Last week, after seven years of playing softball for her school, daughter Jess pitched her last five shutout innings, got her last high-school hit and suffered her last defeat at the hands of another high school team. When the final out was recorded, I walked out of the first-base coach’s box, raised up my hands and said, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m ball-free at last!”
Don’t get me wrong. I have thoroughly enjoyed my daughter’s softball career. I was the one who put her on a YMCA T-ball team when she was 5, then moved her up to Little League. I was the one who took her out to Club K, where I sat on a 5-gallon plastic bucket and caught her early pitches mostly on my shins, but sometimes with my mitt. I was the pilot of the minivan, driving Jess and wife Brenda to summer travel ball tournaments, where free-ranging Cheeto-eating ballplayer siblings stepped on my feet, spilled soda in my lap and spit their chewing gum out right where my shoes—and my shorts—would find it.
I endured the pitchers’ daddies and mommies, who planted themselves on the fence behind home plate so they could get eyeball-to-eyeball with their pitcher-daughters and yell stridently, “stay tall” and “just throw strikes,” and “bring it up” and “get it down.”
Every time I witnessed this over-coaching and under-parenting, I thought about the milk-toasty boy back home in South Carolina who got out of bed one night, went out to the backyard shed, then came back with a hatchet and caved in his parents’ skulls. I could envision a young softball pitcher walking into the master suite with her 300-dollar Mayhem bat and settling scores while growling through her gritted teeth, “Strike One! Strike Two! Strike Three! Yerrrr out!”
I had my own troubles and upsets every travel ball weekend—I’d bite my tongue, lips and cheeks every time a coach-daddy would sit my kid on the bench and run his slow-footed, sloppy-throwing, loopy-swinging daughter out onto the field. And he’d leave her out there all day, throwing pitches in the dirt, stopping slow grounders with her even slower feet, batting fourth, and playing shortstop when she wasn’t pitching.
You daddies who have kids who want to play ball, listen to me: start your own team, when your kid’s 8 years old. The equipment, training and travel expenses will cost you plenty, but not as much as the years of psychotherapy you’ll need if you watch your kid sit while the coach’s kid, the assistant coach’s kid and the dugout mama’s kid get all the playing time.
And if you care deeply about ball, if errant throws and caught-looking strikeouts just eat at your soul, don’t enroll your kid in a fancy high-achiever school. Homework and studying will eat up all of the time she could’ve spent working on her game, and the school will never have nine good ballplayers at the same time. Of course, if your kid goes to a high-achiever school she could end up curing cancer, which, in the long run, is more important than playing ball.
Now, with high school ball officially over, I can joyously play daughter Jess’ highlight reel in my head. A few years back, there was the day she hit the ball over an outfielder’s head for the first time. I could barely contain my joy when I saw that left fielder look up, turn and run for the fence.
A few weeks ago, Jess was pressed into service as shortstop. The batter hit a ball hard into the gap between short and third. Jess ranged far to her right, backhanded the ball, then gunned the runner at first base. When the next batter smacked a ball into the same spot, she did it again. That’s the kind of thing that makes up for the 100-degree days at a muddy Chattanooga ballpark.
After Jess’ high school team was eliminated from the regional tournament last week, she and I walked off the field together. “I’m in denial,” she said. “I want to go to the 13th grade.”
“Yeah, well, they call that college,” I replied.
Though I’m high-school-ball free at last, Jess will continue her softball career next spring with her college team. I’m looking forward to driving to the ballpark for weekend doubleheaders and being one blissful bleacher-sitting daddy.
College softball should be a big improvement over high school ball and summer travel ball. Most college-age ballplayers are too old to have any Cheeto-eating toddler siblings terrorizing the ball daddies. Nine months from now, I can start on a new softball highlight reel and enjoy a college season that’s over before the weather gets hot.
Eventually, though, I’ll have to get used to the fact that there’s no softball after college. All the girls retire when they’re 23 unless they turn pro, which is highly unlikely. So, I’ll have to settle for my ball memories running from the 5-year-old T-ball days to Jess’ last college game.
All in all, a pretty good outcome.
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