The season ended, as seasons often do, before anyone was ready, in 2.5 seconds of heartbreaking blur. A surprise double play, shortstop to second to first, that was over before most of us realized it started, mostly because they don’t usually turn double plays in Little League. We didn’t even get the luxury of getting down to our last out. Everything broke the Cardinals’ way, and we were still in it for 5 and a third innings. A nail-biter for an hour and 49 minutes, and it’s over in a finger-snap. Baseball’ll break your heart.
This was a Thursday evening, so naturally I spent the night and a solid chunk of Friday dealing with a sobbing 11-year-old. An inconsolably sobbing 11-year-old. Sobbing in the dugout. Sobbing in the car. Sobbing in the ice cream joint to which we carted him in a crass, calculated attempt to mitigate the sobbing. The kid dribbled tears all over a perfectly good caramel sundae; it was actually nearly as heartbreaking as the double play. (Obviously I finished it anyway.)
I like to shove all my emotions down near my spleen and ignore them until the appearance of Tom Waits music or that song from “Lava,” but my son is blessed with half my wife’s DNA so he experiences what you humans call “feelings.” And though he’s not really a “sports kid” so much as a “books about dragons” kid, Little League brought out those feelings, tons of feelings, way too many feelings, not just in my son but basically everyone wearing a youth-sized Yankees hat.
This, people, was the crying-est bunch of boys you ever saw.
Little Jack cried because he gave up three runs in the first inning. Big Jack choked up when he bobbled an incoming throw at first base. David cried because he struck out looking, then struck out swinging and cried again. My son cried because he grounded out. (To be fair, being my son, he is not what you might call blessed with natural athletic ability. I was frequently encouraged by my coach to “just go up and try to get a walk,” which was especially unsettling since the coach was usually my dad.)
And after the game’s abrupt ending? Big Jack, crying in the corner. Sam and Luke, joint-sobbing while packing up their gloves. Ben, one of those kids who’s 11 but plays and acts like he’s a couple years from retirement, fighting to hold it together at the dugout gate. Half of the kids had full-on breakdowns in the postgame meeting in left field; frankly it was really hard to deliver an impassioned, optimistic post game speech over all the mucus. But distracting snort-noises aside, I’ve never been happier to see so many breakdowns.
You can put MLB uniforms on kids and create All-Star and Travel and Showcase teams and gruffly bark at them from the bleachers (if you’re the fathers of three of the boys, jerks), and it will still not actually change the fact that they’re 11 years old. You can make them play four nights a week, drive them halfway across the state, purchase them $175 monogrammed equipment bags, they’re still 11. That is one messed-up age, people. You’ve seen 11-year-olds: Their hormones are rocketing around their heads like charged particles, they can’t control their mouths or feet, they’re monsters and they’re angels, they’ll joke about the fat kid on the other team and rally around the 12-hitter when he strikes out, they’re messes and mean and sad.
But that’s the point: They’re 11, not 23. Losing is life, and I’d much rather my son learned it under Little League lights than under a lot of the other environments in which you can get that lesson. Most of them aren’t as ephemeral as Little League. I don’t need him to be on the All-Star or Showcase teams. I don’t even need him to be good. I just need him to keep trying, once he’s done with the crying, and the sundae.
Jeff Vrabel is a pretty terrible coach. But at the end of the season, the kids gave him a ball they signed and a card that said “Thanks, coach.” Not that he got emotional about it or anything. You can find Vrabel, a writer, @jeffvrabel and jeffvrabel.com.
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