The last seven years, a lot of things have changed around here. My love for Little League Opening Day, well, that isn’t one of them. Year after year, I actually look forward to the early morning wake-up call. The day my boys get all decked out in their clean-long-enough-for-one-picture uniforms. The day so many people in our small community gather in one single place to kick off a season of (mostly) friendly competition.
And just like in 2012, when Big started playing, this year was special. He got to play an important role in the ceremony. Not as a wide-eyed t-baller running through the initiation tunnel, no. But as a 12-year old, ready to battle it out in his final season of Little League.
His final season.
Every now and then, for a laugh, I go back and read the quotes I captured from Opening Day when Little League — and baseball — were new to us. Looking back, there was no doubt we all had a serious crush on the sport from day one. But what we didn’t know, was that it would steal our hearts in a way that shifted the course of not only Big’s future, but our whole family’s.
How could we have known that kids who had no knowledge of second base’s existence would eventually be riding their bikes to the field on their non-game days to cheer on friends’ teams because they just can’t get enough? (And I’m not just referring to the Air Heads from the snack shack.) How could we have known that even we, as the parents, would be spending extra time at the park on Saturdays to catch up with former bleacher buddies whose kids are now spread out across the eight Majors teams? How could we have known that the people we gathered with that day would be with us through thick and thin — not only on the field, but off it?
I didn’t write down quotes this year. I just soaked up the magic (meaning I took about 3,143 pictures). And I thought about all that Little League has taught us.
Big? He’s learned that it’s about more than hitting the tee — or the ball — it’s about heart. And lots and lots and lots of hard work. Like so much hard work that when that huge kid with the insane arm takes the mound, the idea of striking out seems like it might actually be the better option than going to yet another hitting practice. But if you do keep going to those practices, and, well, practicing, you might actually be able to step up to the plate and make the ball — that frighteningly fast, inside pitch — do something pretty great.
He’s learned that there’s no unimportant position on that field. And though the bench may have been his preference that first t-ball game, being anywhere with a lot of action — where you get to make the play — that’s truly his sweet spot. But on that bench, you still have a role to play. After all, you’re wearing the same uniform as everyone on the field. And being a part of something bigger than yourself is pretty darn special.
Bad hops. Bad calls. Bad plays. They’re all a part of the game. But the other guys get them too, so all you can do is be ready for the next play. The next pitch. The next game.
Your teammates, he’s learned, become some of your closest friends. And the next year, when they’re on the opposing team, they’re still your best buddies. While it sure is fun to beat them, it’s also fun to chat them up when you’re playing first base and they’re on the bag after getting a great hit against your team’s best pitcher. Or to smile and high five them as they run home after hitting one out of the park against you. Or to play game after game after game of three flies up with kids from both teams in the outfield when the scoreboard is no longer lit up, and the parents are still chatting over a post-game dinner on a warm spring evening. Because that’s Little League.
He’s discovered that practice is even better with country music blasting from a little speaker in the dugout. That hard work can be fun. And the coaches who believe in you during your slumps — the ones who keep putting you out there? They’re some of the greatest role models you’ll meet. Because these former high school/college/pro athletes — they must know what they’re talking about. So if they believe in you, who are you to doubt them?
But what he’s really learned, what he carries with him, is that baseball is fun. And playing a game you love — and playing it well — that’s a real privilege. One that commands a great attitude, a smile, and a commitment to work hard and do your best. To leave it all out there on the field.
I’ve learned a few things myself. (Though keeping quiet in the stands is not one of them, I’m afraid.) I’ve learned that baseball belt loops and underwear cup pockets are a whole lot tighter than the toughest ump’s strike zones. I’ve learned that stained white pants are as inevitable as watching your kid learn to deal with disappointment. I’ve learned that sunflower seeds are a must in the dugout and a beast in the laundry. I’ve learned that rained out Saturday games are actually a bummer, even if it does mean one less load in the washing machine. Because it also means not getting out there to see friends of all ages. Not getting to soak up a bit of your kid doing what makes him happy.
I’ve discovered that the greatest coaches aren’t necessarily the ones who lead the team to victory, but the ones who lose. Sometimes even a lot. Because when these grown men volunteer their patience, determination, and hard-earned time, but still lead a team to defeat? Well their grit and grace teach your kid about a whole lot more than baseball. They teach your kid about character.
And those parents in the bleachers? They’re something special too. Whether their battle that day is something as seemingly small as the carpool line or as tremendously huge as cancer, they show up. Because, even though they’re not wearing a uniform, they’re part of something bigger than themselves too. They’re a part of a community that’s come together to cheer each other on. Sometimes with a shared ride, sometimes a shared post-game beer, and sometimes even a shared life experience. After all, baseball games can be l-o-n-g, and you’d be surprised what you can learn about families and their lives between pitches.
Yep, Little League is something special.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, there will still be great baseball in Big’s future. Hopefully for years to come. And we’ll continue to cheer him on and ride the wave of wins and losses along the way. But there’s just something extra magical about these seven spring seasons — and the families we’ve come to know and love along the way. I think almost all of them would agree that no matter what logo is in each of our laundry rooms this final Little League season, we’ve all come out of this experience winners. And for that, I’m forever grateful.