My son starting pitching when he was 8 years old. I throw like a girl, and my husband never played baseball, but there was our son, standing out there in front of God and everyone, throwing strikes. Lots of them. For a pitcher's mom, the strike-three call is like some sonic candygram delivered straight to the womb, and baseball -- suddenly -- the greatest game ever invented.
The following year, the slab-thighed dads who coached the Little League Majors began gathering at the fence to watch him. I studied the impressed tilts of their broad jaws, tried to imagine what it was they saw in my son. He became the first-round draft pick, part of a strategic rebuilding plan that would take the worst team and make it a citywide championship squad by the time he was 12. It worked. Three years later, the Major Braves went onto win the entire district with Graham on the mound for the 8-0 shutout. In a city as big and deep in baseball talent as L.A., it's the sort of accomplishment that gives a mom pause. There were other clues, to be sure. Ever since he was 7, he'd read the entire baseball section of the L.A. Times daily. By 10, he'd developed a series of pitching drills, hurling a rubber baseball toward an ever-narrowing strike zone he'd chalked onto our carport wall. By 12, travel team scouts from all over Southern California started showing up at games trying to woo him.
Then, in the spring of his 13th year, in a school basketball game on an asphalt surface, he was tripped. His arms went out to block the fall. The grisly snap echoed across the playground. The Principal and the P.E. teacher quickly surrounded him as he lay on his back. My son's once-perfect arm had reformed itself from elbow to wrist in the shape of the Matterhorn, jagged bones jutting straight out of the skin. Numbly, I looked to the seasoned principal for comfort: he, too, was turning green. "Is it his pitching arm?" someone whispered. I couldn't think, could tell in that moment left from right. "No," Graham said, sending a collective sigh of relief throughout the crowd, which parted to allow room for the boy who had caused the fall. "I'm sorry," he said.
With his good arm, Graham reached up and took his hand, "It's ok. It was an accident."
Young bones heal quickly. Six months later, he began Venice High School at the age of 13 and was slated for the Varsity. Had I ever imagined he would go on to be an athlete, I might not have let him start kindergarten at 4. But once we reached high school I began to understand why so many parents hold their sons back till the riper age of 6. Those two years of physical and emotional development are simply insurmountable. Still, scout league coaches advised us to have him shoot for five of the top 20 D-I schools. He was playing 120 games a year, a fact that left him too tired for anything but school and baseball, and me too invested to pretend it was only a game. Up and down the bleachers, the baseball moms shared tips gleaned from the "experts" who claimed that all we had to do was put together the right footage and stat sheets and we'd be sure to find a college program that would offer our boys "a full ride."
Come junior year, Graham looked like the lean, talented 16-year-old that he was, and not quite so much like the broad-shouldered, 18-year-old D-I prospect he was supposed to become. My performance, however, was MVP-worthy: never had more stat-spinning cover letters been sent out at such a feverish pace. Never had more butter-soaked mashed potatoes and four-scoop milkshakes been served at bedtime. At first it had seemed like the sort of thing a loving mom does to help a child reach his potential but as the months ticked by it began to feel more like denial.
His senior year started off well enough. Then, in a game against their biggest rival, Graham had a first inning so horrible I couldn't bear to watch. "C'mon, G, just find your pitch. You've got this next one." Batter after batter landed on base without an out in sight. "Excuse me," I said, to no one in particular. I found a patch of dirt by the nearby track and, there in the weeds, I could see everything perfectly. It was over. In that way that only a mother can know, I knew that I had just watched Graham pitch his last game. That night, in the shell-shocked silence of our kitchen, he could barely lift his eyes to tell me and his dad, "I think something's wrong with my arm." The next day, an MRI confirmed an elbow tear, and that, as they say, was that.
In the end, it never really mattered to me whether or not he played baseball in college: only that we'd done everything we could to make sure he'd gotten everything he was meant to from the game. That's all any of us can ever do for our kids, really.
Graham finished off his senior year as the designated hitter and the recipient of the Coach's award, which recognizes excellence in character in a young athlete. Once he got to college, he was asked to help coach his old scout league team, then another at a local high school. Now, at 22, he has his degree and a coaching job for one of the best high school sports programs in Southern California. Not an inning of effort was wasted. From time to time, my husband and I slip off to a night game to cheer on all the bright young players -- and the first base coach who learned from the great game of baseball everything he would need to know about life.