The sound of an aluminum bat connecting with the ball; it's this incredible thwunk, a legit line drive, maybe more. And my kid did it. The crowd -- a couple of coaches and three or four semi-supervising parents -- goes wild. OK, not wild, exactly. But they are impressed. There's a kind of involuntary laugh that comes out because, you know, whoa, the kid really made contact. The coach calls it "the hit of the night." And then he pitches a few more right to my son, who proceeds to make five more solid hits in a row.
"We've got a ringer," declares one of the dads.
And I am laughing with incredulous joy. So, actually, is my son, the batter. He can't believe what he's just managed to do, either.
It's the third Little League practice of the season for this team of kindergarteners and first graders. My two older sons are playing, as my youngest boy, a preschooler, and I watch from our folding chairs at the edge of the field. The little guy's tee ball practice is already done for the evening.
Enrolling your kids, especially your boys, in some kind of organized sport is practically a legal requirement where we live. This expectation snuck up on me, as did many things about living outside the big city, where our family's unathletic nerdism was not particularly noticeable amid the diversity around us.
So we were surprised when we moved here last fall and signed up our kids for an "initiation" level hockey program (basically, ice skating lessons with cool uniforms and pads) that the boys were already "behind." Three-year-olds were skating circles around them. My first grader was the oldest, tallest kid there; everyone else his age was already playing competitively. At least one of his classmates was already spending a few weekends each month "on the road" in tournaments.
Other hockey moms were quick to offer advice about how we could get them "caught up" -- private lessons, off-season training, a special summer league -- so they'd be ready to compete next fall. My failure to follow up on any of these suggestions had them looking at me with confusion and maybe just a little disdain: Was I trying to raise a pack of losers?
Based on genetics alone, it is fairly clear that my kids are not going to grow up to be professional athletes. In today's youth sports culture, where kids are expected to "specialize" in a sport by elementary school and to be playing it year-round by middle school, my boys are unlikely to even make a high school varsity squad. (Can you still letter in debate?)
And I have to believe that most of the parents around us also understand the near mathematical impossibility of them raising an elite professional athlete. Clearly, they're in it for something else.
Here's the part where I add all the polite, open-minded qualifiers: My husband and I do value the opportunity to involve our kids in sports. We're reasonably healthy, active adults and we want our kids to find physical outlets for their considerable energy and to cultivate the daily habits of an active lifestyle. We want them to experience having teammates, being coached, practicing skills and, not least, winning and losing games. Developing skill through practice will help them build the self-discipline we think they need to do well in life. And, should they somehow overcome the genetic handicap of having two incredibly uncoordinated parents, they just might get to feel the thrill of mastering a physical challenge and getting really excellent at something. I suspect most of the families around us feel the same way -- except maybe they don't have the whole legacy of terrible hand-eye coordination part.
But, really, we are not sports people.
There, I said it.
Somehow, for many parents around us, their enthusiasm for all the benefits of introducing kids to the world of sports has translated into a fairly grueling pursuit of competitive achievement, one that dominates their time and crowds out other priorities. From our lofty perspective as parents who geek out over reading and science experiments and Bedtime Math, the whole thing seems like a recipe for serious burnout.
So we've set up rules around the kids' sports activities, trying to limit their impact on the rest of our lives. The rules are, we thought, pretty basic. Since our three kids are less than three years apart in age, we decided to involve them in programs they could do together. We avoided weeknight evening activities for all but the last month of the school year. We limited weekend scheduling to keep at least one day completely free for family time, road trips and other activities. We do a different sport each season.
Even with these common sense restrictions, we wound up with afternoon tennis and swim lessons in the fall, hockey and indoor soccer in the winter and baseball in the spring. For a family with two working parents and three kids, the logistics, schedule and costs were not insignificant. We felt like we were doing rather a lot, like maybe we were even a bit over-scheduled.
Then, we started to compare notes with other families -- the ones who continuously declined our invitations to get together because they were too busy and the ones hanging around with us at the various practice sessions and games.
When I mentioned the rule about all the kids having to do the same thing with roughly the same schedule during the same season, several parents (mostly moms, actually) laughed out loud at such an "old school" approach. It was like I'd just hopped out of my station wagon with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, leaving a toddler rolling around, unbuckled in the back. In some places, not having your entire life's schedule dictated by your 7-year-old's sports team makes you kind of a bad a**.
It's in this context that we started showing up for baseball practice. I didn't manage to get to Target before the first session, so only one of my kids actually owned a glove. They were not particularly familiar with the rules of the game or even, really, its objective. (I did tell the 4-year-old, repeatedly, that you don't tackle anyone in tee ball, but, honestly, I give him that talk before almost everything we do.)
I came with a folding chair and a magazine. One session I had to miss entirely, stuck at a work meeting, so I sent our nanny with them. Everything we did signaled that we were, well, less than fully committed to the whole baseball thing.
And then. That sound.
And, suddenly, in the moment, I'm fumbling for the video camera button on my iPhone (too late) and speed dialing my traveling husband and cheering like a mad woman. And I resolve that we will start practicing at home and never be late to practice again and buy tickets for the local minor league team and, and, and....
I quickly forget that I was ever not a Baseball Mom.