Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Of Fairness and Uncovered Bases

I was outside my childhood home one summer afternoon releasing tension by throwing a tennis ball against the garage door. I was waiting for a phone call to tell me whether I'd made the Little League All-Star team. I was realistic about my chances. I knew I was on the bubble. For one, my coach spent the first half of the season fucking me. Not literally. See, I was still involved with soccer when the season started, so was late to a number of practices, only sprinting up after finishing training on the pitch. Unlike every other coach in the league whom I'd known for years, ours was new to the area. One of those old school guys. He didn't even have a kid in the league.

More often than not, I only played the requisite three innings. Most of those were in right field. This was not meant as a punishment, though every kid in the universe knows right field is where you put the shitty players. No, our coach was a tactical genius. Since we had a couple pitchers who threw really hard, he figured Little Leaguers wouldn't be able to get around on them, so most batted balls would go to the right. He instructed me to play shallow and to try to throw them out at first (which only happened once, so horrid was this strategy, but the kid I did throw out at first was none other than my buddy Donny, and I like to bring it up every now an then for fun). More often than not, the other kids were smoking line drives off one of our pitchers, who did indeed throw hard, but straight, and right down the middle.

Anyways, this thankfully changed about halfway through the season, a season in which, to that point, we'd won a single game out of ten. I again had rushed my way from soccer to the diamond, arriving about 15 minutes before game time, which was 15 minutes late, of course. I was not in the lineup and my coach began to (again) berate me. It was then that our assistant coach, the older brother of two of my teammates, spoke up, pointing out the effort I was making by rushing from soccer, pointing out that my soccer team was incredibly successful (we had already won the state championship and were preparing for regionals) and that I might, perhaps, be an asset to this floundering baseball team because of my athletic ability. There was more. Basically, and emphatically, accusing the coach of a bias against me, that my playing time was not equal to my talent level.

I never loved Marty DeBrum more than I did at that moment.

Long story long (and this is gonna be a helluva long post), the coach put me in the starting lineup, where I stayed, and flourished for the second half of the season. We won six games that second half, I played most of the time at 3rd and 1st and I batted over .500. I wasn't the best player on my team, would never have been mentioned among the top players in the league, but the All-Stars (and Williamsport!) was within reach.

Danny O'Brian gave me the news. He rode his bike past as I was playing with that tennis ball and I asked him if he'd heard about All-Stars (he was a shoe-in). Yep, he said, they called a couple days ago.



"Hey Daddy!" AJ said after practice last week. "Did you know my new league has All-Stars?"
"Don't worry about All-Stars, AJ."
"It's all politics."

Emet and I spent a few minutes explaining to him what that meant, that, many times, these selections are merely popularity contests and don't truly reward the level of player. All the coaches sons are going to make it, you know. Many assistant coaches, as well.

Like my own Little League career, I'm realistic about AJ's ability. He's comfortably in the middle. Like all Little League teams of this age (7-9), the cream is easily identified. Usually two or three or four kids on the team who are preternaturally gifted, or who've spent hours practicing with Dad or big brothers (or sisters) or, incredibly, hitting and pitching coaches. We have two of those. Then there are the kids who have a little skill, can catch or throw or hit or some combination. We have seven of those. Then there are the kids who are afraid of the ball (three). AJ can hit (when he's not stepping in the bucket, more on that later), never swings at balls, has an above average arm, in fact, one of the best on the team. His glove? Erratic.

So, he's one of those middle kids. Interchangeable with a handful of others on the team. Yet, for some reason, this is not how the coach sees him. The team has just played its fourth game. AJ has started two of them, hitting 9th, owing to the fact some kids were missing. The other two, he's been on the bench, hitting 11th (they use a continuous batting order). He's had but seven plate appearances in four games and has reached base in five of them. Of the kids who hit in front of him, three have yet to hit the ball or reach base. One of them hits 5th.

Further, when he does get to play the field, he's spent every inning in the outfield, despite the constant rotation of players by the coach. He is the only kid that has yet to play in the infield.


