June 17, 2011

My son just played his last Little League game.

Sure, there will be more baseball. He loves it, and he’s pretty good at it. There’ll be all-stars this summer, Babe Ruth ball, maybe travel teams. He’ll probably play for his school. But he’s graduated from Little League.

Those years turned out to be more than just his wins and losses, bigger uniforms, and heavier bats. They were also about discovering my own community alongside his sport. My family is going to miss evenings and weekends at the McLean Little League complex not because we’re baseball freaks. The complex, it turned out, is a place where families go and hang around long enough to form real bonds, with people who depend on one another, without ever really talking about it or naming it.

Much has been written about social isolation and the loss of community. Just about everything in our lives these days — longer commutes, both parents working, more hours on the job, the lousy economy — contributes to the sense of apartness that Americans feel, according to a 2006 study.We are way too fragmented in our daily dealings and too exhausted to seek personal interaction. Combine that with social-networking tools that allow us to communicate and feel connected without actually seeing another living soul, and it adds up to just about zero face-to-face conversations. “Hey, I have 425 Facebook friends.” Sure, you do. But when was the last time you spoke to any of them?

Now transport yourself to a place with no TV, no wifi, no tweeting, no distractions. Just your kid, his or her 11 teammates and their families. For nearly three hours at a time. At least twice a week. On metal bleachers. For 20 games. Suddenly, you have no choice but to have face-to-face-conversations.

Well, they may not start out that way. At first, you’re staring straight ahead through the chain-link fence talking about the nice play by the shortstop. But as the season wears on, that evolves into discussions about other sports. Soon you’re talking about anything and everything — the news, parenting, life.

The mothers are part of this community, too. But the dads tend to stand out more at the games; we’re a bit more nervous than the moms and have trouble sitting still. My 8-year-old daughter calls us “The Men Who Stand.”

The mothers seem to fall in more easily with one another. They have practice at coming up with camaraderie almost anyplace.

The dads seem to need the pace and order of the game, and ball practice, as a structure to set their community upon. They build relationships while doing something: dragging the field to make it smooth and playable, shagging balls, hitting pop flies.

If it weren’t for Little League, I never would have met that widowed father who coached both his sons and taught me about dedication and perseverance. I wouldn’t know the dad of the best player in the league, who juggles three other sons, including one with special needs, and has taught me about perspective and love of family. I never would have crossed paths with the tax expert who volunteers his Saturday mornings to run a clinic for kids who want to get better at baseball and learn about life; he reminds me each week of the importance of generosity. Then there’s the research oncologist who has coached both my kids and is both the most competitive and most compassionate human being I know.

Not everyone at Little League is as glorious. Every team has the dad who is just a bit too intense, a bit too hard on his own kid — or dismissive of his flaws — a bit too something or other. But that’s part of community, as well. The other dads try to settle him down, tell him he’s a bit off, but make sure he’s included.

The sociologists say we’re spinning in isolation. They are concerned that we belong to fewer clubs, that we go to church less often, that we don’t hold block parties or picnics. That may be true, but the sports our kids play have taken the place of all that.

It’s not just Little League. Substitute soccer, swim team or band, and the result is the same: a place to go and look people in the eye for more than a minute or two, shake their hands, hear their stories, share their joy, wince at their pain and help them through it. That’s the definition of community. We’ve all come together to provide our kids an experience they love and we think is important, but it’s become something larger.

I hope my son has made some lifelong friends through Little League. I know the dads still will gather at our bar once a week, play poker or grab a sandwich together. We do that now, outside of baseball.

And luckily, I get to go back to Little League again next year. It’ll be softball this time. My daughter loves putting on the catcher’s gear and blocking errant pitches.

That gives me a whole new set of dads to get to know.

semelm@washpost.com

Mike Semel is deputy local editor of The Washington Post and a coach for the Wayne Insulation and Fairfax Radiological Consultants teams in McLean Little League.

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