On Learning a Lesson

by

 

I underestimate my youngest boy. Most of the time he surprises me in the end.  He decided, at the last minute, to try out for the high school baseball team.  In our town, if you don’t start baseball at the earliest age, follow through with private hitting lessons, then Fall ball,  and finally, Winter conditioning, you are not taking the game seriously. You don’t get picked. Everyone knows it.

Ryan’s older brother did all the  things expected of him.  In thirteen years of baseball, encompassing all the above into his routine, and with his determination, love of pitching, and the defensive play of his equally committed teammates, he won a State Championship. Ben never missed a practice, or a game until his face caught a line-drive off the bat of the player he was pitching to. He refused to have his nose reset and his sinus bone was too fractured to be repaired. The one game he missed was under doctor’s orders. His spirit was on the field. His body stood behind the fence at home plate, clinging, cheering his teammates on. He was back on the pitcher’s mound in less than a week, throwing for thirteen strike-outs. Baseball kept him together. Baseball was serious business. Baseball was his passion.

Ryan does things his own way.  His priorities are what suits him at the moment.  Baseball is a spring sport that takes a back burner to a birthday party or a trip to the theme park. No summer ball for him, he goes to the beach when the weather’s hot. To heck with Fall ball, bike rides on mountain trails are much more fun.  His thumbs are the only parts of his body  that get a serious workout in winter, playing Xbox-Live with his buddies. It’s all about his friends and fun. That’s his passion.

He put his baseball bat down two years ago in favor of a paintball gun, and hadn’t picked up the Louisville Slugger again until the night before tryouts. He hadn’t thrown a baseball in two years either.  His cleats no longer fit and his baseball pants had long been donated to the local thrift store.

“I need some metal cleats for tryouts,” he said to me Monday.  He had the day off from school for President’s Day.  “and some baseball pants.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m trying out for the baseball team,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. He’d just bought a new paintball gun, and won all kinds of nifty stuff at a paintball tournament for his tactical skill. He hadn’t practiced or played baseball in two years.  Why would I waste money on a pair of metal cleats that would last him a week of tryouts?  Baseball pants are twenty-five dollars a pair and all the ones at the thrift store are picked over or sold already.  Baseball season here starts at the end of January (not the actual season, but for the serious players it begins while snow is still forecasted.)

“When are tryouts?” I asked.

“They start tomorrow afternoon after school.”

“And you didn’t know this until today?”

“No I knew about it last week. I just decided I’d go out for the team today.”

This is Ryan, flying by the seat of his pants, decisions made at the last minute, hoping for the best. It’s a wonder I have hair left on my head.

 “Do you know how much I’m going to have to pay for cleats this close to season, even if we find a pair in your size?”

“My old ones were too little anyway,” he rationalized.

We went to the store, and Ryan found cleats on clearance a half size too big.  “I’ll wear an extra pair of socks,” he said.  We found a pair of gray baseball pants in his size.  He knew better than to ask for a three hundred dollar bat.

When we got home, he went into the attic and dug around for his brother’s gear.  He dragged the bat and glove downstairs and went outside for thirty minutes of practice with his Dad.

I heard the “ping, ping, ping” of ball on bat and a bit later, the “twack” of ball in glove. They are sounds I associate with spring and boys. I smiled a bittersweet smile.  It was a shame that he would have to learn the lesson that putting down a bat and glove for two years, at the crucial point of eighth and ninth grades, would land him a cut on the high school team.  This was a lesson he needed to learn on his own though. I was supportive of his efforts and gave him the supplies and encouragement he needed.

We were eating supper that night when Ryan said, “Oh, I need a physical before I can try out.”

My hand hit my forehead and I glared at the boy. “Tryouts start tomorrow Ryan,” I said. “You have school tomorrow.”

“School doesn’t close and the doctor’s office doesn’t just stop what they’re doing to let you come have a physical,” Bruce said, looking up from his potato salad.  “You need to learn to plan ahead, son.”

“Can you call them Mom and just see if I can get one sometime tonight or tomorrow?”

I could feel the steam rising in me, now a physical.  I slammed the phone book onto the table and started flipping pages.  Ryan came up and hugged me from behind.  “Here,” he said, taking the phone book  from me, “let me look it up for you.”

“We can fit him in at 5:45 tomorrow evening. That’s the earliest we can do,” Sharon, the evening nurse said to me. I growled out my frustration to her about teenagers, and she said, “Yeah tell me about it, my Jared was in here for his physical just today because he didn’t tell me about baseball tryouts until Saturday.”  It made me feel better, that I wasn’t alone in this journey through teenagedom.

“I’ll just go to the first meeting after school and tell the coach I have my physical appointment at 5:45,” Ryan said.  “Maybe they’ll let me practice without the form.”

