Things are bonkers here tonight at the ole ballyard. The bases are loaded, my pulse is pounding, I've lost my voice and, perhaps, my grip. It's the last game of softball season and the girls are playing like it's Opening Day.
I coach them to run hellbent to first base, as if Freddy Krueger was chasing them. What do they do? They chug toward first, clamping their helmets to their heads, I'm-a-little-teapot style. They put on the brakes 10 feet from the bag, trying to stop on a dime. Hell, I'd give them a quarter to run through the base.
I instruct them to plant their feet at the plate, but they swing with such cartoon fury they wind up facing the backstop.
I warn them to take judicious practice swings, and one of them nearly tees off on a wandering toddler's head.
How did I get into this mess? Coaching both my daughters' softball teams in one season? Two leagues? Four games a week for seven weeks plus dual Saturday practices? Twenty-four girls, from third grade to eighth, all doing the same thing: the opposite of what I ask.
Wait a minute! Our right fielder has just walked, forcing a run from third. Natalie Hill! Natalie Hill! I'm going to buy a California vineyard and name it after her!
OK, everybody! After four consecutive walks, here comes our MVP first baseman/relief pitcher/poet. She's taking wicked practice swings outside the batter's box, and I'm saying, thank you, God, Lauren Mobilio is up.
Lauren's family is, as the girls say, "having a hyper-spaz" behind the chain-link home plate screen. Everyone at the field knows our undefeated record is at stake as my Lions look for insurance runs to protect an iffy 12-10 lead in the top of the fifth. Similarly, it's no secret that our opponent, the Leopards, are winless.
Last year, I co-managed a team that lost every game, and I still get a rumbling in my gastrointestinal region when I think that I might have failed them, that there was more I could have done to bring out their best. So I'm rooting for the Lions and the Leopards, while the Leopards' coach is exhorting her fielders to hang tough and her pitcher to throw strikes.
The Leopards, who will bat last, trailed 6-0 after a half-inning, when the sun was glinting off the aluminum bats and a few players broke out their cool-breeze sunglasses, affecting that Beverly Hills-comes-to-Cockeysville look.
The Leps clawed back, scoring three in the bottom of the first, five in the second and a run each in the third and fourth. Now the western sky is streaked with gold and rose, and I hear the hope and belief in their coach's voice.
Back in the cool of April, at the first practice, I had the Lions form a circle and asked only two things of them:
"Dedicate yourself to individual improvement and knowledge of the game and winning will take care of itself."
"Stick your glove out and scream 'I'VE GOT IT!' if a fly ball is about to conk you on the coconut."
Things clicked on Mondays and Wednesdays, when the Lions, with their candy-apple red jerseys, played. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when my 11- to 13-year-olds played, winning eluded us in all but two of 11 games. The Team With No Name (nicknames are uncool in the older leagues) wore avocado green, the color of choice if you're a shag carpet and it's 1971.
One night, after a particularly discouraging loss, the opposition listlessly performed the obligatory post-game cheer while pointing: "Two-four-six-eight, who did we appreciate?! That team! That team! Yaaaaay, that team!"
The girls cared desperately, but couldn't easily escape the adolescent blues. At times they were moody and unpredictable, capable of sudden bursts of success and equally abrupt slides into a vacuum of gloom. Once every game, they were stricken with what my assistant coach and chief strategist, Frank Pokorny, deemed "The Twilight Inning." Minds would go blank. Attention wandered. Outfielders would stand and salute fly balls instead of chasing them. The game would get away and the girls would return to the bench limp and deflated.
When you're coaching middle-school players, you're like a balloon vendor: Your job is to dispense encouragement like helium, night after night, to keep spirits afloat. Sometimes you use laughing gas.
One arid Saturday after practice, Frank taught them major-league spitting techniques. "If we can't be in first place, we'll be the league's best spitters," he suggested, and the girls lined up along third base and squirted toward Cooperstown.
But as hard as we tried to relax them and build their confidence, a Twilight Inning inevitably would do us in, just as it did in our one playoff appearance, when we allowed nine runs in the second inning en route to an 18-3 loss.
Heather Henck, whose overall play went from timid to torrid during the season, struck out with three fierce swings to end the game. Tears ran down her dirt-streaked cheek and, for a moment, I thought that final image would be the lasting one for the season.