He had waited all season for this chance to pitch and there he was on the mound in the All-Star Game staring down a cocky little punk who had harassed him all through elementary school. I imagined that the thought of putting a fastball in that kid’s ear had crossed his mind, but as young as he is he used his better judgment and decided to just take him down with a strikeout. From the batter’s box the kid sneered at him and hit his first two pitches foul. At the 0-2 count, his moment had arrived. With all of the pent up fury from years of dealing with this kid, he delivered the pitch and the kid violently swung at it and missed, striking out. Stunned, he banged down the bat and slinked back to the dugout with a final look of defiance back at the mound. Atop the mound he lowered his cap down low on his forehead and under it I could see just the edges of a slight satisfied smile. What looked like a simple strikeout to everyone else was a special kind of street justice to him.
Herein lies one of the great joys of community-based recreation league baseball. Only here do kids get the opportunity to play alongside friends, enemies, classmates and neighbors. These are the games where the analysis comes the next day at the school lunch table. Scores that adults never see are settled out here. This is where local legends are made.
He has been on the other side. He has spent many weekends on travel teams carrying bat bags with his name embroidered on the outside looking around at the hundreds of nameless, faceless kids from far off towns. They won’t be at the lunch table tomorrow, they are not out in the street with their skateboards tonight and he did not go to preschool with them. The adults say that we have to put them here to face better competition and to prepare them for the next level. That recreation baseball is for kids who just are not good enough to be here. That playing travel is a type of validation. At the end of a travel tournament, he may walk away with a big trophy and the bragging rights for beating some team from New Jersey that everyone thought was unstoppable. But I wonder – can that really be as much fun for a kid as playing alongside his best friend or the guy who sits next to him in math, or taking down that mean kid in front of everyone?