I find myself curiously more affected by this than I would expect. Perhaps it was my own experience thirty years ago. Perhaps I, as Emet says, "want AJ to succeed at baseball more than he does." It could be the dejected look on AJ's face when he sees that he is (again) not in the starting lineup or hears another kids name called to play second base.

I am so not built to be That Parent. I have not said anything to the coach. But I have now reached the stage of Beyond Fucking Irritated, because this coach has obviously formed a hard-shell opinion of my son and disregards anything he actually does on the field or at practice. And AJ is smart enough to notice it, too.


Having spent a dozen years as a coach, I give a great deal of leeway to coaches. It's not an easy gig. It can be frustrating, not so much the actual coaching part, but the dealings with administrators, officials and, yes, parents. At the same time, I feel like my experience gives me an insight into what goes into successful coaching, and am therefore critical of those who don't seem to get it. In a word, a coach must teach.

Makes sense, right? If we assume coaches want to win, the best way to do that is to instruct their players, correct? Teach them the skills and rules so the kids can succeed on the field. But teaching is not simply mechanics. Children learn differently. One can't endlessly repeat platitudes and expect to connect with children. You have to get through to them.

I had a kid last soccer season who was annoying as fuck. Just constantly underfoot and interrupting me at all times. Coincidentally, he was uncoordinated. He ran on the outside of his feet, which I'd never seen before. I would have been fine with him quitting. But, I had an obligation to him and his parents, as his coach, to work with him. And I knew I couldn't get through to him by treating him the same as the others. I needed patience. I needed to take it one small stride at a time and, most important, to find something in him that would inspire him to compete.

By the end of the season, he wasn't half bad. And he was less of a nuisance. And yes, he helped us win.


"How come I always have to play the outfield?" AJ asked me. I didn't have a good answer for him. I couldn't say, "The coach has his favorites" or "He just doesn't like you," two explanations I've already formed in my head. There is no real good reason. Each of the team's four games have been blowouts (two for us, two against us). How you don't let kids play different positions in those instances (especially when the games are LITERALLY out of reach thanks to a league rule that allows a maximum of five runs per inning) is beyond me. In AJ's case, he's completely aware that he's being "left out." Consequently, he's becoming less engaged with the team.

This speaks to the ability to recognize and teach kids. For AJ, getting to play second base is a reward, one that will keep him focused, keep him energized. He takes this situation as his failure. He sees injustice in it and, if there is one thing my child can't abide, it's injustice.

We had a practice at the batting cages last week. The head coach wasn't there, but the assistant (considerably more to my liking) was, as well as a parent (of the best player on the team) who helps out when needed. This parent gave AJ's swing more attention in 5 minutes than the head coach had all season. Not the rote bullshit, but actual, easy to understand instructions about hitting and, all of a sudden, he's not stepping in the bucket any more. Then he gets into the cage and turns into Paul Fucking Molitor. "He's got a great swing," the assistant coach remarked, after AJ lined ball after ball into the netting.

He was pumped. "Daddy, did you see the one I hit right back into the pitching machine?" etc. etc. I was pumped, too, though guarded. I wasn't sure the news would get back to the head coach, if maybe he's deign to move AJ up in the batting order, at least ahead of the kid who jumps out of the box every pitch.


A few days after Danny O'Brian told me I hadn't made the All-Star team, the coach called me. When he identified himself, I had this euphoric fantasy that I was on the team, there was an oversight, whatever, get your glove and get to practice. In fact, he wanted to know if I'd come to the field on Saturday to play a game against the All-Stars, he was rounding up an opponent comprised of us also-rans. Heart deflated, I told him sure.

"Why'd you say 'yes?'" my mother asked me, knowing full well how hurt I was.

"I want to show them they made a mistake by not picking me," I said.

That's the attitude I've imparted to AJ. He has to work harder. He has to show them what he can do. Don't give the coach a choice to sit him on the bench. Prove himself.

Yet, it has reached a point where I have my doubts.


