My son Antonio has been playing baseball for the past few years, probably since he was 5. He always loved the game, loved being around his friends, and loved to have his mom and dad cheering for him in the stands.
Being 8, he’s entering into his fourth season. Like most kids, he started off with tee-ball and had a ton of fun every time he took the field or swung the bat. In his second year, the coach would stand half-way between the pitcher’s mound and home plate and lob easy balls. At that age, kids had a hard time swinging the bat properly. It didn’t matter, though, everyone got up to bat and everyone ran to first base whether or not you made contact with the ball. Then came the pitching machine. Scary as it was for the wee ones, the machine was predictable and the kids always had near-perfect pitches to swing at. Antonio did well and couldn’t get enough.
Antonio happily agreed to sign up for “fall ball” which is a smaller session played in the fall. Our coach said that they wanted to give the kids an early taste of real pitching, pitched by the little leaguers themselves. This way, they got a taste of crazy pitches before the spring season. It was here where Antonio began to lose hope. Game after game, Antonio struck out. Sometimes he watched the balls come and go, not knowing if they would be called strikes or balls. He would often be sent back to the bench, having been too afraid to swing even once. Pitching was an equal challenge and often he had to endure long innings where the opposing team scored half a dozen runs before his teammates scrambled to put three outs together. Or worse, the coach pulled him because he was so upset. These were dark days and by the end of the season, Antonio had called it quits.
As parents, we were faced with walking that line between forcing him to continue and encouraging him. We listened to him damn the sport for the rest of the fall and into the Winter. But we knew he loved the game. Then, our coach called us up and said there was a Sunday morning clinic starting in the winter. 8 or 10 sessions every other week at 9am. The coach knew of Antonio’s fears and basically ignored them. Together we sold the clinic to Antonio as simply a place for fun and games and a chance to see his friends over the weekend.
Week after week, Antonio had fun with the fitness and baseball drills. He got one-on-one instruction on fielding, batting, and catching. By the end, he decided to give baseball one more chance. Still, I could see he was fearful and it broke my heart.
The time came for the first game. Antonio was happy to be with his friends and he held his own. In the bottom of the last inning, Antonio manned first base. Baseball ready, Antonio waited for the batter to make his move. The play began with a crack and the ball sailed into right field. Such a strong hit would normally yield an easy double. But right-field was manned by our best player who gloved the ball on the first bounce and fired a rocket right at Antonio. Out at first.