Friday, May 16, 2008


In Which We See The Wind-Up...


By the grace of God, and a little rain (which I think amounts to the same thing), we made it home a day ahead of Thomas' pitching debut, which got moved from Tuesday to Thursday. And man, I'm glad I didn't miss it, because it was a sight to behold.

As parents, Her Lovely Self and I have had some trouble spectating when Thomas plays sports. I tend to be one of those loud screaming dads--not to the point of insulting the other team or berating the coaches or umpires; I just cheer, you understand. But I AM probably loud enough to embarrass my son (In case you doubt me, I refer you here, towards the bottom of the post. The audio clip embedded there is still painfully active. Be glad I edited the file to lower my voice just a smidge. On first playing, I blew out my computer's speakers listening to my own cheering).

I'm also loud enough to embarrass my wife, who almost can't watch Thomas on the field at all. This is because, as his mom, she is finely attuned to how her children behave in public. So when she sees her first-born on the field of play and spies him, for example, adjusting his crotch, picking his uniform pants out of his butt, emptying his nostrils one at a time by means of laying a finger aside of his nose and blowing, or any of a number of other things you see all the time in major league ball, well, she starts squealing inwardly and cringing, like she's in a bad dream where she's powerless to do anything but watch the horror unfold. I finally told her that if she wants to remain in the bleachers with me, she needs to pick some other child on the team and pretend that he's her kid. She may have taken me seriously.

This is a big baseball year for Thomas because it's the first year he--or anyone on any of the teams in this bracket--have had a chance to pitch. Last year, a machine pitched the ball (slowly); the year before, the coaches pitched to their team; the year before that was T-ball. With so many Little Leaguers nationwide getting injured or killed by pitched balls over the years, this league has shown commendable patience and restraint in introducing the kids to increasingly faster and more unpredictable pitching. But now the training wheels are off.

I'm not entirely sure what the process was that enabled Thomas to get singled out to be one of the four or five kids groomed to take the mound. I know when we've played catch in the back yard, he showed both amazing speed and aim. God knows he certainly has the power to get it over the plate (after all, he did put a ball through a neighbor's fence). I have to assume he demonstrated the same skills to the coach during practice, evidently in between sessions of picking his nose and his butt.

Myself, I would never have been tapped to pitch at that age. I was good for just two things on the Panthers team, my 9-year-old club: One was throwing the ball from the outfield fence all the way to home (I was the only kid who could do it. Power wasn't my problem; control was my problem. Nine times out of 10 the ball would hit an umpire or a coach, or go rolling out the gate into the parking lot). The other thing I was good at was getting on base, though not from hitting the ball, so much as getting hit by the ball.

I still hold the record in my league--probably in the state, and possibly even in the nation--for most times getting struck by the pitch in consecutive at-bats. I'm really not sure what the final tally was; I stopped counting after 9 hits in a row. It sounds like one of those weird baseball anecdotes, but there was a good reason for my bad luck: I was the only left-handed player in our league and this threw off every pitcher who faced me. They were all so used to throwing to right-hand batters that they seemed incapable of compensating for a hitter on the other side of the plate. I got smacked on every available surface of the side that faced the pitcher: my elbow, my ass, my knees (at least 4 times, three of which knocked me down). I even got nailed in the back and the crotch (two separate at-bats, of course). It got to be a little joke: needed to get a man on base? Put ol' MM in and let him take one for the team!

The hell of it is, towards the end of the season, the coach was no longer joking. In a big tournament game, he put me in to bat and gave me a very strange look when he said, "MM, you get on base any way you can, you hear me? Any. Way." I heard him, although there was nothing I really needed to do, except be left-handed. And stand still while the pitcher hit me in the face. Our coach was a nice guy, but I think he wanted to win a little too much.

So I think it's fair to say Thomas--who is right-handed--inherited his fine aim and control from Her Lovely Self's side of the family, many of whom are pretty talented athletes. Either way, I felt excited and lucky. The only problem was, I had to promise to keep my mouth shut, not to scream and shout and distract our pitcher when he finally got on the field.

You cannot imagine how hard that promise was to make.

Now, a word about the game, if you've never seen it played at this level: The thing you have to understand about 9-year-olds pitching to each other is that they either deliver nice, fat, slow balls that sail across the plate, or fastballs and screwballs and sliders that go every which-a-way. This leads to a lot of walks, which in turn leads to a lot of loaded bases and a lot of walked-in runs. That's not so interesting to watch, I grant. What IS interesting, though, is when a decent hitter comes to the plate and the bases are loaded and there's a chance of something big happening. In the case of this game, I witnessed at least two grand slams.

Unfortunately, they were both made by the opposing team.

