Monday, October 8, 2007

Big League Little League - May 2005

Not that Maine ever has had much to brag about when it comes to springtime, but this spring has been really awful. The tulips are just now in bloom. The thermometer has broken 60 degrees only a handful of times. We joke that Maine is the only state where March lasts 90 days. It’s not funny, but rather the rueful humor employed by people behind the Iron Curtain for decades. We’re behind the Frigid Curtain and it’s beginning to wear on our nerves.

While I would prefer to stay inside on these bone-chilling, drizzly days, it can’t be done: it’s Little League season. On Monday, after a day of rain, my son Marty’s game is switched to the drier high school girl’s softball field just a few miles from home. With the grass wet and without a folding chair, I sit on the cold metal bleachers with the families of the opposing team.

There’s a lot of talk in America that because of television and mass media we are losing our regional accents and colloquialisms. On the coast of Maine, it just ain’t so. Sitting with a bunch of Little League fans from Bristol, a small town at the end of the Pemaquid peninsula, I can confirm that the Maine accent is alive and well with the younger generation as well as the old salts. Ayuh. I suspect the traces of my Mohawk Valley accent are less bothersome than the fact that I’m cheering for the Rotary team rather than the Lions Club.

I’m watching our boys now up at bat. My son is on deck and making practice swings. As he steps up to the plate, I watch him from behind. At eleven he is well-built and the only boy on the team to wear his hair long – the fashion in his school but not the school where most of his teammates and his twin brother attend. As he settles into his batting stance, his uniform outlines his broadening shoulders and his cute rear end? I have rubbed those shoulders and swatted that behind a million times. How did our dear boy get so big?

When he strikes out, I see his disappointment from the distance, his head down, his shoulders sunk. But then I see him smile at something the batting coach says to him as he steps into the dugout. If this kind of disappointment had happened about something at home, he would be furious and sulky and likely to slam a door.

Suddenly two things occur to me: 1) Little League is teaching this boy something that his Dad and I can’t and 2) I’m absolutely freezing. I march through the wet grass to my van and drive the two miles home to get a coat, gloves, and blanket. My husband Scott and our son Colin have just finished Colin’s homework at the kitchen table and have made their way upstairs. “I’m going back to the game,” I call and stop in the kitchen to pour myself a warming shot of frozen vodka. I need all the help I can get.

Back at the game, I stand, wrapped in my blanket, on friendlier ground among other moms from our team who wisely brought chairs. We cheer, encourage, moan and talk about summer plans. But, as each boy gets up to bat, I wonder, What is he learning here? How will this shape him? Who is he and what kind of person will he grow up to become?

Marty is up again and this time I can see his face. With the first pitch he swings and misses. “Good swing, Marty. Good try,” his coach calls. He lets a ball go by, “Good eye, Marty, good eye, Baby,” an older man at the fence, the batting coach, encourages. But ultimately he strikes out again and I watch those eyes I know so well. Disappointed, but not mad. This is progress, I think happily, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

Last weekend, after having been away from home for five Saturdays in a row, I had a bit of a lie-in. Scott made breakfast and let me be. I was reading a magazine about ten when Marty crawled in bed with me to say hello. As we were talking about something that I can’t now remember, I said. “Go get that yearbook on the windowsill under those books.” (About two years ago I dug my ninth grade yearbook from a box in the attic to settle some internal dispute with myself about a classmate’s name and it has sat on my bedroom windowsill ever since.)

“Why’s it called the Hollander?” he asked.

“Because our school was in Holland Patent, New York.”

“1977, that’s a long time ago.”

“This is me in grade nine, Baby, this is me in grade nine,” I said, stealing a line from a Barenaked Ladies song we both like.

I flipped to a caricature a senior boy had drawn of me on the flyleaf. He had nailed my Jay Leno-like chin perfectly and written some disparaging but funny comments about a girl in his class who annoyed everybody.

Marty was very interested the yearbook, and I smiled to recall a boy from my class who always addressed his yearbook comments “To So-and-So’s kids” because he said the person’s children were the only ones who would ever look at these yearbooks in the future. That boy once asked me to a dance and I turned him down because he wasn’t very cool. Now I realized he was probably extremely cool but I was too dumb to see it.

As Marty looked at all the photos and I oohed and ahhed over various people, I realized that at the time these photos were taken, almost 30 years ago, there was no way for us to know what would become of us. There was no way to know how this experience of going to a small, rural high school would shape us.

“There’s Nora on the volleyball team,” I said. “She’s a Senior VP at Hewlett-Packard and runs a two billion dollar division of the company.” I pointed to a skinny kid in a loose basketball uniform. “There’s Ronnie. He’s just moved from commanding a surface vessel in the Navy and is working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s a major mucky-muck.” (I also saw photos of four great people who are on the heidoville list: my oldest friend Carol, now a nurse in Saipan, in an awful long dress I lent her for the spring choral concert; Alan, a poet/librarian in Texas, with his jacket slung casually over his shoulder in his senior portrait; John, a cartoonist here in Maine, at his drum set with the band teacher coaching him; and Mrs. Klossner, my ninth-grade English teacher, who still lives not too far from Holland Patent.)

But more than the familiar faces, whose whereabouts I can name, are all the other faces I can barely place. What happened to them? Are they happy? Are they accomplished? How did our common experience shape them?

I remembered when Carol dragged me to our 20th high school reunion five years ago. The organizers had played a mean trick by putting our senior photos on name tags instead of names. I came upon this guy whose lapel was covering his photo and said sheepishly, “I know I know you, but please help me out.” He grinned and said his name. I blanched. He was one of the most popular, good-looking athletes in our school, and I’d known him since fourth grade.”

“Oh, geez, Jim. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you.” He had a bit of a tummy and had lost some hair. We shook hands and began to catch up. A few minutes later, Carol, walked up to us and immediately said in her warm, big-hearted way, “Oh Jim, how good to see you!” Gratefully he reached out and gave her a big hug and kiss. I could have smacked her.

Back in bed, I stole a glance at Marty’s bemused face as we came upon a photo of me in the yearbook: bad haircut, big plastic glasses, hopeful look. He laughed hysterically. “Look at you,” he howled, thrashing with delight.

“You should see Daddy’s ninth grade picture,” I said trying to deflect the criticism by betraying my poor husband.

“Dad not Daddy, Mom,” he stopped laughing to look at me with exasperation. “Please, we’re not babies anymore.”

Just last night, I lay down with Martin in his bed to talk about today’s schedule: He gets a ride to jazz band practice after school, then his Dad picks him up and they go onto a ball game in South Bristol. I take Colin to horseback riding and meet them at the game. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day, maybe even hit 70 degrees.

“I’ll leave your uniform on my desk chair so you can change as soon as you get home from jazz band,” I say. Only the hall light shines in on us, and he is allowing me to lay my cheek on his blond head.

“What are you going to write about tomorrow?” he asks.

“Little league,” I say, surprised and touched by his interest in my little project.

“What about it?”

“About how it’s teaching things I can’t teach you -- like how you need to keep practicing and swinging hard even if you don’t connect with the ball. About how if you get mad for not hitting well and you give up, you won’t be prepared to whack it when you get a good pitch.”

“This goes beyond baseball doesn’t it?” he says, lifting up his head an inch.

I smile at him in the darkness and reply with my best Maine accent, “Ain’t you some smart?”

Heidi Shott
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