“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Anyone who has ever attended a Baltimore Orioles game knows that we Orioles fans are famous for shouting “O!” during the singing of the National Anthem.
This, of course, can be heard the loudest in our home Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, but many of us have heard it on the road from Miami to LA. One is less likely to hear it any of our AL East rival cities like Boston or New York, but we yell it anyway to many dirty looks.
When it comes to the National Anthem, I tend to be a traditionalist. Protocol and etiquette are important to me. I admit to feeling slightly guilty yelling “O!” during the singing of such a sacred national song when one should technically be standing at attention.
Meanwhile, Colin Kapernick, a football player for the San Francisco 49’ers has decided not to stand at all.
That bothered me. A lot. I said a lot of uprintable words about it. I may have even suggested that he book a one way flight to North Korea and see if he likes it better there.
But then I realized that if I am truly an American, I am obligated to accept the fact that he is exercising his Constitutional right to public protest.
Asked why he refused to stand for the National Anthem he stated to NFL Media: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….”
Why, just outside our lovely little brick-lined Oriole Park at Camden Yards is one example of that of which he is speaking. The place where Freddie Gray, an unarmed African-American man died last spring in police custody, sparking rioting and violence in the City of Baltimore. An issue, of course, not exclusive to Baltimore.
If Kapernick’s intention is to bring more light to these issues in the hope of finding solutions, then good.
But I see the National Anthem differently. To me, it represents something much bigger than the issues before us today. It is a fight song. It says that despite the perilous fights before us, despite the bombs bursting in air, we can prevail.
While we are far from perfect, we are still the best deal in the world.
For that reason, I will always stand.
“O!” say, can you see?
Whiff. That’s the sound of my son swinging at a pitch so far outside that it’s in the next zip code. I sit silently, non-reactive, my eye roll concealed behind dark sunglasses. “Got some rust on him” my husband whispered. My non-response speaks volumes. When he’s behind the plate at catcher in the spring, runners stay glued to their bases for fear of being picked off. They know him.Seeing balls slide past him today, they take off running, almost in mockery.
This is known as “Fall Ball” but it’s hot. It’s not just hot. It’s “Baltimore hot”: a searing, blistering, sweltering, unrelenting sauna. I have taken to sitting in the shade of a tree just to stay alive. Plus, I am out of water. No. I would rather die of thirst than drink that terrifying electric blue industrial waste called “Gatorade.”
In the middle of the game the catcher from the opposing team inexplicably called time, stood up and went into the dugout.
“He was thirsty.”someone said. Thirsty? Since when do catchers stop a game because they are “thirsty.”?
Realizing that by leaving the field he was no longer eligible to return as catcher, his coach sent him to right field where oddly, he sat down on the grass. No, that’s OK. Don’t get up. The other seventeen players and their parents will just wait until you decide to stand up.
Now I understand that this is fall ball. That time of year when only the die-hard ballplayers trying to squeeze those last few innings out of summer remain. It is designed to be “instructional” and less competitive than the spring season.
But the egregious lapses of decorum and basic baseball etiquette are just painful for any self-respecting baseball fan to watch. (Hey first baseman, can you tuck in your shirt).
Maybe it is too much. The heat, the fact that school has just started, the prior months of baseball saturation. But these players are here by their own free will and alleged interest in working on improving their baseball skills.
“Goooooo tooooooooo DA BAAAAAYSSS BALL!!!!” the opposing team’s coach yelled in a thick Baltimore accent.
“Oh, listen to him.” a mom behind me said, whipping out the most worn cliche in all of baseball parent-dom “Doesn’t he know this is just a game?” He knows. He, like me, just wants them to play it right. Even though it is only fall ball.
I see you Alicia. I love, love, love your team-matching blue nail polish and how your hair is just slightly starting to frizz in the August heat of Williamsport, PA. I feel a sisterhood with you. How you put your head down and plug your ears as your son Jude Abedessa, one of the stars of the Maine-Endwell Little League team in this year’s Little League World Series, takes the mound. This is no regular day at the field. ESPN is here. A lot of people are watching.
We baseball moms can appreciate what it must have taken to get you and your son to this place. The years of practices, the driving, the piles of muddy baseball uniforms, the meal planning, the schedule juggling, the wins, the losses, the physical and emotional toll. You are every one of us.
I admire how you seek to protect your own peace. In an interview with your local WBNG TV station you said:”Honestly, that’s what I always do when Jude takes the mound. I think I feel more pressure than he does.” Of course you do. You know that no matter his age or his talent, to you, that’s still a tiny tee-baller out there.
I know where you come from because I come from the same place. A sleepy little Upstate New York town near where a little company called IBM started and changed the world. As you well know, most of IBM and many of the jobs are gone from that area now. So are most of my friends who like me, have long since moved on to bigger cities like Baltimore, Washington and New York. I think you have to be from there to understand just what it means to bring this kind of an honor to that area. How sometimes Endwell seems forgotten or past its prime. How much of a joy it is to see that from an ordinary place, come such extraordinary kids and parents.