AJ is playing centerfield, which, at this age, means the lip of the grass right behind 2nd base. With runners on first and second, he fields a hump-backed liner on two hops. He is poised to throw the ball to second for the force (that's another thing he's good at; he always knows the right base to throw to), because the runner isn't even halfway there. Except, neither the shortstop (who has never even moved toward the batted ball and remains rooted to his spot) nor second basemen (standing next to AJ, having chased the ball into the outfield) are at the bag. He's got the ball cocked but holds onto it instead, noting the situation and, seeing the runner arrive at second, throws the ball back to the pitcher.

The rule in the league is that runners can't advance once the pitcher has the ball, but, in the meantime, while AJ held the ball, the runner who started the play on second rounded third. He was more than halfway home when the pitcher caught AJ's throw, so he was deemed safe.

AJ gets back to the dugout at the end of the inning and his coach starts berating him for holding onto the ball and not getting it back to the pitcher. AJ starts to explain (though, why he should have to I don't know since any fucking moron watching the play could have deduced exactly what was happening) and the coach cuts him off and tells him to just throw the ball back to the pitcher (you know, not for nuthin', but teaching the kids to throw the ball to the pitcher every play isn't exactly teaching them baseball).

AJ is crushed. The shortstop unnoticed. Me? Fucking furious. It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to rip that motherfucker's head off right there.


No, my son is not an All-Star. He's a kid who wants to hit and play second base. But more than that, though he can't articulate it, he wants to be treated fairly. Which is what I suppose we all want out of life. As adults, we know that fairness is an elusive notion. Injustice is part and parcel of life, of employment and relationships and class. AJ will need to learn that soon, too. But I'd like to delay it as long as possible.

I'd guess until about mid-season.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Like Ninja

While I was at work yesterday, my mother called to tell me what a sweet boy AJ had been during his sleepover at my sister's. I can only assume this is because he doesn't play the Ninja Game when over there. The Ninja Game is a new one where he tries to sneak up on me while I'm watching TV or playing with the poker machine. Most of the time, I see his reflection in windows or I hear him scuffling along on the carpet, but he's gotten me a couple times. Once, I was fully engrossed on the computer, laser focus, and he came up and slapped me on the back.


I flew off the couch like I was dropped into hot grease.

Fucking Ninjas.

Back to him being sweet, though. Mom, of course, thinks Emet has had a good influence on the boy, which she has. Chief among her good traits, to Mom's eyes, is that she gets my lazy ass (and AJ's somewhat less lazy ass) to church more often. There's a tip for you fellas, if you want your Mom to like the girl you're bringing home, just casually mention that the two of you go to church. She's in.

We have all noticed a change in AJ recently. It's not that he's sweeter, really. It's that he's become more mature. With that maturity has come a better focus, like in his reading of situations, when to be respectful and behaved, as opposed to his usual 100 mph, goofy self.

We got to spend a few days together last week on his Spring Break and he's no longer that kid I have to keep right next to me for fear he'll wander off into traffic or stumble into a strip club by accident. He's more interactive. For instance, he's somewhat notorious among other kids for his non-sequiters. Yes, they are hilarious. But they were also a sign that he was not really listening to what's going on around him, was off in his own head (hmmm, wonder where he gets that from?) and when he finally returned to the group, he had nothing to contribute but the fact that he is enamored of Kit Kats.

Our Spring Break trip to the museums near USC was a revelation. Usually, we'd spend the week at amusement parks, but I figured he'd appreciate some culture. What I didn't expect was how inquisitive he'd be at the Science Museum. I found myself explaining every exhibit to him and he actually stood there and listened without chasing after the nearest shinier object. Most of the items there were hands-on, he got to shoot a rocket and pick the best sail angle for wind direction and go into the "Earthquake Room" and he was fascinated by all of it, never once pulling away from me as we discussed the science. Only once all day did he express the slightest dismay and that was when we had to leave.


When I got home from work last night, I got caught up on his day, him clinging to me as I changed clothes (not easy to do with 60 lbs. hugging your leg). We're joking around when comes the sound of a police helicopter outside. "Ohhhhh, somebody's busted!" I say. "Maybe they're looking for you," AJ says and I assure him I didn't do anything illegal.

