Photo by Andrei Niemimäki
It’s the middle of the season and my son won’t swing at the ball. Jesse is seven and this is his third year playing league baseball. For the entire season he hasn’t swung the bat. Since the pitchers on the other teams have little or no control, he is almost always assured of getting a walk. A success of sorts. More importantly, not a failure. We’re on one of the many baseball fields in Prospect Park that are reserved for little league play. I’m coaching first base. I’m also taking videos of my boy wonder—-videos of him not swinging. I’m beyond frustrated. I’m also struggling with finding the right tone in my support for him. Despite my awareness that his playing sports is about him, not me, I seem to have transmitted the message to him that his success means a lot to me. This, I did not want to happen.
He is one of the best players on his team. We’ve spent endless hours playing “catch” on the sidewalk in front of our brownstone in Park Slope. And he is a natural athlete. The previous season had started out pretty well and then somewhere along the way, things turned. About mid-way through that season he started developing stomach aches as we approached game time. He would be fine when we left home and made our way down Third Street and across Prospect Park West into the park.. And still fine as we worked our way around the paths running through the park. But as we arrived at the field where his game was to be played, he would complain of feeling sick. He didn’t play. He and I would sit on a bench and watch the game. In reality, there wasn’t much difference between playing and just sitting. The ball would hardly ever be in play. Mostly the kids were either sitting in the dugout or standing in the field. Sometimes we would be sitting on a bench very near to first base. Jesse’s not playing was defined by a space of about ten feet. He could have been the first basemen and the same nothing that happened on our bench would happen there. So, week after week he would put on his uniform and we would trudge to the park. And the same scene would unfold. He would complain of not feeling well and we would become spectators. I tried my best not to pressure him. I don’t think that I succeeded.
A few years later, I would be the coach of my daughter’s softball team. Although I was somewhat invested in her success, there was a vast difference in the feelings I had about my son’s performance and hers. The entire experience was so much more relaxed, both for her and for me. I imagine there are elements of sexism in my differing attitudes towards my children’s athletic prowess. But something else was at play. Joanna was just an average ball player. We both knew that she was neither the best nor the worst player on the team, just somewhere in the middle. Her performance wasn’t fraught with all kinds of expectations and that allowed for a more joyful time for us both.
Unfortunately, Jesse isn’t an average ballplayer. I’m invested. And, here I am on first base, camera in hand exhorting him as I have all season , ”Good eye, good eye. Pick a good one. That’s lookin’ ‘em over”. Knowing that he’s not going to take a cut. Just waiting for his eventual walk. I must have said “good eye” several thousand times that season. Later on when we got home, I showed my wife the video I had taken. And on the audio portion you can hear me exhorting, “good eye, good eye Jesse, pick a good one”. And then we hear my encouragement starting to sound more hollow and my frustration moving in. I’m startled as I hear myself voicing the last “good eye” I can muster. “Good eye, good eye Jesse—swing at the fuckin’ ball”.