It has to be more than just pure baseball talent that brought your son’s team to the Little League World Series. They had to have been taught to work as a brotherhood. To respect the game. To dedicate themselves. They must have learned that from parents like you.
My son’s grandmother lives just up the street from your son’s home field. Every time we drive by he says “There’s the sign, Mom. Home of Maine-Endwell Little League. New York State Little League Champions.” As a baseball brother, he always pauses with reverence and looks at the silent field saying, “I bet they dominate out there.”
Today the rest of the world got to see what your son’s team does as they became the 2016 United States Little League Champions. You know it is their victory, but it is yours too – and certainly a victory for everyone in Maine-Endwell.
Baseball can do that.
We can’t wait for the next time we drive by that sign and it reads:
“Maine-Endwell Little League. World Champions.”
But, like you said in the interview with WBNG-TV
“Win or lose, as long as they play their game, and they know they played their game and they stick together like they have, it’s a victory no matter what the outcome is. They’re winners in everyone’s eyes.”
In the meantime, I’m glad I got to know you, Alicia, if only vicariously. I felt like I was sitting next to you in those bleachers. You know us baseball moms are rooting for you. Thanks for doing us proud.
“I don’t see it. I don’t…There it..there it is turn left turn left turn left right there where it says “Vin Scully Avenue.” VIN SCULLY AVENUE? My heart was pounding. My head was spinning. Two airplanes, two time zones, 2,661.7 miles from Baltimore and finally, we had arrived.
It sat like a deserted shrine at this time of day, save a few workers conversing in Spanish, quietly tending to the field and painting white stripes on the mound. “Do not step on the grass!” the tour guide implored. For a moment I was tempted to reach down and secretly pick a small handful to keep as a memento, to reassure myself that I was in fact not dreaming, to reap some kind of blessing from its beauty and perfection, but decided not to.
Here it was in all of its pristine splendor, silently waiting to be graced by the agile feet of the most elite players of the game. To be surrounded by the throngs of worshippers in the stands.
It was the Fourth of July and who better to tell the Baltimore-based story of the National Anthem than that preacher of baseball, Vin Scully himself:
Yasiel Puig entered the area near the on-deck circle. I watched him closely and intently. He kneeled and made the sign of the cross with a small necklace, hanging his head. I thought of his journey as a Cuban defector just trying to make it to the United States to play baseball; police pulling over his car, a boat that failed to arrive, police raiding his safe house and detaining him for six days, being intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard then taken to Mexico by a murderous drug cartel and being sold to a wealthy Floridian who would receive a percent of his future MLB earnings. He stood and made a large cross in the dirt with his bat. His cleats bearing the American flag made all the more poignant by his story.
Being so far from home, I was overjoyed by the sight of my personal guru, the sage, the teacher, the all-knowing Zen master:
And look! – One of our saints! (at least to Baltimore fans!)
Like religious spaces, our nation’s ballparks provide the sacred spaces we need to transcend and temporarily escape the ugly realities of our world. There are all kinds of people here. Black, white, asian, latino, male, female, young and old. In this holy space we are all the same. Baseball fans.
The only wall we care about is just beyond the outfield.
“Where is your umpire partner?” I asked. “He didn’t show up. I have the whole field.” he said. Oh. My. God. I felt like I was releasing my child to a pack of rabid wolves seated in folding lawn chairs. His voice gets deeper here.He stands taller and adds a swagger to his walk. His usual smile disappears and he takes on an unimpressed blank stare. “Do you want me to keep the…count..or something?” I asked. He looked at me. “Mom. Really? It’s my job.” I was at the same time impressed and terrified, knowing he was right.
“Can I have the coaches at the plate to discuss ground rules?” said a deep voice that I did not recognize. Until I did. That was my kid. He doesn’t need me.
“Ball four.” he said clearly as the 9-year old pitcher on the mound hung his head in frustration having just walked the bases loaded. After the inning ended, out of the corner of my eye I saw this boy sitting on the end of the bench. His loud, hulking coach was kneeling very close to him, speaking right into his face. “IF you don’t change your attitude you KNOW what you are going to do when you go back out there? You are going to keep walking people. I HATE how you are trying so hard to hit the strike zone. HATE it.” as the boy starting bawling.
I felt the rage rise within me. It took everything I had to stay planted in my chair and not walk over to tell that boy how hard this game is; how if he keeps practicing he will be fine;how it happens to professionals who get paid millions to do it; how to never let some fat, washed-up coach chip away at his dreams.
The next pitcher was far more accurate. My son, at umpire correctly called most of his pitches strikes. The first pitcher was alone now, hanging his head trying to process the terrible advice from his coach. He started studying the pitcher on the mound, then got up to say to his teammate:
“He’s throwing exactly what I was throwing. I threw the same exact pitches he did (he, uh…didn’t) and the ump calls his pitches strikes. It’s not fair. This umpire sucks.”
Sigh. Welcome to baseball.
