THREE MONTHS AGO, Little League season descended upon my family like a rabid sewer rat from hell—aggressive, relentless, and intent upon eating its young.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our national pastime just as much as the next flag-flying, beer-swilling, foam-finger-waving fan. And were I a man (complete with ballpark beer belly), I, too, would strip down to my Underoos, coat my “moobs” with body paint, and scream myself hoarse, all in the name of baseball.
No, it’s Little League that I have a beef with. Specifically, the bastardization of what was once a pleasant rite of passage known to most, simply, as a “game.”
First the sport lures the kinder-set in with T-ball, a cuddly introduction to hitting and running that allows parents to get a chuckle out of their children’s still-developing hand-eye coordination.
But then along comes second grade, and with it your kid’s promotion to Little League. It’s time to get serious. After all, your young, bat-wielding warrior might just be the next Hank Aaron. That is, if Mom and Dad can afford the private pitching coaches and the right $300 DeMarini bats.
As the mother of three baseball-playing boys, I’ve been around the dugout long enough to have seen seemingly upstanding, rational parents succumb to the pressures of Little League. In fact, I live down the street from just such a sports fanatic, a man I call “Macho Coach.” With his razor-sharp crew cut and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! attitude, the man has cut a legendary swath of terror through the youth baseball scene while coaching his son up through the “Majors”—the furthest your child can go in terms of Little League glory. Four years ago, after taking a swing at a high school umpire, Macho Coach was banned from the game. Undaunted, he camouflaged himself in a nearby bush and called in more plays to the assistant coach on his cell phone.
So when my 11-year-old son, Cameron, signed up for AAA baseball and my 8-year-old, Parker, joined an AA team, I was determined not to let it rule our lives. All that mattered was having as much fun as possible.
They stared at me as if to say, I see, your son’s afraid of the ball; I’m so sorry for your loss.
Sure, I got some dirty looks from other parents when I shouted out subversive slogans like, “It’s only a game!” But the real pressure began to mount after Parker’s first practice two days later. Though brimming with the necessary enthusiasm, Parker, I feared, had inherited my dubious athletic ability—whenever the ball flew in his direction, I glimpsed sheer panic in his eyes. I knew that look. I’d invented that look. But if fashion counts, he wore the uniform quite well … with the exception of his helmet, which my husband, Mark, had purchased from a discount bin at Sports Authority.
“What’s with the giant face guard?” I’d asked Mark. It was a normal baseball helmet in every way, except for the mesh of protective wire that covered Parker’s tiny face almost entirely.
“It was 50 percent off!” my husband replied, as if that explained everything.
Looking like a miniature gladiator, Parker wore the helmet to his first practice. Inevitably, it drew the immediate attention of the other parents. They all wanted to know who the “special” boy in the football helmet was.
“It’s not a football helmet,” I said defensively. “It’s a discount baseball helmet with a face guard!” In response, the parents stared pityingly at me, as if to say, I see, your son’s afraid of the ball; I’m so sorry for your loss.
As the season continued, I rooted for Parker as, time and again, he staggered onto the field and, laboring under the weight of the helmet, swung and missed the ball completely.
Other parents offered platitudes. “He’s so sweet!”
I began to loathe them.
My it’s-just-a-game enthusiasm had begun to morph into fierce protectiveness, which turned into full-on maternal rage when the coach, who couldn’t remember Parker’s name, began calling him Petey. The name stuck. I was even corrected by another parent who overheard me cheering for my son during a game. “Who are you cheering for?” she demanded. “That’s Petey! He’s adorable.”
“Yeah … adorable,” I muttered.
I’d had enough of adorable Petey and his helmet-head. He probably can’t see through that huge face guard, I rationalized. Maybe the helmet’s too heavy for him. I was convinced that Petey, freed of the wire protrusion, would lose his “special” status and become just one of the guys. While other parents were determined to drive their boys to super stardom, I, too, had a mission, albeit a less lofty one: I simply wanted my boy to fit in.
Arriving home with my family one evening after yet another aggravating practice with Petey, I finally snapped. Grabbing the helmet from the trunk, I slammed it onto the hood of the minivan and, like a deranged magician, pulled a hacksaw from a nearby shelf for all to see. Look, nothing up my sleeve here.
Mark, Cameron, and Parker locked themselves securely inside the minivan. As I wedged the hacksaw’s blade between the smooth side of the helmet and that pesky wire face guard, I could hear Mark saying something to the boys about female hormones and how, someday, they too would be married and in hell. Looking like an extra from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I sawed away at a fevered pace until the face guard finally fell to the concrete floor of the garage with a satisfying clatter.
Mark slid into the driver’s seat and cracked the window an inch. Attempting to speak in a calm tone, he said, “I’ll take the boys for ice cream. You just rest and enjoy some ‘me time.’”
“She’s still got her car keys! Floor it, Dad!” Cameron commanded. My husband burnt rubber down our driveway.
I was immediately embarrassed. For the rest of the week I moped around in my own wretched pile of mom-guilt. But at the next game my insanity was rewarded. As I scanned the boys crammed cheek-to-cheek on the bench, I couldn’t tell the players apart. My son finally fit in with his teammates. Oh, heavenly anonymity and obscurity! I’d achieved my—I mean Parker’s—moment of glory.
“Where’s little Petey?” a concerned parent asked, searching the lineup.
“I think he was traded to another team,” I replied gleefully.
Of course I knew that removing the face guard wouldn’t guarantee my son a career in pro ball, but at least he appeared to fit in. The individualist in me typically would have railed against conformity. I don’t often want my kids to fit the mold—I want them to shatter it. But I’d decided that at the tender age of 8, in the arena of Little League, perhaps it’s better to run with the pack.
Then again, maybe not.
After 21 solid weeks of Little League practices and games, Parker promptly announced his retirement from the sport.
“I’ve decided to play tennis,” he told me. “There aren’t any helmets in tennis.”
I’ve since retired my hacksaw. And Parker just won his first match.