April is my favorite month. Ever since I can remember. The school year enters the home stretch. The weather starts getting warm. And the smell — oh that smell — of the freshly cut grass of a baseball field. Just the thought of opening day…besides my family there isn’t anything in my life that I’ve loved for as long as I do baseball. Naturally I want it to be part of my boys’ lives too. When you become a parent, you want your kids to love the things you love. Any parent that tells you otherwise is either not telling you the truth or not telling themselves the truth.
How you pursue that, however, is a complicated thing.
A few months ago, I was touring different private schools for Alex, our 5-year old. We are trying to decide if there’s any option better than our zoned public school. It was a fascinating exercise. I visited a very well regarded (translation: ridiculously expensive) school right down the block from our house. As part of our tour, they had current 5th graders talk to the touring parents about their experience at the school. I was struck by one little boy’s absolute love for baseball. He went on and on about how he wishes the school had a baseball team, knowing there were administrators in the room with us parents — he even talked about how baseball has helped him understand math and statistics. It was adorable.
Until…until…he slipped up. He said something to the effect of “it’s really important to my dad that I’m good at baseball. He gets on me all the time when I make a mistake on the field.” The boy was probably 11 years old; he didn’t even realize what he was saying — he may indeed love baseball, but at some point soon he’ll realize that he’s really trying to secure his father’s love. My heart sank — I bowed my head and looked at the floor but not before I caught the eyes of another dad who gave me a look that said “man, that just broke my heart, too.”
I vowed my son would never say those words about me. I would never be that dad.
It’s a vow I had already made to myself. My dad and I have actually had a conversation about it and it’s clear that there is a part of him that thinks he should have pushed me harder at baseball. Other fathers used to tell him to “lock me in the batting cage” (I could field and throw, couldn’t hit). I remind my dad that I’m 5’9 with shoes on and maybe I could have been better, or even played in college (not likely) but I would have hated him the entire time.
I see it all the time, though. Dads (and moms, more than you might think) out with their kids playing ball. You almost never see them having a simple catch. It’s way more likely that they are doing a hitting drill with a bucket of balls. And while some of these families are clearly having fun, it’s not uncommon to see a father screaming at his kid to “get down on the ball” or “concentrate!” or one time, horrifyingly, “you said you wanted to get better, so here we are trying to get better and you clearly don’t have it in you.” Imagine saying that to a 10 year old.
I would never be that dad.
When Alex was around 3 years old, I bought him his first batting tee and ball. I set it up in our backyard and showed him how to hit the ball. He took to it so naturally. What a fast, level swing. It was just a wiffle ball and bat, but the sound of bat hitting ball was music to my ears. I jumped with glee when he actually hit a line drive and the wiffle ball broke a light fixture. Maybe…just maybe…he could play. But immediately, you feel it creeping up on you…you’re pushing. Asking him to “just try one more time” or “remember, you want to hit the ball not the tee” and praising for a good line drive, but not when he misses the ball. It’s so subtle you barely notice you’re doing it. Because, you’re not that dad.
You take the boy to an actual field. This time with a glove. It’s your first real catch. He’s 4. You want to remember it forever. But, what you remember is him running away from you, hiding behind a tree screaming that he “hates baseball, and he doesn’t want to play.” You try desperately not to show your disappointment, and that “maybe we’ll try again some other time,” but you know the damage is done. You see, he knows you love baseball. It’s always on the TV, you have a “man cave” dedicated to your favorite players. He just wants you to love him, and he’s too scared to let you down. You tell him it’s all going to be ok and go for lunch because you’re never going to be that dad.
In the spring just a few months later I call the local Little League. Perhaps I’ll try one more time to see if I can get him to play. It’s not like he doesn’t do stuff; he loves to swim, he loves animals and trains — but soccer was a complete bust — and little boys should at least play some sports, right? Right? I just want him to be able to play with other kids and do what they do. But, I got cold feet. I had visions of him running off the field intimidated by the kid who has been playing since he was two, because he had to. We took an entire year off from baseball. We were going to do what he wanted to do; I would follow his lead.
