Thursday, June 01, 2023

Why Baseball Still Matters

Major League Baseball’s 2023 season is upon us, but for me, the true opening day will happen this weekend on a small field outside Nashville, when my 9-year-old son and his friends take the field for the first game of Little League season.

It wasn’t until I became a father that baseball really became important to me. Sure, I played as a kid, but seeing my boy out there, cheering for him, watching him fight back tears after a strikeout, or enjoy the elation of sliding home – that’s something deeper.

Being a baseball dad, like parenting in general, involves a lot of watching. I’ve watched him struggle and test himself over and over. I’ve watched him grow up on that field.

Being a baseball dad, like parenting in general, is also about letting go. You can’t do it for them. You support them as best you can. You watch them try, and often fail.

A couple of years ago my son’s team made it to the league championship game. That season they were undefeated, seemingly unbeatable, and needed only one final win to close out a perfect season. But that day they had finally met their match. They were trailing by one run, going into the bottom of the last inning.

That’s when my son came up to bat. To put it fairly, he wasn’t the best athlete on the team. Probably not the guy the coach would have hand-picked for that moment. But according to the law of the batting order, and to the law of life, I guess, it was his turn. All the hopes of his young heart, all the hopes of his teammates who were cheering his name from the dugout, and all the hoops of us overzealous parents in the bleachers, rested on his small shoulders.

When it came down to two strikes, I was more nervous than I had ever been about anything. With my heart hammering, I peered through the chain-link fence and literally prayed that something good might happen to him.

What did happen was so unlikely that it felt almost like a miracle. My son hadn’t hit a ball and made it past first base all season long. But this time, he hit a grounder to the left side of the infield, and the throw to first was wide. My boy kept running. There was so much screaming from the bleachers that he never heard his coach yelling at him to stop at second. So, he kept on running. There was another wild throw. And just like that, the third base coach was waving him home. I stood behind the backstop screaming the words “run, run, run” as loud as I could. It was a “Little League home run!”

An official scorecard would mark that play as an infield single with two errors on the opposing team. But I can tell you, in that moment as I watched my son being lifted into the air by his teammates, it was as much of a home run as any Babe Ruth hit in his life. It was pure. It was perfect.

One of the beautiful things about baseball is that, sometimes, even a guy in the bottom half of the batting order can be the hero of the game. When it mattered most, my son had come through. As any parent knows, that’s a memory and a feeling he will almost certainly remember for the rest of his life.

A couple of batters later, one of my son’s teammates crossed the plate with the winning run and the storybook ending was complete. After the game, long after the trophies had been handed out, and the heavy-hearted opposing team had left the field, our boys lingered. They made countless victory laps around the bases. They made “snow angels” in the orange clay.

The sun was setting, and the sky was absolutely golden. Several of us dads walked out onto the infield, while the kids played in the dirt all around us. We stood with our hands in our pockets, nudging the ground with our sneakers, saying over and over to each other, “Man, that was really something.”

There are only so many times in a kid’s life when he will have the chance to be the hero. And there aren’t many occasions in daily life that hold such drama – even so much as can be had on a Little League baseball diamond. That might be why dads tend to linger on an infield after the final game of the season. It might be the main reason why baseball still has power and meaning in our lives today.

I don’t know if baseball can still rightly be called America’s National Pastime. If TV ratings are any indication, football is America’s favorite sport now. But I know this – baseball is still the game you are more likely to find fathers and sons playing together. I know that when you’re in the backyard and the cool breeze is blowing and you’re playing catch, and you smell the leather, and you hear a baseball smack the back of the glove, and you see the smile on your child’s face, that’s about as perfect a feeling as there is.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.