Shortly, he went back to his playroom for video games and Emet slides up to me with a conspiratorial look on her face. I expected her to tell me a cute story about my adorable son, but she says, "Did you lock the door when you came in?" I did. "Because I heard voices and rustling in the back yard."

Really? We have criminals in our garden?

I go over to the open window and listen. Well, that could be rustling. No voices though. "Okay, stay here. Do you have your phone?" She did not. The helicopter flies over again and its spotlight is pretty close.

I hustle downstairs to grab both our phones, now in full-scale Man of the House Mode. I take them upstairs and instruct her to lock herself and the child in the bathroom should any shenanigans ensue. Now, I need a weapon.

I go back downstairs, quietly, listening intently. I turn on the backyard lights, which are more like nightlights than flood lights, and are thus not helpful. I check all the doors. We're good. I go into the garage and, holy shit, those are very definitely muffled voices I hear. Quickly, I grab a 5-iron, because it's my most reliable club, can stripe it 205 yards in my sleep, though it occurs to me later that the shorter shaft of a 9-iron was probably a better choice in the case of close hand combat, but I've been known to hit the 9 fat, so the confidence I have with the 5 probably outweighs that fact.

Regardless, I'm armed and ready to defend my castle. I lock the garage door behind me, feel the heft of the 5-iron in my hand and possibly take a practice swing or two, I can't quite recall. I'm making my way to the family room, listening intently, eying the windows for the slightest movement, impeccable Vardon Grip on the club, when...


AJ jumps up from behind the couch, big self-congratulatory grin on his face, I think. I'm not sure, because I've shot through the ceiling.


"Did I scare you?"

I'm not sure how, but I modulated my voice, if not my heartbeat, pretty quickly, so as not to alert him to the dangers RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR DOOR. "Honey, no more Ninja Game tonight, okay?"

"Okay." And he went back upstairs. It was then I realized I'd dropped the 5-iron.

Fucking ninjas.


There was nobody in our backyard. Or, if there was, they did not attempt to storm our dwelling. Emet and I laughed about it this morning. "I think you can put your 5-iron away," she said, seeing it leaned against my night stand.

"Yeah, the nine is probably better anyway."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is This Something You Might Be Interested In?

There are not too many reasons Emet and I would voluntarily submit ourselves to the waterboard-esque torture of a time share presentation. Them holding AJ hostage would be one. Free golf would be the other.

Fortunately, it was the latter.

But...Oh. My. God. That must be eerily similar to what a cult is like.

We went into the (allegedly) 90-minute presentation with our eyes wide open. I'd been to one before and was somewhat amused by the indignation expressed by the salesfolk when we turned down their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This being a recession and all, I anticipated a softer sell. We figured we'd just be calm and friendly, participate where we were asked, patiently absorb the pitch and then walk away with our parting gifts. I even left outs, akin to arranging a phone call by your buddy to get you out of a bad blind date. We didn't check out of the resort, which had a noon deadline, so I could beg off if the pitch ran over. And then we'd have an hour before we teed off for bloody marys and some swings on the range.

The best laid plans...

Our salesman was a jovial fella named Dale. He was more of a zone trap kinda guy, as opposed to 94-feet of Hell. He was armed with more files than a congressional page, all photos of smiling children and impenetrable statistical data, designed to prove to Emet and I that, our entire lives, we've have been vacationing incorrectly.

Now, the resort is in the middle of facking nowhere. Fallbrook, CA to be exact. Sure, you can get to San Diego in 30 minutes. Or Disneyland in 80. We had a slight problem with this. "What do you like to do on vacation?" Dale asked. "Uh...go to sports events, gamble, drink, go to concerts."

Which is pretty much true. I'm sure it occurred to Dale right then, though he was a consummate pro--never giving up the ghost--that we could do none of those things at this resort.

For a while, it wasn't too painful. Then I noticed that we were running long. My watch had us at two hours already and we had yet to tour the models. Enter stress. You dare keep me from my bloody mary!


