use a weapon like that. It just escalates things. You get what I mean?” He nodded. “Okay, what do you say we go play some ball.”
The game started back up, this time with a different pitcher. The Marmots lost the game, but not because they didn’t try. Up at bat after sitting out a pair of innings, Bill nailed a grand slam with the bases loaded and one of the parents got the action on video with their phone. I hoped it would go a ways towards placating Bill’s dad. In spite of some excellent plays we still were short two points for the game but the kids took it well. As both teams dove into the snacks that designated parents from each team brought, the kids intermingled and kept the good mood going.
The following weekend when we gathered to play, we came up short a player. Bill was absent. When the next week came and he again hadn’t shown for the game or the two weekday afternoon practices, I inquired about him with the Association office. They told me that Bill had been withdrawn from the roster. I felt badly about that and thought I might go over and speak to his parents to see if they’d let their tall and lanky kid play again. I knew he enjoyed the sport. The office secretary told me not to waste my time when I asked for the address.
“Bill’s parents are divorcing and the boy has moved with his mother over to Marysville. If he plays, it’ll be on a team across the state.” she told me.
“That’s a shame.” I said.
“Maybe it was for the best. His father got arrested.”
I felt heat in my cheeks and mentally kicked myself thinking I should have been better at diffusing the situation. I wondered about the deputy who said he was just going to hold him for a cooling off period. “That’s awful.” I told the woman.
“Awful? That man beat his wife so badly she had to go to the hospital!”
“It wasn’t about the scuffle at the ball field?”
She looked at me with some confusion. “There was a scuffle at the field?” I explained about the shoving match and the punch. I neglected to mention the bat incident. “No, no.” she said. “Apparently Bill’s dad had a history of abuse. He hit both his wife and son and I think he had a drinking problem too.”
I drove home thinking about everything. That poor kid was a standout for his size, probably having a rough time fitting in because he was so much taller than the rest of his peers. He struck me as a good kid; sure, he didn’t strike me as malicious in spite of popping his own father with a baseball bat. I recalled that he’d said his parents hit each other with things fairly often. Understanding the chain of family dynamics, I wondered what kind of guy Bill would grow up to be. Sometimes kids are another link and sometimes kids break the chain.
I think it’s the luck of the draw.