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Sunday, June 17, 2018

'Attaway, Kid: An Ode to Baseball Dads (Reboot)

I have been watching youth baseball in the Northern Virginia area on and off for twenty-three years. When I met my future husband he was straight out of college and coaching Little League with his brother and his high school buddies. So even before I became a mother of three baseball players and a writer who hails the merits of the "baseball mom" I spent lots of time as a spectator watching both baseball players and their parents in the bleachers.

There is a certain stereotype of dads in youth sports. I've seen the accounts of over-involved, over-bearing dads. I even saw an article that mentioned police being called to Little League game because two "adults" couldn't handle the pressure of watching little people throw a ball around. And yet, in my experience, although I've certainly run into some crazy, most often I've witnessed quite the opposite. We all know it's not quite as fun to talk or write about men who behave themselves - men who show up for their kids, not their own egos. But, the vast majority of them do just that. They encourage them, teach them and love them well. I've watched countless daddies watching countless baseball games, so I thought I'd mention a thing or two about some gentlemen that you won't read about in the newspaper or see in your Facebook feed.

First of all, I'll say at the outset that I am a big fan of the moms. We have our own way at the ball field. We set up our chairs with umbrellas and foot rests. We lay out blankets with toys and snacks for our younger children. We joke about the travesty it is that most ballplayers wear white pants and trade advice on the best stain removers. We spray copious amounts of bug repellent and sunscreen on our boys. We provide all manner of protein bars and Gatorades and band-aids to any kid who passes by. We assure a friend that of course, that was a legitimate hit by her son. Who cares that the ball went straight through the 2nd baseman's legs? Little Johnny hit the ball. He is safe at first. That was an awesome hit. (This is what my husband calls a "mommy hit".) I also happen to know a mom - or three - who can throw a mean fastball and coach base runners like nobody's business.

The daddies? They are a little different. Over the years at games ranging from the 8U-12U NVTBL Championships to the Virginia State Little League Tournaments to High School Regional Play-offs, I have watched them. I've recognized how vitally important and special those differences are.

I've noticed how a boy going up to bat might only look to one other person besides his coach. He might just steal a glance outside the fence and lock eyes with his dad. Of course, there are dads who coach too much from the bleachers. But most often, I've watched how a dad simply gives an encouraging nod or a positive word. I've seen how a player can relish that eye contact - can, in fact, crave it.

I've watched how sometimes a dad will move down to the very end of the fence away from the crowd when his boy is up to bat to relieve the pressure on his kid. I've seen some stand alone watching from as far away as they can on a hill beyond the outfield. I've seen some sit silently and assuredly present behind home plate. I've sat with some who shout and joke and encourage with every single play and every single at bat.

While many sports fathers are portrayed as intensely serious about the game, I have found that it's the dads who do the best job at lightening the mood. On the teams we've been on over the years it's the dads who come up with silly nicknames that stick with our kids. One of our players went flying face first into the right field fence when he was nine years old.  His nickname, "Fence", stuck with him well into high school. I've listened as some dads shout silly phrases to diffuse a pressure situation, not only to their own kids, but to others as well. Some men jump high out of their chairs, smack hands against the fence and raise their arms in victory when we hear "Strike three!" or see a ball sail over the fence. In contrast, I've seen a dad as he watched his son hit a walk-off home run to win a big game, just stand still, eyes wide with wonder, shaking his head in disbelief, grinning from ear to ear and not uttering a single word.

And what of those dads who are their player's most ruthless critics when things go wrong? Sure, I've seen that many times. But I've also seen something else. I've seen a dad agree to take his frustrated hitter out to the batting cage at late hours of the night to help him practice. Not at his own insistence, but because the boy asked and in fact, needed to methodically swing his bat over and over while his biggest fan quietly fed balls from behind the L Screen. I very clearly remember watching a boy and his dad during the Virginia State Little League tournament about five years ago. I saw the 12 year old boy as tall as his father blink back tears after he had struggled at the plate during a game. I did not hear instruction, criticism or advice come out of his dad's mouth. I simply saw that father wrap that him up in a bear hug and sway him back and forth, whispering support and love in his ear. And, by the way, I watched that same boy hit two balls out of the park the next day. Coincidence?  Maybe, maybe not.

People all over the country including me will be at the ball park this weekend as we celebrate Father's Day. We will run into every sort and kind of dad. I will remember that we live in a world where everyone seems compelled to share their opinions on every blasted thing - especially parenting. I have heard baseball dads praised. I have heard them criticized. I've heard whispers that that one is way too hard on his kid while that one goes too easy. That one thinks his kid can do no wrong. That one will not shut up about his kid. That one thinks his kid will go to the Majors next week.

In the end, despite any judgment or criticism I might have of the way another person parents, we all know that not a one of us is remotely perfect. I am 100% sure of one thing and that is that there is a strand of truth that runs through every single dad I have encountered on the ball field. Each deeply, completely, earnestly is doing the best he knows how to do for his kid and each screws up and succeeds all the darn time. From the harshest critics to the biggest supporters, I've no doubt that these men love their children to the ends of the earth.

So this weekend as I settle in to the bleachers at the ball field, I'll be grateful for all the dads present because I am fully aware that there are many that are missing. And I'll know that there are boys from six to sixty who would give any thing to have their daddies in the bleachers for one more day whether cheering or criticizing, sitting quietly or arguing with umpires. I am hopeful this weekend that those who have lost their dads feel the presence of their fathers from the tips of their cleats to the tops of their ball caps. This year in particular, there are two sons who I know will suffer on Sunday. I will be praying for a 13 year old ball player from our area who lost his dad a year ago. And as I do every year, I'll be lifting up my very favorite baseball coach who lost his dad over thirty years ago. It seems to me that on Father's Day the pain for a grown man missing his dad is the same as it is for a young boy.

I never met my husband's father, but I have looked to the heavens and thanked him many times over for the man he raised. I have no doubt that he has not missed a game since the Lord took him home when my husband was seventeen years old. I know in my heart that he watched his son play his senior year of baseball and he has watched him coach our sons and many others. Very often when I notice the serious, unflappable expression on my husband's face break into a relaxed grin when the win is near, I look up at the sky and give a wink to my father-in-law. I have a feeling that in addition to the bleachers filled with baseball dads this weekend, there will be an equally raucous cheering section in heaven.  I'll bet my father-in-law will make room for our friend, Tom, as he watches over his boy, Ryan. There will be some high fives, a subtle fist pump or two, and a couple of wide smiles and a gleams of pride in some fathers' eyes up there.  I have a feeling that though we won't hear their voices, there will be a chorus of baseball dads cheering, " 'Attaway, kid.  That's my boy."

Happy Father's Day, Dads. You are cherished.

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