Emet and I are gracious people. We were willing to hear him out. We never had any intention of buying, but we got a bunch of free shit (golf! Kings tickets!), so we were going to play along. But, after we said, "No," they didn't stop. After we said, "We're late and we gotta get out of here," they didn't stop. I suppose it's their job. I don't begrudge them. We were there voluntarily. But...well...I finally snapped.

We had endured the initial pitch, then the closer (who did the amusing indignation thing), then a re-run from Dale (each time, the price getting lower and lower, to where it was 25% of what they initially offered) and a very slow walk down a hallway to pick up our gifts. When the clerk said, "Jackie will be right down to explain your gift package," I knew we were in store for one last effort and I wasn't about to let it happen.

Jackie arrived and said, "This way please," as she herded us toward her desk. "How are you?"

"Well Jackie," I began, spittle flying. "Not good. We were supposed to check out of our room 20 minutes ago, our tee time is in 40 minutes and our clubs are stuck in the room. Ya'll said it would be 90 minutes and we've now been here for two-and-a-half hours. We're done. We want to go."

I'm sure that was not Jackie's first time around at being the dart board for frustrated non-time share owners. She spun around, dropped our packet back with he clerk and told him to get us out of there. So, kudos to her.

Once back in the car, all was right again. Well, except for having to petition the front desk to let us into our room to get our stuff ("This kind of thing happens all the time with those people," she said). And it was golf time.


Boy, am I an addict. It's currently golf that takes up all my time and ambition. You know what they say, you've got to play to get better. So, I pretty much spend all my off-days playing golf (and going to Little League practice). Fortunately, Emet likes to play too, so we get some date time out on the fairways.

The jones is strong. It was even worse yesterday, because last Thursday, I shot an 86. A 4-over 40 on the back. That may be small potatoes for guys like The Bracelet and schaubs, but it's the first time I've broken 90 in 15 years (though, to be fair, I didn't play for 13-and-a-half of those). And I shattered it. Beat my best at that course by 6 strokes. I'd been flirting with 90 recently, however (like a couple weeks ago when I went double-triple-double on the last 3 holes for a 94) and am real comfortable with my swing. I've been hitting the ball great. Sadly, I putt like a blindfolded epileptic.

I was pumped to get back out there. So pumped, apparently, that I was hitting the ball way further than usual (or that may have just been sweet relief at not being imprisoned in a time share presentation any longer). To wit: My second shot into the par-4 first hole was a substantially-uphill 140 yards to the middle of the green. I hit a full 8-iron about 145, which I figured might be a little short due to the elevation change, but all the trouble was behind the green, so I went with it. And hit it 10 yards over, where it landed on the cart path and bounced down into a canyon. Triple.

Missed the green long with a 9 on hole #2. Double.

Then I figured out the air was thin or all those push-ups were paying dividends or the booze was making my swing freer and easier. Either way, I adjusted. Though those first two holes screwed my front nine (49), I rebounded with a solid 43 on the back (which featured a birdie on the 11th, an occasion for which I whipped out a celebration dance that was embarrassing for everyone involved).

Does that read like a hand history? I don't care. Eff you.

I didn't break 90 again, but this course was more difficult than the one I usually play, much narrower fairways and lots more OB issues (though, amazingly, I had just the single penalty stroke and lost ball on the first hole). I walked off the 18th in a great mood and can't wait to play again (Wednesday). All in preparation for donkeypuncher's visit in two weeks, where I expect to win lots of money from him on the links.


So, I suppose it was worth it in the end. Got to experience a nice new course. Had a night away with Emet (we gambled at Pala Indian Casino a bit the night before, but I didn't play poker because I hate being that guy whose girlfriend sits behind him bored to tears). And learned, finally, once and for all, to never submit to a time share presentation ever again.

But I suppose joining a cult is still in play. If they have a nice course with reasonable green fees.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Edge

I've been anxious a lot lately. Big Time. A swirling ache. Where I can't sit still. It's been bad since Saturday, which was Opening Day, which is a terrible day to be anxious because it's the best day of the year, all the little boys and girls in their pristine uniforms and nobody's struck out yet and no coaches have yelled at umps yet (which, incidentally, lasted all of ONE batter in AJ's first game) and everyone's 0-0 with a slate as fresh as the dirt on the infield.

