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17 September 2011

Play ball.

This story is a long time coming.  It's one I really like.  Not because it's written beautifully, or because it means something big, but because it's a fun one to relive.

The first day of school Jake asked, "when does baseball start?"

"Nobody starts anything the first week of school.  We'll hear from someone soon," I assured him.

Later that same evening Coach Robert called.  "Practice begins tomorrow," he said.

Jake started catching imaginary pop flies in the air, and I imagined this: practice tomorrow and he doesn't own a glove, a bat, shoes, socks, pants, or a hat.

He jumped out of bed on Wednesday morning, eager to start the day.  Every sentence uttered included some form of base or ball.  "What do baseball players eat for breakfast?"  "Can we get a ball when we get my new bat?"  "Will I get to steal bases?" "Should I slide on every base?" And on and on.

At the end of the second day of school, while headed to the sporting goods store, ready to surrender my weeks pay on equipment for yet another sport, Hope called.  She probably really didn't want to know what I was doing when she asked, but I told her all about Jake's baseball dream and my lack of equipment.  "Come by here," she said.  "I have a closet full of baseball gear."  Hope shows up when I need her.

Hope who mentored me as a first year teacher.  Hope who wanted to visit me in New Jersey.  Hope who came to me when Jake struggled into the world.  Hope who accepts me on my very unfair terms.  Hope who gets my hyperbole.  Hope who trusts me.  Hope who prayed with me when George took his last breath.  Yes, that Hope.  Again, giving me exactly what I need.

Her son's equipment inventory for Jake: new Nike cleats with changeable logo colors, two bats, a helmet, 3 pairs of baseball pants, batting gloves and a bag.  At home, he changed into his gear and practiced sliding through the kitchen and down the hall.  Jake showed up at that first practice looking like a pro.

He hasn't played a sport since 2008, the spring that his dad died.  He played T-ball then, but a fog hovered over that season.  He never asked to play again.

But now he wanted to play ball.  He watched the Braves with Alex this summer, asking questions, learning the players. He asked me to take him to my hometown to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play.  In September my parents took him.  He brought books about baseball home from the library and read them.

On the way to practice, Jake said, "Well, I think I'll be one of the top two players on the team."

I hesitated, then carefully explained that these 9 & 10 year old division boys had probably been playing for 4 years or so.  Jake at 8, the youngest boy on the team would do just fine if he listened and learned.

As we were walking up to the field, one of the coaches spoke to Jake.  Jake responded politely with a "yes, sir."  His enthusiasm was drifting, I figured he was on the down side of his late lunch French toast sugar high.

In what appeared to be an abrupt energy shift, he moseyed onto the field.  After a few lifeless tosses, he came out to the stands and said, "mama, I don't feel so good."  The humid air formed droplets on his forehead.

"Go on," I told him.  "You're going to be just fine."

He went back out to warm up.  A few more minutes went by, he came back.

"Mama, I think I"m gonna be sick," he said as he drug his little body to the men's room.

He came back out, not looking much better.

"Go back out on the field and play," I insisted.  "You'll be fine."

He walked through the dugout door, onto the field, turned back around, with his head hanging low, rushed toward the bleachers, and threw up all over me, my school papers, the bleachers, and the concrete.

"I'm so sorry" he cried, as I rubbed his back telling him it was all going to be okay in my gentlest voice while he continued to vomit all over me. 

After cleaning and disinfecting Jake and me, I returned to spray down the bleachers and the concrete.  First I threw my student's English 101 essay away.  Then I hosed the area.  The coach's brother Mike watched the whole scene unfold.  He told me Jake said he was nervous when he got there.

Jake sat in the dug out for a few minutes.  I finished cleaning.  I walked over, bent down on my knees, and told him that he was a part of this team, quitting wasn't an option, he had nothing left in him to throw up, and he was going to be fine.  I told him we were staying, and he could sit in the dug out the whole time if he wanted to, but if it were me, I'd go back out on that field and say, "coach, I don't feel so good, but I really want to play, so I'm going to give this another try."  I walked away, and gathered the papers I brought to grade.

A few minutes went by.  Jake picked up his glove and jogged back onto the field.  The coach hit him a few balls.  Jake made a few stops and throws.

Then the coach said, "come on in guys, we're going to run some bases."

This worried me.  Jake just finished vomiting all over me.  Run?

As each boy rounded first, the next one would begin.  The goal was to catch the guy ahead.  Jake was fifth in line.  He passed the fourth boy around second, and passed the third runner too.

Jake had their attention now.

The coaches explained the positions and plays, and Jake listened.  They encouraged him when he listened and instructed him when he didn't. 

In Jake's first game, he got an infield hit, but he outran the throw.  The coach told him not to watch the ball when he hit it, just run hard to first.  Jake did, and he was safe.  They gave him one of two game balls.  The other went to Sam who made an unassisted double play.

In the second game, 5 of the 7 runs scored were because of Jake.  And one of his hits was a double to right field.
He loved practice, and now he wants Alex to teach him how to pitch.

Jake's baseball season had more losses than wins, more walks than hits, and more errors than plays, but he had so much fun.  In his last game, he got a great hit to left field and made a great play from second to first.   The team lost the game, but Jake had a winning season.

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