Something changed this past year. He is with a great group of kids in his transitional Kindergarten class. Within weeks of starting school, all he talked about was Star Wars…one of my other loves, and not something I had “forced” upon him. And for the last eight months, that’s all we talk about. How did Anakin become Darth Vader? What’s the force? Every night, Alex, Amy and I play a lightsaber game. It is beyond fun and intricate and he sets all the rules. Then came gymnastics. The girls in class practice gymnastics. He asked if he could try. Learning from previous mistakes, I asked one of the moms in class if her daughter — who adores Alex and vice versa — would join the class as well. I warned her that he might not even make it into the door. A few weeks in, and he asks “do we have gymnastics today?” all the time. Even if it doesn’t last, he learned a valuable lesson and one that we’ve been pushing for a bit — that you have to try things once. And then if you don’t like it you can bail, but it’s always worth it to try.
With some new things under his belt, I decided now is the time to try baseball again. Instead of Little League, a friend told me about a company that holds t-ball classes inside a big sports complex nearby. I figure this could work: less pressure, fewer kids, and way fewer parents screaming at their kids. We would go with a low-key approach just to see if he actually likes it. I asked/persuaded the mom of his best friend at school to join us. Alex loves Matty (not real name) and I believe that if nothing else, they will just have fun together running around.
This past Saturday was the first class. I’m not sure who was more nervous. We went to buy a glove a day earlier and Alex wouldn’t even try to put it on his hand. He wanted a red bat, which I thought was a good sign until he just used it as a pretend telescope in the store. As we walked to the car, I told him that “I just want for you to try it, just once, and then you never have to play again if you don’t like it. And Matty is trying too. ” He looks at me and says “ok dad.”
The next morning t-ball starts in 30 minutes and Alex hasn’t eaten breakfast, is still in PJs and is scared. I remind him that he should try new things once as I get him dressed. Amy is watching me the entire time. I can read her mind. She’s thinking…”he doesn’t want to play, it’s not a big deal…just let him watch TV and relax, he’s had a long week.” It’s at that moment that I realize that maybe I’m becoming that dad. I stop in my tracks and say to her “this is all for me isn’t it? Why am I doing this? He doesn’t even want to play.” I know she’s thinking “yes, of course, this is all for you,” but she encourages me anyway that it’s good for him to try new things. I can tell he’s scared as we park the car. I know my kid and he’s often “scared” to do new things, but then often loves them once he feels comfortable.
Alex goes into the huge sports house. Kids are playing soccer on the right. There’s a Volleyball tournament toward the back. And an area where I can see a baseball tee set up and a few kids standing around it. Then Alex sees Matty and they run toward each other. I say hello to Matty’s mom and thank her again for agreeing to join us for baseball.
There are four kids in the class. Not exactly a Little League team but it’s exactly the type of low pressure environment where he could have fun and learn to play a little bit. I watch as they stretch, and start throwing the ball around, then they learn how to run the bases and finally hit off the tee. Every few minutes, Alex looks over to me with a big smile on his face and waves to me. I know that smile; it says, “Look Daddy, I’m doing it.” I’ve seen it before. I saw it at gymnastics. I saw it when he finally did the monkey bars for the first time. It’s better than the smell of April grass. Way better.
After their class is over, Matty and Alex run over to us. They are beaming. They want to hang out at the sports house and go in the jump house and play video games.
Alex and I stay behind, after Matty and his mom leave, to get some food — Alex has barely eaten after all.
We get hot dogs and fries and he’s earned some sips of my coke.
We sit together, he’s watching his favorite scene from Revenge of the Sith on my phone while eating his hot dog. Alex says…
“I like baseball, can I play again?”
Beaming ear to ear, I tell him “Of course! You can play anytime you like. We have class with Matty next Saturday, but you can play with me during the week if you want.”
“No thanks, I want to play with Matty.”
“OK, that works for me. I’m really glad you want to play again.”
I will never be that dad.