Youth Sports

I sat rocking in the dirt, my hands pressed to my eye. I could feel the throb of my pulse surging out from the eye like the waves from a rock dropped into still water. Tears were building in the eye and it made me angry. If the other kids saw the tears I’d never hear the end of it. Young minds lacking education are always quick to mercilessness, ignorance substituting cruelty for understanding. I’d been hit with a baseball. It was a direct hit, thrown at some sixty miles an hour by one of the bigger kids in the Saturday afternoon sports my parents made me go to. I hated going, I wasn’t that good at organized sports, preferring instead to get my exercise climbing the rocks by the water in front of my home. Or by swimming in the waters of Long Island Sound or maybe just riding my bike. But I didn’t think much of the baseball, basketball and football that my parents jammed into my Saturday afternoons. As if to prove my point, I was nursing what would become a black eye, already the skin cells were becoming inflamed, swelling up to create that sore puffiness that would close the eye for a day or so.

“You gotta be ready!” barked the coach. “You gotta take this seriously. You’re hurting because you weren’t paying attention.”

“I’m hurting because that jerk hit me in the eye with a baseball.” I growled back. A mistake. His ire was apparent and immediate. He strode over to where I was and jerked me off the ground, gripping my bicep.

“You don’t belong here.” he told me. He went on to explain that I was weak and undisciplined, and that I didn’t know when to keep my mouth shut and learn. The kids on the field had clustered in around me and the taunts were beginning. I was staring daggers at the coach when one of the kids slapped me on the back of my head. I turned around to see amused faces, all with the same ‘who me?’ look. The coach said “You see? See what I mean? You don’t belong here.”

I pushed away from the circle, planning to just get my bike and go home. But kids, never knowing when they’ve won their point, one of them put a foot out and tripped me. I fell face first into the loose dirt by the home plate, laughter rising from the kids like a flock of seagulls suddenly taking flight. I jumped back up, the bat still in my hands, and swung with all my might, narrowly missing three noses. The kids broke the circle, jumping back alarmed.

“I’ll take that bat!” said the coach. I flipped it towards him and it struck the ground, bounced, and spinning end for end stopped when the ball at the handle end of the bat smacked him in the crotch solidly. The color drained from his face and he sagged to his knees.

“You don’t know when to shut up and learn.” I told him. “You should be paying attention. Right? Isn’t that what you said?” I turned and walked to my bike, leaving a startled group of kids, their mouths all making an ‘o’ and their eyes wide. The coach didn’t reply he was too busy trying to get his breath back. As I walked, I felt the heat and the redness of embarrassment and dread rising in my face and ears. I hadn’t meant to hit him with the bat. But it was all over now, I’d swung at the taunting faced and connected with the coach. For some time after, the kids at school would part like the Red Sea before Moses as I approached, putting a hand to the ear of a friend to lean in and whisper to them about me. For all of the wrong reasons I had their respect, kids not knowing the difference between respect and fear. The two are interchangeable at that age.

I spent the rest of the afternoon doing what I liked to do. I played on the rocks, acting out a story of pirates and treasure hunting on the huge coastal rocks where the Sound eternally slapped the shoreline. You can tell the time by the sound during the summer. The boats, all different kinds, would vanish at suppertime, their captains and mates in swim suits and Bermuda shorts heading home to eat and call it a day. I made my way back home, and saw in the distance the front door of my house, my father and the coach standing there shaking hands. They were smiling as the coach turned and retreated down the path to the driveway and his car. I went into the house through the back door, in hopes of getting upstairs before my father would see me.

I failed. In that teleportation parents are sometimes capable of, he had moved from the front porch to stand in front of the stairs that led up to the bedrooms. “I want to talk to you.” he said, and pointed to the den. The den is where my father would hold his short trials, where he was judge, jury and executioner. It was that room in which I suffered lectures, groundings, and spankings, depending on the depth of my crime. I walked under my father’s disapproving glare into the den to accept my fate. I was resigned to the worst of my imaginings. I stood in the center of the room as my dad pulled the chair from under the desk and turned it to face me. He sat down and looked at me, considering me with his head tilted to the side a little.

“A black eye, eh?” he said. It wasn’t a question but I nodded once and shrugged. “You know what you did wrong so we won’t spend any time talking that over.”

