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By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, May 21, 2006

A letter to the senior members of the Kittens softball team:

Dear Kittens,

As you sit there in the dugout awaiting your turn at-bat, don't think about anything beyond the next pitch. Not that you would. You're 7 years old, still able to live in the moment. Good for you, little sluggers. Keep your eye on the ball.

And keep up the good work training those rookies, the 6- and 5-year-old girls who look up to you. Enjoy this time. Because next year, when softball season comes around again, there will be no Kittens. At least not for you. You will have "aged-out."

I'm not trying to freak you out. Mostly, I just want to apologize, on behalf of all of the people who are about to rock your world. Sports will never be the same. Teamwork will never be the same. Okay, it just took Mia 14 pitches to get a hit, and already Kaitlin is up to 12. You're clapping. Me, too. You see nothing wrong with a dozen or more tries to hit a ball. Me, neither. This is fun. Aren't we having such fun? Someone should come up with a grown-up league just like this one: Everyone gets on base, no outs, no score. Everyone gets around to home plate.

Listen -- next year there will be "strikes." Next year, in the big-kid league, you'll get three swings to hit the ball, and if you don't you'll have to go sit down. On the bench. You'll just have to sit there and think about who you are: a kid who missed, missed, missed.

Not only that, but next year your kindly old coach won't be pitching to you, won't be placing the ball gently in your strike zone -- okay, aiming the ball at your bat. No, next year you'll have some girl in a different color T-shirt shooting bullets at you while everyone looks on with hope and expectation.

It's good, though. Hey, half the fun of athletics is getting better at something, and you'll never get better if you aren't challenged.

Really, you'll be lucky if you make the team in the first place. Next year, instead of "sign-ups" they'll have "tryouts." You'll have to show how good you are. Nobody will want you if you aren't good.

Hey, you're not totally naive. Some of you have older siblings. So you know all about winning and the fact that winning feels better than losing. Right now, as a Kitten, everyone wins: the Daisies, the Tender Paws, the Dolphins and Battin' Fancy, too. This, little girl, is ridiculous. Get real. Play to win. Be all you can be. Don't settle for second best. Push yourself. Feel the burn. Just do it.

Get used to sayings like these, which will come to permeate your athletic career. But don't forget to keep your eye on the ball.

Athletic career? Yes. This is important. You want to go to college, don't you? Maybe you have overheard some of the parents here talking about athletic scholarships. Well, all you need to know is that if you get good at sports -- really good -- you can get a lot of free stuff. But, at the risk of repeating myself, no one will want you if you aren't good. It's all going to keep coming back to this: getting good. Better than everyone else. And better still.

If they had a grown-up league where everyone got on base, no outs and no score, no one would watch. There would be no tickets to sell. No advertising. No endorsements. It just wouldn't happen.

Why did you become a Kitten in the first place? A red T-shirt with a kitten on the front and a number on the back, I know. And because your dad took you, and he looked so proud of you wearing that glove. And maybe because you heard about Savannah's mom bringing bubble gum.

But soon, and I mean really soon, you're going to have to decide. Because the scouts are here. Actual coaches from the big-kid league are watching. Sort of like Dwayne, the swimming teacher, who yanked your friend Elizabeth out of swimming class and told her mom: "I want to put her on a team," and "I want to be her personal coach," and "She has serious potential." Elizabeth's mother said, "She is 7 years old!" To which Dwayne replied, "It's not too late." He did not appear to be kidding.

So, little Kittens, what is your sport? Is softball really your sport? Swimming? Soccer? Will you be at tryouts next spring? Big-kid softball has practice five nights a week, with games every Sunday, some an hour away. At first your parents will be mad that you'll have to miss church, not to mention dinner five nights a week, but they'll deal. The point is, you'll be busy, so you won't be able to just sign up and play everything you feel like playing. You'll have to commit. Because you'll be 8.

Face it: Already you know Who's Who on the Kittens. You know that when Melia gets up to bat, that ball is going to get pounded, and that nothing on the field gets past Kianna, and that Victoria runs like a girl. Funny, but you didn't notice any of these things last season. But you were only 6. Sometimes you had your eye on the ball, and sometimes you were drawing cats in the dirt. Those were the days.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's new book, Growing Girls: The Mother of All Adventures, is being published this spring by Bantam. Her e-mail address is post@jmlaskas.com


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