It's 9:00 on a Saturday morning in early summer, and I'm sitting on the unyielding wooden bleachers of Chemung Lake District Lions Club Park, roughly a lazy fly ball north of Peterborough, Ontario. It's a windless day, the heat rising and prickly. There's not much shade to be found even this early, and I spare a thought for those parents who'll be watching the game scheduled for 11:00, when the sun's intensity will have gone from welcome to murderous.
“She'll be a hot one,” says one parent, a foot up on the bleacher row in front of him, a Tim Horton's coffee cup in his hand. The coaches—a collection of well-meaning volunteers who will attempt to orchestrate the chaotic movement of children around the crushed gravel infield of a softball diamond until it’s time for the next platoon to rotate in—all carry Tim's cups, too. “I feel like I'm being cooked from the inside,” says one, but he keeps sipping anyway.
My twin six year-old boys, Theo and Cormac, are eager tee-ball players, because I've told them again and again that this is where they'll learn the rudiments of baseball. It’s a game in which they've both expressed an interest, though at this point they're probably only acting out of filial loyalty; roughly a third of what comes out of my mouth on a given day, April through October, is about baseball, and this is an impressionable age. I know this, as it happens, and I'm aware that I’m passing my addiction on to them, as well as to my ten year-old daughter. I’m trying to, anyway.
They and their teammates are dressed in the red t-shirts which comprise their uniforms. Accordingly they've been christened the Red Sox, though just about all of them are wearing Blue Jays caps. Today they play the Orange Sluggers, several of whom are draped in t-shirts that reach nearly to their ankles. The whole unruly knot of them, Red Sox and Sluggers alike, is being led through warm-ups by the same volunteers who were painting the lines on the diamond when we arrived. It takes a village.
Those registered for Lion's Club tee-ball are between the ages of 4 and 8, so the teams comprise a wide sampling of ability, from those who've already discovered a bit of physical power and grace to those yet to assume full captaincy of their limbs. My boys are average specimens, athletically speaking, but if they actually catch a ball thrown their way it's cause for great celebration. They'll take their whacks and run the bases, advancing one base at a time to allow everyone their chance. This is tee-ball, and it's really just about breeding familiarity with gloves and balls, bats and bases. Nobody will hit a ball as far as the outfield grass. The fielders will stand in clumps around the bases, so that there are two or three first basemen, two or three shortstops, and so on. Very few balls will be caught. They'll play just three innings or until the hour is up, whichever comes first.
During that span kids will run the wrong way, they'll run home right after touching first base, they'll turn to face the backstop and hit the ball that way, they will mix up their top and bottom hands, tangling their arms as they attempt to swing, weakly clubbing the tee instead of the ball perched thereon, which ball will then dribble off and settle in the dust immediately in front of the plate. The volunteer standing nearby will have to decide whether or not to consider it a hit, and if he does, he'll coax the child to run toward first, sometimes taking her or him by the hand to hasten the point.
There's a persistent tug in me toward baseball, and the idea of how it should be played. I want to call out to my boys, “Stand there!” “Run that way!” “Catch the ball!” I do allow myself one outburst, when Cormac stands on first base with his glove on his right hand. “Cormac!” I call, “the glove goes on the hand you don't throw with!” He waves and smiles and switches hands, though it won't matter when the ball next comes his way; it'll sail by, unbothered, just the same.
The heat is downright obnoxious by the second inning, and word has spread through the Red Sox that the bases make excellent places to rest, like small sofa cushions; there is now a kid sitting on first base, his glove on his head, a girl sitting on second, and two kids sharing third, one of which is Theo. It takes a conscious effort on my part not to call out. If I really asses the situation, can I blame him? Can I blame any of them? It's hot.
When the hour is up, the handshakes exchanged, and no score counted, my boys come to meet me in the bleachers. They're happy as songbirds. Theo estimates that the Red Sox scored 18 runs, and he wants to know the record for the most runs scored by a team in a big league game. “I think you guys came close,” I tell him. Cormac wants to go the nearby playground instead of talking ball. Teammates climb into vans and cars and trucks with parents and siblings even as the next game gets underway, the little sets of bleachers still full of parents, some of whom are trying to coach from the stands, others keeping their comments to a few encouraging cries. It's only as we drive home, windows down, that I realize that lessons are indeed being learned at that ballfield, although they aren't intended ones like how to catch and throw and the proper order in which to run the bases and so on. They're not exclusively being learned by the intended pupils, either. The biggest lesson, in fact, is being learned by the hardheaded parents, and it's a tough one, though maybe we'll get there yet, and all concerned will be happier if we do. The big lesson is not to expect too much too soon. We’ll have another chance to learn it next week.