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Play Ball! The Magic of Little League

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For anyone who's spent more than 60 seconds with me and knows the logistical paralysis I can suffer at the hands of youth sports, this will surprise you.

I love Little League. The season's opening games happened in our town this month, and I couldn't be happier. Mind you, I wasn't actually at any of my children's opening games (see above paragraph on me and youth sports).

Certainly, I could write volumes on the benefits and evils of programs my children have participated in -- from ice hockey and soccer to sailing and swimming and everything in between. But I love Little League. Everything about it.

For one, baseball is the most storied of sports. Writers, historians, poets and politicians have held the game up as the American ideal, the American dream, and the American spirit. Baseball, at its best, is our national character writ large. And in Little League, it is that character writ small.

My town's Little League is just one of more than 7,000 around the world, in which 2.5 million boys and girls will participate this spring. It has grown every summer since its start in 1938 -- with a few neighborhood kids and a vacant lot in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Fill out your form, write your check, and the hat, the t-shirt, the socks, the season, and the American dream are yours.

That's one of its greatest appeals. There is room for everyone in Little League, and there are no divisions for elite players, or travel teams. Players are divvied up as equitably as possible, and the game is never a showcase for the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest.

Men such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and George Will have penned paeans to the game of baseball. They talk about the geometric beauty of the field and its near da Vincian dimensions. They talk of the poetic perfection and the rhythm of the game's three strikes, three outs, three bases, nine players, and nine innings.

The big league writers can have the Major League. I'll take on the game where boys still need help tying their cleats and girls' uniforms hang down past their knees. Because Little League is governed by an additional set of immutable laws, and it is precisely those rules that make me love the game. (And any dad who chooses to quibble with my analysis, well, you can forget me as your "snack mom" next year.)

Unlike most youth sports, Little League begins with the very basics, and size, rules, dimensions, and complexity are added with each passing spring. The game evolves as its players mature. It is not, however, a series of checkpoints or milestones the players must pass or achieve. It happens silently and magically over the hibernation of winter. As a parent, this process is gloriously unceremonious. Spring dawns and a new game awaits.

The game begins with tee ball, which any 8-year-old will tell you, is what babies play. But it is actually where a 5 or 6-year-old kindergartner begins the baseball journey. The ball is served up, immobile on a pedestal. The batter gets as many swings as it takes. Every player bats every inning, and rounds every base. (Which is why Thing Two liked to take up residence around home plate as a fielder -- so that he could tag every player, every inning, every game.) Of course, the game is always a tie. And there are often as many adults on the field as there are off. Kids and parents alike are learning the rhythms of the game.

In subsequent springs, tee ball gives way to coach pitch on a bigger field with real bases, an actual backstop and even a players' bench. But with these luxuries come the responsibility of strikes, and strikeouts, and three outs an inning. The reality of winning and losing and the highs and lows of taking your part in each begins to settle in.

Driving Thing Three to his first practice this season, he weighed in from the back seat. "You know there's strikeouts this year, right mom?"

Uncertain whether to help him face his fears or boost his confidence, I asked how he would feel about striking out. He replied, "Oh no mom, I'm not worried about me. But have you seen David bat on my team? I'm worried for him." So, perhaps the reality hasn't set in quite yet.

Every child should know what it feels like to strike out. And to hold in the tears as he walks back to his teammates. And every boy and girl should know what it feels like to be one of those teammates who says, "you'll get 'em next time."

And one of those next times, a batter will send the ball sailing out over centerfield, and a lucky kid with an open glove will hold his breath as the ball falls into the leather palm. Every player should know the thrill of being on both sides of that ball.

Then all of a sudden one Spring evening, there is a ten-year-old boy standing on that pitcher's mound, 46 long feet from home plate. The dads are now in the dugouts or coaching from the baseline. The ball and the drama are handed over to boys and girls who have earned that responsibility.

It is also the year when, for the first time, a player will bobble the ball somewhere on the field and that coach on the baseline will say to his runner, "steal." And if you've watched a team of rule-following ten-year-olds suffer its very first steal, then you understand what it is to be violated. Just another lesson from the parable of baseball.

One more lap around the bases and those boys and girls are 11 and 12 and there is a fence around that green field. And somewhere on that fence is a big sign that says 205. Some days that yardage number may taunt the batter, and other days it may whisper, "you can do it."

That is one of the rarer and finer sites of Spring -- when a ball takes flight and time stops until the ball lands on the other side of the fence. No, the lights don't get shattered and the leather cover doesn't fly off the ball. But for all too brief a moment, a child will believe that he can do anything. Achingly, it happens about the same time that as a parent, you begin to fear that child may never believe that again.

Bart Giamatti, having been the President of Yale University and the Commissioner of Baseball, had a perfect blend of cerebral respect and awe for the game. Many of his baseball writings spoke of the significance to a nation of young immigrants of the goal of home plate.

"Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay," he writes. He even calls on his Greek to further define baseball, "Nostos, the going home, the game of nostalgia, so apt an image for our hunger that it hurts."

For Giamatti and other scholars, home may be the base to return to, but for parents using Little League as one more ally in mentoring our children, home is surely the base we are preparing them to leave behind.

And then all of a sudden, one Spring, Little League is over. You turn thirteen and it is someone else's turn to run the bases and rule that patch of grass. Every year, there is a gaggle of 13 and 14 year-olds standing around the fence - decidedly not in the game, but not quite ready to take their place as spectators on the bleachers.

If you are lucky enough to watch a small boy or girl with a big dream play Little League on a sunny afternoon this Spring, keep in mind my favorite baseball line from Mr. Giamatti, "It breaks your heart, it is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the Spring, when everything else begins again... "

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