04/30/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Lessons for Mom From the Tee-Ball Dugout

Sarah Smiley

You stood at the tee, staring out to the field, which seemed to reduce you to a small speck against a canvas of green grass and red, dusty baseball dirt.

Part boy and part baby, your knobby knees touched in the middle, but your rounded tummy poked through the t-shirt hanging so low, it covered your shorts. You raised the bat to your shoulder. The large, blue batter's helmet wobbled on your head. From the splintered stands, behind home plate, I clutched my hands together.

The coaches initially suggested we put you back in a younger league, with the 4- to 5-year-olds. "He's small for his age," they had said. "He might get hurt."

But I knew what they meant: Your son can't catch a ball. He doesn't run fast. And sometimes he misses when he swings.

Dad spent hours in the front yard working with you. Then he convinced the coaches to let you play with the other 6-year-olds. "Sending him back," Dad said, "will break his spirit."

Thinking back on it now, as I sat behind you, separated by a metal fence at your very first game, I wondered if Dad and I had made a mistake. The other kids will laugh at him, I thought. He'll get the first "out."

Someone behind me said, "That boy is so small."

A lump rose in my throat.

You took a practice swing. The other players and the spectators quieted to a few scattered whispers. All eyes were on you: my child.

You drew the bat to your shoulder again, ready for the real thing. Please just let him get on first, I thought. It will mean the world to him.

You swung the bat. The motion was awkward and the bat was too high. You missed the ball. I lowered my head to hide the sudden rush of tears in my eyes. Someone from the other team laughed.

The coach patted you on the back and whispered in your ear. Then he stood back and you pulled up the bat again. With a timid shift of your hips, you tried to put all your 40 pounds behind the next swing. The ball flew from the tee and landed right at the pitcher's feet.

"He'll never make it to First," someone said.

Now, I'm not a screamer. I'm hardly competitive, and I don't care for sports. But right then, as your feet left home plate, I stood in my seat and yelled as loud as I could, "Run, Ford! Don't look back, just run!"

But the ball beat you to the base. You were out, and the inning was over. You ran with the other kids to the dugout. I rushed to meet you, but you disappeared behind the cinderblock wall.

Will the kids tease him? I wondered. Will he cry?

Dad told me to let it go. It's all part of the game, part of being a boy, he said. Dad knows that being part of a team means learning to roll with the punches.

Do not go in the dugout, he told me.

For 10 painful minutes, you were invisible to me. I would never know what went on in the dugout. It wasn't my place. You had to learn this lesson on your own.

Sometimes, I guess, being a mother means allowing you to have experiences that will break my heart while they build your character.

You were at bat again for the last inning. We were separated by more than a metal fence now. In the dugout you had grown in ways I will never understand.

You planted your feet firmly in the dirt and pulled up the bat. The coach gave you an encouraging smile. You swung, but I couldn't bear to watch.

Then someone yelled, "Run, Ford!" I opened my eyes and saw you running to First. You made it. The crowd laughed as you did a victory dance.

Two batters later, you were safe again on Third. You looked to see if I was watching. Someday, I thought, you'll look for another girl in the stands. But for now it is me.

The next batter hit the ball and you ran home. Then you circled back to the dugout, leaving me there, behind the fence, at home base, where I will always be cheering for you.