It’s softball season at the Jowers house—high school softball season, to be exact. After the high school season, there’ll be the summer season, which takes us right up to the fall season. Then there’s the off-season, during which a dedicated softball player trains her ass off so she’ll be ready for the next spring season.
Truth be told, it’s been nonstop softball season at the Jowers house for 13 years now, ever since daughter Jess joined a YMCA tee-ball team when she was just a little bit taller than the tee. Jess batted 1.000 that year, because there has never been a 4-year-old who could throw out a kid who hits down the third-base line. Even if there were such a gifted child, there is no chance she would be on a team with a clean-catching first baseman. In the big-toddler game, every thrown ball hits the ground, then rolls until the momentum’s spent.
Jess’ ball-playing career is mostly my doing, brought on by my addiction to baseball, which took hold back home in South Carolina. At Burnettown Elementary School, there was a long-standing tradition of boys starting to play baseball as soon as they reached the third grade.
There was a makeshift baseball diamond on what used to be the old high-school football field. We didn’t have bases, just worn-out spots in the grass made by the boys who’d played sandlot ball there for the last 40 years. With the exception of Easter Sundays and Mothers’ Days, we Burnettown boys played on that ball field from New Year’s Day until the last day of the World Series.
About the same time I was teaching tee-baller Jess to smack every ball down the third-base line, my buddy Tony called and asked me if I’d like to join a coaches’ pickup game down at McCabe Park. I hadn’t played ball since the Jazz Band Musicians took on the Literary Magazine Staffers back in college. I had fond memories of ending that game by singling over the magazine photographer’s head, scoring the saxophone player from second. Twenty years later, I couldn’t resist Tony’s invitation to get on a ball field. When I got to the McCabe field that crisp fall night, my third-grade ball addiction jumped all over me like heroin jumps on Keith Richards. The addiction, along with the smell of the dirt and the grass and the feel of a well-worn glove on my hand, made me believe I was 8 years old again.
That night, the teams were made up of thirty- and fortysomething Little League coaches, and one coach’s kid, Jim, who was a dang fine ballplayer, considering he was 6 years old.
Once we got started, all my ball skills and bad habits came right back to me. I could catch a thrown ball, but fly balls went right over my head. I could still hit well enough, mostly because we were playing slow-pitch.
Late in the game, 6-year-old Jim hit a hard ground ball down the right-field line. The right fielder made an accurate—but late—throw to me at second. By the time the ball got to me, young Jim had rounded the bag, heading for third. My third baseman was out of position, and we didn’t have a catcher. So, don’t you know, my only option was to intercept Jim and tag him out. I figured I could cut him off about halfway between third and home. I got to that spot a little late, though, and I had to run hard and lean forward to make the play. I made the game-saving tag when I smacked Jim on the back and sent him skidding across the dirt with his arms and legs outstretched, Superman-style.
Just then, I snapped out of my trance. I wasn’t 8 years old anymore. I was a full-grown man, standing over a crying, skinned-up 6-year-old who was 30 years younger and 150 pounds lighter than me.
Clearly, softball can make a person crazy. It’s taken me about 10 years to drive it into my own head that I’m a ball daddy and a ball coach, not a third-grader having more fun than Peter Pan.
I’ve seen ball coaches get hauled away in police cars. I’ve seen Chattanooga ball mamas get in hair-pulling, bra-snatching, face-scratching fistfights. I’ve seen ball daddies and ball mamas plot and scheme to herd their daughters into high schools that will give them the best chance of playing in college.
Now, in the last trimester of daughter Jess’ ball career, I think the best part of the whole ride might just have been tee-ball, when the kids didn’t even know if they had won or lost.
The bittersweet part is feeling the time compression between tee-ball and the end of a kid’s sports career. Somewhere along the line—probably after his kid’s last high school or college game—a ball daddy will cue up a mental highlight reel that includes every game he ever played or watched. Whether his kid plays for one season or 20, a ball daddy will come up on a day when he realizes that all the sports memories of two generations fly by faster than his kid’s first home run gets over the fence.
Me, I’m planning on savoring every hit, pitch and play of the last trimester. Maybe if I do it just right, it’ll seem to last just a little bit longer.