They didn’t.  He called at five minutes after four to tell me that the coaches had to have his physical form before they would let him step foot on the field. I picked him up from the parking lot.  He missed the first day of tryouts.

He remembered to take his physical form to school the next day and knew to turn it in to the Athletic Secretary.  She wasn’t at her desk when he went by, so he kept it in his bat bag.  The baseball field is behind the Elementary School,  a half mile across the road from the high school. The potential players were there, answering roll call for practice the second day when Ryan’s name wasn’t called.  He raised his hand with his form.

“You have to have the initials from the Athletic Secretary before you can practice,” the coach said.  “You can run up to the school and bring it back signed if you want to practice.”  

Now he had two strikes against him, but he ran to the school and back with the signed paper, got in line for drills, and when he poured himself into the car at six thirty after practice, he was more tired than I’ve ever seen him.

Later that night, he came into the bedroom where I was.  “You’re going to be really mad at me,” he said.

That statement is usually followed by a reason why he failed a test, quiz or couldn’t hand in a paper on time. “What now?” I asked.  

“I left my backpack on the baseball field,” he said.

I put my coat on over my pajamas, handed Ryan the flashlight, and drove him to the school.  His backpack  wasn’t there.

“I hope one of the coaches put it in his car,” Ryan said.  “He probably did. I’ll check in the Athletic office tomorrow.”

All I could do was shake my head and think.  Hmmm, there’s your third strike.  Coach figures 1.  Kid can’t get his physical on time, misses first practice. 2. Can’t follow directions, has to miss part of second practice running to have form signed. 3. Now, can’t keep up with his things, I have to tote his books around for him.  In my mind, Ryan didn’t have a chance.  I began wondering what use I might have for a size eleven and a half pair of metal baseball cleats.  I guessed I could put them on myself with four pairs of socks, and aerate the yard.  The baseball pants would just be a loss, too stretchy, too small.

Thursday was rainy, no practice. Friday brought high wind warnings with sixty mile gusts, no practice. I got a text message from Ryan before I left work.  “If it’s OK, I’m going to Tomas’ to spend the night.  Tryouts are from ten to one tomorrow.  Can you pick me up at nine, so I can get some breakfast first?”

Sure, I thought. You’ll stay up until all hours, refining Xbox or paintball strategy with Tomas and drag around on the baseball field tomorrow morning for the coaches.  Lessons, I thought to myself, we all have to learn lessons.

Ryan is not a morning person.  He was standing at the end of Tomas’ driveway with his arms folded and his eyes closed.  He dropped into the seat and laid his head over onto the passenger window.  We drove home in silence.  He sat for twenty minutes watching cartoons, eating an egg and cheese bagel I handed him, then got dressed fifteen minutes before ten.  He arrived on the field at exactly ten o’clock.

My phone rang at five after one.  “I’m ready,” he said. “Can you come and pick me up?”

He got in the car smiling.  “Good practice?” I asked.

“I made the team,” he said.

“You did?” I asked trying to hide my surprise. I should have known. When Ryan decides to do something, he puts all of his effort into the thing.  He is competitive and tenacious when he wants to be.  He dug deep and remembered all those drills from Little League and Babe Ruth ball.  He caught with two hands, gripped the bat knuckles over knuckles and stepped into the pitch. He made his first step back in the outfield and took a secondary lead off first when it mattered.

“Yeah, JV.  And guess what?” Ryan asked, leaning back against the seat with his eyes closed and a smile on his face.

“What?” I asked.

“Stevie, Aaron and Josh are on the team too. Remember them from Little League? They were hilarious.  It’s gonna be a good season.”

For Ryan, it’s not about finding one passion in Kindergarten and sticking with it to the end. It’s about trying on different suits, maybe a baseball uniform in spring, swimming trunks in summer, and bicycle shorts in fall. He likes the look and feel of camouflage for paintball tournaments  down the road in Glasgow, and a pair of worn sweats while sitting in his gaming chair, headset donned in winter, giving his thumbs a workout. He’s figuring things out his way, and always finding friends along the way.  

He’s also teaching his mother a few lessons in the process.

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2 Responses to “On Learning a Lesson”

  1. curly Says:

    Beautiful writing, Train, as always from you.

    All four of our boys went through it. Doris is a fanatic fan. Used to have to peel her off the backstop where she would be hanging on the chainlink toe and claw screaming at the umps. Two of the boys still play in adult softball and Doris and the other girls are menaces at the games. I pretend I don’t know her.

    • train-whistle Says:

      thanks curly, I have been known to be Doris-like in my exuberance as well. I blame it on the game of baseball. As always, I appreciate your reading and response.

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