Thursday, April 26, 2012

Baseball Angst, Part Two

Ahhh, sports.
We watched our sons grow up heavily involved in all kinds of them over the years. Both Colin and Paddy participated in football, soccer, basketball, track and field, bowling, hockey and swimming at different times in their lives, with a highlight being when they were both members of the starting varsity football lineup during the one year they were both in high school.
 And while we mostly enjoyed it, any parent can tell you it can be a little nerve racking from time to time. For us, at least, that profound sense of sports anxiety occurred mostly in baseball. Colin, whose extreme myopia made a hard liner to his side of the infield a dangerous business, indeed, hung up his glove and cleats before high school in favor of football and track, sports where an inability to gauge--even with contact lenses-- the exact speed and trajectory of a small white sphere screaming towards one's head at a zillion miles per hour is less of a life-or-death liability. Paddy, on the other hand, was born with a trait inherited from both his grandfathers:
He's a lefty.
That genetic predisposition has, throughout his career, meant he would be a pitcher, no matter how much he might have prefered playing shortstop, third base or behind the plate. While he was also a first baseman during little league and high school, once he hit the upper reaches of Legion ball, then onto his college team, it was the pitcher's mound, all the way.
Here's the thing about pitchers. Even the very best ones have days when nothing goes right. Fast balls dive into the dirt, breaking pitches hang in the strike zone, "seeing-eye" grounders find their way into the outfield, and routine-seeming flies drop in for base hits. And that doesn't even account for errors. Because even the most sure-handed shortstop boots one every once in awhile, along with dropped third strikes, misplayed popups, muffed throws and all the other miscues that can change a game in a heartbeat.
Pitchers hate those days.
So do their parents.
We called it "baseball angst," and it kept us on edge through the entire sixteen years or so that he played competitive ball.
I didn't know how much she disliked the whole "pitcher's mom" persona until one day when I arrived a little late to a game back in his high school days. All the other moms and dads were seated in the stands or lined up in lawn chairs along the backstop and the foul line. But she was sitting a good ten yards back, with her chair located just behind a corner of the bleachers, which afforded a view of most, but not all, of the field.
Me: Why are you sitting here?
She: Oh, it just seemed like a good spot.
Me: But you can't see the pitcher's mound from here.
She: Exactly.
From then on, whenever Paddy was on the mound, we sat apart. I generally watched from directly behind home plate, so I could offer helpful suggestions to the umpire. She, on the other hand, continued with her "just around the corner" arrangement, so as to spare herself of the sight of anything bad happening to her baby boy. But in any case, his college career was a fun, successful one, with his senior year climaxing with a "magnificent" (one sportswriter's adjective) outing against arch-rival Monmouth College, where he "baffled" (another newspaper kudo) the Scots for an important end-of-season win. He even attended a tryout with the Detroit Tigers organization, where he threw well, but discovered that big league clubs are most likely to be more interested in 18-year-olds with 90-mile-an-hour fastballs than ancient college grads with good breaking stuff and the ability to read and write fluently.
After a couple of years working and coaching in Galva, he moved to North Carolina, not far from where we currently spend a lot of our time. He's now teaching English and coaching baseball at Richlands High School, where they share the same gold-and-blue colors and wildcat nickname as his Galva alma mater. The RHS Wildcats have an up-and-coming baseball program, led by a head coach who is an ex-minor league outfielder, and supported by the school's principal, whose dad was a major league pitcher and who also played professional ball. We've become faithful fans, sitting with our young grandsons and cheering the Wildcats on to both victory and otherwise. She seemed comfortable with the relative anonymity of being a coach's mom until one night, when, at a critical juncture, an apposing batter lined a fluttering change-up into the left field corner for a run-scoring double.
"C'mon coach, let him throw," shouted one irate dad, who seemed to think the Richlands hurler should have been delivering nothing but fastballs.
"Who's he yelling at?" she asked.
"Who do you think?" I replied.
I patiently explained that one of Paddy's jobs as pitching coach is to call each pitch by signaling the catcher with a series of mysterious signs that indicate the type of pitch and its location.
"Do you mean that man thinks it's Paddy's fault that boy just hit that ball?" she said in a horrified tone.
"Pretty much," I said casually. "Why blame the kid if you can blame the coach?"
Then I headed for the concession stand to see if they had a fresh batch of popcorn.
When I returned a few minutes later, I noticed that she had moved her chair a few feet away from where she had been sitting before. As I approached, I realized her new location was just behind a pole, which cleanly blocked her view of a certain portion of the field.
Me: Why are you sitting here?
She: Oh, it just seemed like a good spot.
Me: But you can't even see the pitcher's mound from here.
She: Exactly.
Baseball angst strikes again.

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