“I sit here so if I hear screaming and see that no one is on base, I know that I need to go over to that field,” the baseball director advised the assembled group of teenage umpires last night. “Please call me before you eject a coach.”
They have brought out the big gun umpires now, the recently graduated high school seniors, the tall, bearded, jaded guys back from college. Ladies and gentlemen (and I use those terms loosely), it is playoff week. Gone are the relaxing evening baseball games. Gone are the idyllic images of young boys engaging in America’s pastime on pristine diamonds. These parents are out for blood. Or at least, a trophy or a few braggy pictures they can throw up on Facebook to prove their parenting prowess (stifling a yawn).
My son, being fourteen, is no stranger to drama. He has umpired several games so far this season, but has been vaguely disappointed by the relative calm. I think he was really ready for coaches to question his calls, for parents to yell, for kids to stomp back to the bench in anger. Well, he is starting to get his wish now that there are championships on the line.
A kid ran for first last night and made a turn towards second and was tagged by the first baseman. “He’s OUT!” my son called confidently, smiling to himself, ignoring and secretly relishing the screaming sideline. Another kid barrelled towards second base but the second baseman did not apply the tag. “He’s SAFE! No tag.” Again more rumbling.
The college-aged plate umpire told him before the game, “They know I don’t take any shit.” Inspirational.
He’s behind the plate tonight in an elimination game.
There was a different energy in the air at the game last night.
“He goes inside on me one more time, I’m going out there I swear to God.” my usually mild-mannered son muttered to the catcher through gritted teeth, completely out of character.
Then came the next batter. He is tall and from a distance appears athletic and imposing, but on closer inspection is tentative, awkward, shy. He was immediately and unintentionally plunked by the poorly located pitch of the unskilled craftsman on the mound.
“Charge the mound!!!” the dugout screamed then started a chant “Mann-y! Manny-y! Mann-y!!!” He tucked his head and quietly went to first base, unsure.
Most of us baseball fans understand why Manny Machado chose to retaliate against Yordano Ventura. In fact, many of us begrudgingly celebrate it.
By now we are way, way, way past looking to professional athletes to serve as role models for our young sons. Perhaps it is good for them to see that the best way to confront a bully is to punch him out.
If things are not going to plan, many people have been taught that an appropriate response is to “try harder.” For example, when a career situation is not working out, try harder. If school is a challenge, try harder. If a relationship is on the skids, try harder. If the diet and exercise plan has not been effective, just try harder.
But in baseball, “trying harder” is not always the best solution to a challenging situation. Think of a pitcher. He may start the game clearly in his mental zone – relaxed, laser-focused, hitting his spots, striking batters out almost effortlessly. But the minute he starts to “try harder” to do something – to entice a batter to chase an outside pitch, or to throw as hard as possible – he gets into trouble. It is almost always evident in his body language. Shifting his cap. Deliberately taking then exhaling a deep breath.
The same applies to a hitter. In the first few at-bats, he may stride up to the plate, relaxed and confident with a strong, fluid, free-flowing swing. He’ll appear comfortable making the split-second decision whether to swing or to back off. But once the pressure is on – the game is getting close and there are runners on base – he may start to “want” something. He may swing too hard, causing him to lose balance and pull off the ball. He may start to chase pitches outside that he would normally let go. Even in fielding, the fielder must “try” to go after the ball as aggressively as possible, yet not “try too hard” lest he misses the catch or over-throws.
In youth baseball, it is very common to see a big hitter “want” it too much, especially right after he has just hit a home run. Of course he wants another one right away. Who would’t?
One of my son’s (great) coaches was particularly adept at managing the mental game of baseball. The kids, therefore, played loose and confident, never “trying too hard” to get a strikeout, to get a hit, to make a play or even to win the game (which they did – a lot). I can hear him now calling out to the pitcher: “That’s OK. Remember EVERY PITCH IS A NEW PITCH. Don’t try to make anything happen.”
Just like in baseball, where every pitch is a new pitch, every at-bat is a new at-bat, every inning is a new inning, every game is a new game, and every season is a new season, so it is in life – where every moment is a new moment, every day is a new day, every season is a new season. Just like in baseball, it seems like the more we “try harder” to get something, the more it eludes us.
So, maybe the answer is to stop trying and just start enjoying the game.
Last night I noticed this new sign hanging on the baseball field fence. A nice sentiment to which I added my own jaded-eye edits just for fun:
“I’m a kid, but my parents think I am the next Bryce Harper.”
“It’s just a game that I like to play for fun, but my parents expect me to win every time.”
“My coach is a volunteer, so if you think you can do it better than him – you should try it.”
“If you see something you don’t like, you should volunteer to help. But don’t expect that will guarantee your kid more playing time or a spot on the All-Star team.”
“The officials are human, and they are also possibly semi-flaky teenagers doing this for the first time.”
“No one will be making the Varsity Team today, especially if you annoy us kids so much that we quit playing by the time we are 13.”
“And no scholarships will be handed out today – or, keep it real – ever.”
“Please don’t embarrass me or yourself today. Again.”