One of the nice things about coaching 8-year-old baseball is you get to be in the field when your team is on defense.
Mostly I go around reminding the kids to be thinking about what they’ll do if the ball is hit to them. It rarely pays off. They don’t often catch it. If they do, they typically panic. And some aren’t capable of throwing it from shortstop to first anyway.
My other duty is keeping them alert.
Eight-year-olds tend to drift away when all the action is at home plate and kids are swinging and missing and catchers (a misnomer at this age) are strolling to the backstop to retrieve the inevitable passed ball, stopping to restrap shin guards or remove the headgear because, really, they can’t see out of it well enough to pick up the ball.
There is no hurry in baseball. There’s a reason it’s summer’s game.
If the mind of an 8-year-old infielder easily strays from the task at hand, the outfielders are on a different planet. Some sit; some play imaginary games in their head; they leap and make imaginary catches and launch imaginary throws. I find such behavior encouraging.
So to keep their heads in the game I stop by for a visit. Sometimes we talk about what they did that day, their friends at the pool, their new bike.
I get to share in the leisurely balm of baseball. “The great thing about baseball,” I say, “is that between pitches you can look around, see who’s in the stands, wave to your parents, look at the clouds — but only between pitches. When the pitch is on its way, you gotta be ready again. Then you can go back to looking at birds.”
Baseball can be a tough game on kids. It’s way too slow by today’s standards. It can get boring. Sometimes it’s hot standing out there in the sun. Today’s culture is driven by immediacy and instant gratification and by games and devices that greedily capture the attention of all those in their sights.
Little-kid coaches today know what they are up against when trying to keep kids in the game. And most, like me, love the game and want to share it with their sons and daughters. They want to hand it down to succeeding generations, aware both of its magic and its anachronistic ways.
I fell in love with baseball as an 8-year-old. It was 1960 and Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the seventh game of the World Series for the Pirates to beat the Yankees. I have been a Pirates fan ever since. I have read boxscores all my life. I collected baseball cards (still have them) and played whiffle ball all summer long — stopping only long enough to play on real teams in the evening.
I subscribed to The Sporting News, read baseball books, went to minor league baseball games in my hometown and listened to big league games on the radio. I love the feel of a baseball in my hand. Love a game of catch. See the beauty in the arc of a long fly ball against the summer sky and the missile-line of a rocket-armed pro’s throw from deep in the hole.
I love baseball — the game itself, with all its strategic, literary and mental perambulations, its codices and customs, its history and its heritage — so much that I can ignore its bad sides. I fight back tears when I see the old footage of Roberto Clemente or Robert DeNiro running in Bang the Drum Slowly. I’ve been to the cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa, to see that field of dreams. Baseball is still, to me, a game of fathers and sons, of boyhood dreams and human heroes. Those are the stories I read; those are the players I choose for my fantasy team.
Near the end of this past season we took the team to an old building with batting cages inside and we fed them ball after ball into the fly-wheel machines that spat baseballs at them. And they whacked the balls back into the ropey netting long enough to catch on, to grin at their progress, to get blisters and sweaty.
Finally the head coach called it off and said it was time to go. And I said, “Wait, the dads haven’t hit,” and a couple of us fed pitches to each other and then I jumped in and ripped away. It took a moment for the timing to come around, but it felt so good. Like when I was a kid.
It had been years since I had been able to take full cuts, but I got into the groove and was soon ripping line drives and savoring the sweet spot — those times you nail the ball so perfectly, so sweetly that the collision of bat and ball is nothing, is vaporous, is almost mystical. And you feel it in your hands, your arms, your stomach. And the ball shoots like a meteor into space.
I tell the kids not to worry where the ball goes, how far it flies. You hit to feel the sweet spot. And that feeling stays with you for life.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.