Thus it was that by the third inning, when the coach pointed to Thomas and told him to warm up, his team was already down by more than 6 runs. And it was easy to see that they were falling apart. All in all, it was a tough time to go in and pitch. Just because I've never played that position myself doesn't mean I don't appreciate the pressure a pitcher is under. Especially when it's his first game. And he's just 9. And he's my son, who tends to be a little on the anxious side even when he doesn't have to stand on the mound in the center of everything.

To top it all off, it was starting to mist a little, and there was some fear that the game was going to be called off at any moment. With the other team ahead.

Still, the spectators were game and cheered from under cover. Mostly.


Thus it was, with the other team up by 6 and real rain threatening, my son stepped to the mound.

And began throwing the most awful stuff.

His first three pitches went way wide, and after that I almost picked another player and pretended he was my kid, I was that anxiety-ridden. Still, I held out for my son, to no avail. The next pitch rolled across the plate, walking the batter. That guy stole second while Thomas pitched to the next batter (who also walked). The coach started shouting at the Thomas--not in a mean way--to watch his control. So he threw a perfect fat apple of a pitch at the next batter, and he knocked it into the outfield. Luckily, the centerfielder winged it to third and the basemen tagged a runner out.

Thomas looked around at his teammates with a nervous face, perhaps waiting to see if anyone was going to yell at him for letting a batter get a hit off him. I remembered earlier he expressed concern about letting anyone get a hit off him, even though I told him it was bound to happen, and when it did, he needed to trust his team to do their job. I tried to remind him of all of this in a burst of telepathic energy, which I directed at him until my ears started bleeding, but he wouldn't look at me. I can't say I blame him.

I couldn't stand it. God loves to make a man break his promises, my Dad always said. And I could almost hear him laughing as I finally opened my mouth and screamed, "THOMAS!! BREATHE!!"

"Breathe" is my old password to my son to pause a beat, take a breath, calm down. I only ever used it when he was getting overly excited or angry about something, so I'm not sure why I yelled it now. I guess I thought he was going to blow his cool and I wanted to somehow reach out into the universe with my influence and help him.

Which was just stupid. Because later, Thomas said he never heard me. He just knuckled down and tried to focus. Which is good, because I wouldn't want you to think I was trying to say I had anything to do with what happened next.

Which is that my son struck out two batters in a row with just 7 pitches.

As they ran in from the field, the coach turned and gave me a thumbs-up, then turned back to his team and gave them a pep talk. "Awright now, we held em. That's the first time they haven't scored on us in an inning. Let's get some hits and narrow that lead!"

And the team seemed to rally. They got four runs in their next at-bat, drawing to within two of tying the game.

Then the coach put Thomas in to pitch again. "Just keep throwing what you were throwing last inning," I heard him say urgently. "Don't change a thing."

I had a camera with me, as you may have guessed, and tried to analyze what he was doing. My son clearly showed great form--even the other team's coach commented on it. But every time he let the ball go, it seemed like it was this slow moving orb that just ached to be hit.

And yet, the first batter up couldn't connect. Three swings and he was out.

I was practically hanging over the fence by this point and the coach sidled over. "I don't know what he's throwing out there, but it's good. Watch how it drops just as it comes over the plate. It's got them buffaloed."

Well, I've never been one of those guys who analyzes pitching--or any minute aspect of any sport, really--but I have to say, Thomas was doing exactly what the coach said. In just about the time it took me to write the last 7 paragraphs, Thomas fanned all three batters, striking out his side. This was not something spectators of 9-year-old play had seen before, and a satisfying cheer went up from the stands. As Thomas trotted in, he doffed his cap to the crowd, the little ham (no idea which side of the family that comes from, though).

I was over by the dugout at this point, and overheard the coach.

"Thomas! That was some SERIOUS pitching. You feel like doing that the rest of the game?"

There was a pause, then Thomas said, "No, better not. I think I need to practice a little more. I was pitching too slow."

The coach laughed. "You can pitch slow like that for me any time."

Incidentally, Thomas's team spent the next two innings racking up hits (and walks) and ultimately beat their opponents, 14-11. We took Thomas to Dairy Queen to toast his pitching debut with a round of Blizzards. When we got home, the rain had still held off, and Thomas asked if he could practice his pitching some more.

"Sure," I said, and would have said so even if it had been pitch-dark out, I was that pumped up. "Let's catch a few."

"Actually," he said. "Maybe I could try pitching to you. There are some lefties on the team we play next week, and they're hard to pitch to."

"You know, I think I've heard that somewhere before. Yeah, sure. See if you can strike me out," I said.

So the day drew to a close on this perfect American moment, in a leafy suburban backyard, with the sun hanging low in the sky and a young boy pitching to his Dad.

