Spring 2010: Coda

The author with his son at a baseball game

ball crazy: Henry Jacobs with his dad and coach, Hal Jacobs.

Joe N. Boris/Special

Coach Confessions

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By Hal Jacobs

It’s Friday evening at a youth baseball complex in Tyrone, Georgia. Dusk has settled into the grass and trees beyond the outfield fence, turning them into something resembling quiet woodlands. But the baseball diamond is as brightly lit as an operating room.

At the moment, our team of twelve-year-olds, the Druid Hills Bulls, are getting waxed. We’re down 10-0 in the last inning. The team we’re facing is so well-coached and so all-around good—the word is that they won some world series out West last year—that it feels more clinical than your typical 10-0 beat-down. It might hurt more in the morning.

Then it starts to get interesting.

An out here, a few seeing-eye hits there, a walk, another out, and bases are loaded with two outs. It’s time for my son, Henry, to step into the batter’s box.

Moments like this are the hardest. There’s nothing on the line—this is just another Friday night in another weekend tournament. But for some crazy reason, to at least one person watching this game, it feels like everything is on the line.

I should start walking away, down the right field line, away from the blinding whiteness of home plate. I should call someone on my cell phone, someone who thinks there are more important things in life than baseball, and make plans to do something tomorrow that has nothing to do with baseball.

I should do anything but what I am doing, gripping the chainlink fence and praying for a miracle.

Please, God, please . . . grant him a hit.

I don’t want it for me. I want it for him. I want my son to be happy.

Henry cocks his bat. Damp locks of hair poke out from his dirty batting helmet. His cheeks and stomach still carry a hint of that adolescent softness that will melt away in another year. At this moment, everything is pure and anything is possible.

The pitcher winds up and throws a fastball down the middle of the plate.

Henry watches it.

“Strike!” yells the umpire, pumping his fist with the conviction of a man who knows that in a few more minutes he’ll be sitting in a camp chair beside his car in the parking lot and cracking open a cold one from the cooler.

The finality of the ball slamming into the catcher’s mitt—instead of leaping off Henry’s bat—is a little disorienting. What just happened? I look around to see if anyone else just noticed that he didn’t swing at the ball. His teammates in the dugout beside me are experiencing a range of emotions: the next two batters have their helmets on and want a chance to hit; the others are squirming on the bench, looking forward to the game being over so they can start the next adventure.

My vision of a ball ascending into the dusky sky is now replaced by the hot pain of doubt and fear. A strikeout to end the game would hurt bad. The absence of all hope. Hell.

Baseball can be such a cruel game.

Five years ago, when my wife and I first signed up our two sons in a neighborhood youth baseball league, I never thought I would wind up as a dad with a baseball problem. I didn’t see the value of over-organized youth sports. I grew up playing sandlot baseball in a park where the longleaf pine trees outnumbered the players. I never played catch with my father. He died when I was eight, and a year later I discovered baseball on my own terms.

My version of baseball bears no resemblance to the game my sons play. Our games lurched along, disrupted by frequent breakdowns of talks and negotiations, arbitrary pummeling of younger brothers by older brothers, cars driving through the outfield, and equipment issues, such as when the only ball would be lost forever to a rogue palm tree. There were also moments so perfect that they took our breath away.

Over the years, as a baseball dad-coach, I have learned to appreciate the youth baseball experience. Now I understand that baseball is a game best passed down from one generation to the next. I have seen my sons work with adults—and trust them—in a way I never learned while playing sandlot. I’ve seen them grow confident in their skills, and I’ve shared moments with them that have allowed me to see them in a new light, as if seeing the men they would one day become.

Here comes the next pitch. A good one—for the pitcher—not Henry. Low and on the outside part of the plate. Too close to take. Henry loads his bat and swings.

He gets good composite metal on the ball—I hear a sharp, satisfying ring—followed by cheers and yells from the stands.

The groundball shoots to the right side of the infield. For a moment it looks like it might get into right field and score two runs. Henry is tearing up the ground between home plate and first. But the first baseman takes a few steps to his right, stays down on the ball as it disappears into the leather webbing of his glove, then steps on first before Henry arrives in a fury of arms and legs.

Ball game.

This is an edited excerpt from Ball Crazy: Confessions of a Dad-Coach, by Hal Jacobs (Everthemore Books, published February 2010). Jacobs is manager of communications in Emory College.

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