“I didn’t mean to hit him. I was just tossing him the bat.”

My father looked at me, obviously confused. “What?”

“The coach. I didn’t mean to hit him. The bat bounced up and just hit him. It was an accident.”

“The coach didn’t say anything about being hit with a bat. He was here to say that he didn’t believe that you were getting anything out of the sessions. That kids needed to be having fun with sports or it wasn’t worth the effort. So, what’s this about hitting him with a bat?” Busted. Hoisted on my own pitard. I explained the events of the day to my dad and he sat there and listened. When I was done, he shook his head. “You swung the bat at the other kids? Jesus, son. You could have hurt them. Christ, you could have killed somebody.” He shook his head and looked at me, a deadpan that was concerned.

“I was tired of being taunted. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t understand.”

My dad looked at his lap and thought. “I think I do understand. All of us go through that kind of stuff growing up. Even as adults. I have people at the company who do that kind of stuff too. For some people, its the only way they can feel better about themselves. They have to look down on someone to feel big. Of course, there will be hangers on who support them, even if they don’t really feel the same way. People will make groups, and those groups will be more important than reason. It will always happens and so you just have to accept that.”

I kind of got it. “So, what do you do about it?” I asked.

“Why nothing. All you can control is yourself, son. You didn’t do that.”

“Yeah.” I sad quietly.

“Well, I was just going to tell you that the coach and I agree that you should do something you like instead of what you mother and I think you should like. But hearing what you had to say. Well, I can’t let it go. I appreciate that you were honest and told me about this, but I can’t let it go.”

I sighed. “Okay.” I said.

“I want you to write me a paper. Three thousand words on the subject of violence and ways to defer violence in favor of a more peaceful way to resolve conflicts.”

“Daaad!” I whined. I made the single word into two syllables.

“Don’t dad me. Go ahead on and work on it. Use the encyclopedia here.” he gestured to the volumes on the bookcase. “No television until it’s completed, and it had better be good.” He stood up. I was dismissed. He stood there as I turned, and slump shouldered, stomped out and up the stairs to my room.

I have to say that was one of the most measured sessions I’d had with my dad. I came to feel badly that I had assumed that my coach had come to the house to squeal on me when he hadn’t. He was looking out for me and explaining to my father successfully what I had been unable to convey. He was a good and decent man, and I knocked him in the groin with a baseball bat. I made it a point to call him on the telephone the next day to apologize. My father overheard me as I sat in the same den making the call. When I came out he asked me how the paper was going. I told him I had a ways to go.

The following weekend I presented my paper to my father at breakfast. He sipped orange juice and nibbled on bacon as he read it. “This is very good.” he said. He didn’t glow nor did he find fault. Just those words. After breakfast he asked me what my plans for the day were. I told him I had none. He said he had some errands to make, and maybe I’d like to come along. That wasn’t my idea of a great Saturday, going with my dad to the hardware store or wherever. But I agreed to go along and we climbed into his car. He didn’t turn towards Darien, instead he turned the other way towards Rowayton and to the marinas. He parked in front of Jenkin’s Boat Yard and we went into the shop. Old man Jenkins looked up from something he was reading at the counter and smiled. He greeted my dad and told him that “it was waiting on the pier.” My dad put a hand on my back and guided me back out and down to the waters edge. “This is for you he said.” He pointed to a 20 foot Boston Whaler with a sixty horse Mercury outboard. “We’re a Navy family. You should know something about boats.”

Stunned, I walked to the boat and looked at it. “This is mine? It’s not the family boat?”

“All yours, son. But you will have to be responsible about it. You have to take care of it, pay for your own gas. That means you;ll have to find work. Your mother and I have a lot of jobs, and the neighbors have a lot of things I’m sure you can make some money at. The first thing though, is you have to get it home. You should go take it out a while on the way. See how it works you know.”

I fairly jumped into the boat, it rocking gently with my application of weight. I balanced a moment and then looked up at my dad and saw him smiling at me. I got back out of the boat and wrapped my arms around him. “Thanks, dad. Thanks.” I said. I felt tears in my eyes and quickly wiped them away.

“Go on.” he said. “Get out of here.”