As I stood at our makeshift plate, my old Louisville Slugger in my hands, I couldn't help but think: I have seen my son pitch in a baseball game. Even my own father can't claim that. It was quite a moment, one I'll carry around for a while.

"You ready?" Thomas asked, as he looked in.

"Give me what you gave those guys at the game," I said, bringing my bat up.

He went into his wind-up. "Okay. Here goes!" he cried.

It was the last thing I heard him say before the ball hit me upside the head and everything went all stars and cuckoo clocks.

And so my record remains unbroken.

Unlike my head.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Yay for Thomas!

(sorry about your head, though...)

Thim :)
Every time I come here, I leave with this "I love reading you."

Thank you, and congrats to the boy!
Thanks for the morning chuckle! You beat all, MM~ LOL!

I so miss the days when my kids played ball. My heart would be in my throat the whole game, wanting so badly for them to do well and be happy :) Enjoy! Time slips past quicker than a fast ball.
I think it's time to break out the body armor your brother sent you when you do baseball with Thomas. Along with a helmet of course.

Nice story!
What a great tale! Left me feeling all warm and fuzzy. As always--thank you!
Sorry about the head, but best story I've read in a very long time. Yay for Thomas!
True Americana. I can almost see the Norman Rockwell called "Boy Fingering His Nose".

I still want audio though. "Thomas caught the ball!" has almost eclipsed "The Giants win the pennant!"
How proud you must be! That is awesome! There is an upside to always getting hit with the ball, you never suffered the humiliation of striking out, every time. Keep up the great parenting!
I'm so happy for Thomas! Way to go!
the moment I knew disater of some sort was impending -> "So the day drew to a close on this perfect American moment, in a leafy suburban backyard, with the sun hanging low in the sky and a young boy pitching to his Dad."

Saw the wind-up, and loved it. Hooray for Thomas. As always, I hope you heal quickly.
That made me laugh! Thanks for the story...believe me when I say his baseball career will go by in a flash - enjoy it! (with a helmet)
What a great pitching photo! Congrats, Thomas!

You put together a lovely tale, MM, so I reckon you're not permanently damaged, but c'mon man, wear a helmet next time! (or work on your ducking skills ;)
Nephew was pitching to Bro on Mothers Day. I said 'You have a good arm there, not like me, I throw like a girl'.
Nephew said 'You are a GIRL'
I asked 'What gave it away'
He looked me up and down and the threw his arms in the air and said 'EVERYTHING!'
I had to restrain myself from making any obscene gestures.
How awesome is it that Thomas could 'WALK' his Dad?
I can relate to this; my eleven-year-old son plays CYO baseball and is usually on first or third base, but sometimes gets put in as a relief pitcher. When that happens, my stress level goes through the roof. Forget about pretending some other kid belongs to me, I have to forget that I ever gave birth to anyone, and imagine that I just ended up at a kids' game by accident.
Woohoo! Pitching Lad!

You were probably crowding the base. I imagine he cured you of that bad habit, though. ;)
Great story, and great photo! Congratulations, Thomas!

I hope Thomas eventually did get some pitching-to-lefties practice in. It sounds like he's pretty talented, and if he could get that part down...
Great action shot. If that were me at that angle, I'd end up flat on my face. Congratulations to Thomas.

Hope HLS is feeling better and that the Brownie is enjoying being seven. Eclair sure looks cute under the umbrella. Hi Blaze.
Dude: Found your blog via another reader's mention on Pioneer Woman, and now I love reading masthead. Thank you for being a gifted writer in a forum rife with horribly ungifted writers. I'm sorry, though, that some of what you're going through right now is pretty heavy-duty serious.

I'll be checking back regularly.

P.S. Do I dare ask which magazine? Have you ever revealed?
Just thinking how his mother will feel watching him clear his nostrils in the majors...
So he's throwing a change-up, all the time? Whatever works, I guess. :)

I hate when your stories make me tear up. Don't stop.
I was about as thrilled reading this as I would have been had Thomas been my own son. Congrats to Thomas and to you!
Aw, this reminds me so much of the baseball hell I'm in now, which is largely hellish because I have to be in two places at the same time to get my boys to their games/practices.

I'm commetning becasue my son has been hit by pitches multiplr times and he can't evn claim being left-handed as an excuse. I'm left-handed so hoped one of my kids would carry on with the tradition but he gets hit for some other reason.

In one game, he was at bat with bases loaded and 2 outs. So much pressure. He froze in place due to fear from previous body blos from pitches. I wrote a blog about it but won't link here because it's not nice to do that without permission. Suffice to say, it didn't go well.

Baseball sucks the life out of me, as I try to get to all the practices, but someday I hope my kid is thought of well enough to take the mound and pitch.
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