Baseball can be a crying game Family: The (little) boys of summer require love -- not lectures.

May 03, 1998|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,Sun Staff

There's no crying in baseball, Tom Hanks told his team in "A League of Their Own." The line has been repeated enough to pass into cliche, perhaps.

And, of course, it's wrong.

You can go back, if you wish, to that last Orioles game at Memorial Stadium in 1991 and the moving farewell - a parade of players past, heading out to the positions they occupied over the franchise's first 37 years.

But I'm thinking of an opening day this past weekend and a team of 9- and 10-year-old boys.

My son bolts out to his position, thrilled to learn that not only is he playing second base - which he only recently has figured out doesn't mean actually standing within reach of the bag - but that he's also batting leadoff.

His spindly legs keep churning when he reaches his position. How can you stand still before the opening pitch?

The infielders warm up. The first baseman throws him a grounder. My son returns a weak throw. Wearing a well-practiced impassive look, I resist the urge to yell to him about the position of his elbow.

Before he started playing sports, I couldn't understand why parents yell at their kids during games. I still don't condone it - and hope I can stop myself from doing it - but now I understand.

It is the frustration of watching what happens to the accomplished backyard ballplayer once it's game time.

The throws that burn into Dad's glove in backyard catches become lofted lollipops. The batting eye that precludes swinging at anything an inch or two off an imaginary plate during hitting practice behind the house fails to engage after he hears a coach's directive to "protect the plate." He swings at a pitch a foot over his head.

But I say nothing, try to betray nothing in my expression. The last thing I want is a kid - surely you've seen one - who looks over at Mom or Dad after each move on the ball field, so unsure that he's earned approval, so concerned that he's done something wrong.

Whether we scream out instructions or sit there with a newspaper, the kids know we're watching. The coaches are watching. The other kids are watching.

There might as well be 50,000 fans in the stands watching.

And it even gets to his most accomplished teammate, whose demeanor and movements on the field practically call out "major-league," right down to the lampblack under his eyes. Taking his turn on the mound, the boy hits two batters before he can complete an inning. League rules require that he be replaced. He moves over to first base. From across the field, we can see his shoulders heaving and know the tears are flowing in disappointment.

My son's first at-bat ends in tears, too. He somehow winds up in the dirt of the base path trying to avoid the first baseman's tag on a grounder. He comes back sobbing, and maybe it's more from the first baseman's stepping on him than from having made an out. In any case, he climbs into my lap. By the third out, he's ready to run back to second base.

His team loses badly, and then I lose in a worse way. Trying to impart a few lessons by discussing his play while the memory is fresh, I begin recounting his opening performance. He doesn't really want to talk about it. He's hungry. In fact, in the way of a 9-year-old, he's starving.

I continue trying to pass along my vast baseball wisdom. And just like that, he's inconsolable. Yelling through tears that he's no good. Crying that he's the worst player on the team. Burying his face in the back seat.

I've committed a bonehead play, they used to call it, or more recently, vapor lock. The last thing I wanted to do, but somehow I've done it. Did I cry like this about baseball when I was his age?

I think about when I played my first organized baseball. There is a fuzzy team picture in which I'm wearing a white uniform with green piping. (Our team was the Senators, of all things. "The Senators?" asks my son, born 18 years after Washington's last season in the majors.)

Tears? At 13, I hope against hope that I make my Babe Ruth League team. After the final preseason practice, uniforms are handed out. Where's mine? I ask the manager. You're cut, I'm told. My face falls. As my dad drives me home, I struggle to hold back tears. I recall being successful. It's most likely a faulty memory.

I recall more clearly my dad voluntarily umpiring our games, standing behind the pitcher. I know to swing at anything close, because I don't get the borderline calls.

What I don't recall: any discussion of my playing that ended with my crying in the back seat.

We get home, calmer. I feed my son. On the counter, a yahrzeit candle flickers. It's the anniversary of my father's death. I was supposed to go to temple, but attended opening day instead. I know my father wouldn't have had a problem with my choice. I also know he'd want me to do something else: I hug my son, kiss his forehead and tell him we aren't going to argue anymore about how he plays baseball.

I head outside to cut the lawn. Over there in the garage is the baseball glove I've had since I was 14. It's been relaced, but is way too small by today's standards. No matter. I played catch with my father while wearing that glove. I play catch with my son while wearing that glove.

Unbidden, my son comes outside. Wordlessly, he approaches, puts his arms out and hugs me.

No crying in baseball? Seems to me it's a big part of the game.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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