But yeah. On edge.

It wasn't difficult for me to pinpoint a reason. I've spent the better part of three weeks trying to arrange my schedule around AJ's baseball practices and games. Many of them are during the week and at a time I have no chance of making, due to my hours and long-ish commute. Emet has graciously lent a hand. Not so with X. Not to bitch about her lack of involvement, but the fact is, these sorts of things don't matter to her. Or matter enough for her to move things around to help.

When I was 8, I tried to beg out of a soccer game, claiming sickness. The real reason was the size and aggressiveness of my opponent that day. Bigger kids. Older kids. The aptly-named Crusaders. My mother was having none of it. She sat me down and explained that I had made a commitment to play soccer and I was going to honor it. That I had an obligation of myself, my teammates and my coaches to show up and do my best. Obviously, that lesson has stuck.

There's another reason I've been so adamant that AJ not miss a practice. He's in a new league. An outsider. The coach knows all the players and the parents. They've played together for a couple years. AJ had to be there if he wanted a chance to impress, to penetrate a tight group with a history together (I should note the coaches and parents have all been quite lovely). He needed to make an impression.


Thanks to an empathetic boss, picking up some shifts on Sundays and the ever-supportive Emet, we've managed to get him to every game and practice. Where I sit and scrutinize his every move. On the edge of my seat. That anxiety.

And, I'm sorry to say, I crossed over from supportive to That Guy.


"AJ, you know Daddy loves sports and sometimes gets really excited. Like when we watch the Kings play and they score a goal. It's the same when I watch you play sports. I want you to do well, because I know it makes you happy. Remember when you scored that goal against the Cobras? You were so excited. And that made ME excited. It was awesome to see your face. I know you were proud and I was proud of you. Same when you scored those baskets last week. But sometimes Daddy gets too excited and instead of being happy for you, he wants to be happy for himself. And that's not right. Because of that, I've been too hard on you sometimes and not let you just play and have fun. I'm sorry. I still want you to behave yourself, pay attention and listen to your coaches. But when you are playing, don't be nervous about what Daddy will say. Just do your best, support your teammates and have fun."

I offered that mea culpa to AJ last night as I put him in bed. He seemed...grateful...relieved. At one point he reached up to hug me.


I felt better. Sure. But realized at the same time that the source of anxiety was not his baseball schedule or my burst of over-bearing parenting. It was time. It was that I spend hours moving my life around (and thinking about ways to move my life around) to see my son play baseball. And what have I done with that time? I threw batting tips at him like nasty curveballs, tossed him disapproving glances when he messed around. I couldn't control myself enough in those precious hours, not enjoying the mood of boys at play, instead spending them bombarding him with instruction.

Instruction I couldn't give him at other times because we weren't together. I was at work. Or he was at his Mom's. No time. And that's from where the anxiety stemmed, that deep-down knowledge that I lose him. Continually. Three days this week; four the next. Time he should be with his Dad. Time I spend frantically trying to maximize, while, at the same time, being sidetracked by the pressure of it all.

When X was plotting her escape, I said to her, "You are voluntarily giving up half of your life with your son. He's four now; he'll be 18 when he goes off to college. That's seven years you're giving away; seven years you're taking from me." Dramatic? Sure. I was pulling out all the stops. But it still rings true for me on a regular basis. I miss him when he's not around. And I know he misses me. There are days when he won't even leave my sight, where we sit on the couch, him not next to me, but physically on me.

No, he's not been taken away from me, but sometimes he's not there when I want to talk to him. I miss the funny things he says and does at his Mom's. Just his presence, and how it brings an entirely different dynamic to our home.


Like many times in my life, just logically pinpointing the source of my issues goes a long way toward resolving them. It's a better day. I came in to work a little later today so I could take him to school. Nothing major. No great bonding miracle or timeless moment. Just an extra 45 minutes together.

Sometimes, that'll do.