IN that brief season sandwiched between the emergence of the groundhog and the doling out of the Academy Awards, nature and her handmaidens hang in balance. The whole house is affected, and no one can relax. The kid picks on his brother; his brother sulks. They are both restless. I expect and sometimes get calls from their teachers. The days become longer; suddenly it's light out until almost 6:00. I exhale what seems to be the whole of a Northwest winter. I walk to the corner store and come back the long way. Twigs from last night's bluster clutter the sidewalk. I step on a larger one and it snaps. Snap! A crisp, clean crack, and like an echo it rekindles that feeling of anticipation I have yet to identify. I round the corner and see the boys outlined in the dusk on the street in front of the house. The skirmishes are over. No one is sulking. ``Hi Mom!'' they call cheerfully, raising large gloved hands, salutes of recognition. They are playing catch with the baseball, city kids in the street. Snap! Snap! Snap! The ball passes efficiently between them. I quicken my pace. I know what it is and what it has been these last few weeks.
It's time for baseball.
Ritualistically I tell the boys to be careful of the cars: ``They're coming home from work and they're not looking for little boys. Nor,'' I've added recently, ``do they want noises or gestures from young teen-agers.'' I tell them I'll call them for dinner soon. It's not a busy street, and I can hear the ball snapping back and forth all the way into the kitchen if I leave the radio off and the window open, though it's still too cold for an open window.
Several days later there's a note from one boy to the other: ``Dick called.''
``Did you call Dick?'' I ask.
``He wanted to know if I was gonna play baseball this year.''
``And are you?'' I hold my breath.
``Sure. This year I'm old enough for All Stars - if I make it.''
You'll make it, I say silently. ``That's nice,'' I say out loud. ``When does practice begin?''
``He doesn't know yet. He just wanted to check things out.''
Later I call Dick; I make up something to ask him. ``Hi, this is Jesse's mom. I was wondering if....''
We talk for a while, and though neither of us has any new information, we prolong the conversation. I ask about the registration fee. It's gone up five bucks. I sigh; he commiserates. I ask about uniforms; he sighs and says no new ones this year - such and so team gets the new ones. I commiserate. Then one of us signs off.
It's not that I particularly like the sport of baseball. In fact, at one point, before the boys began playing, I was downright snobbish on the subject. My boys play Little League? Never! I made hostile noises and mumbled things. Yet now that I'm a baseball parent logging hours on small, city park bleachers by the edge of one field or another two evenings a week for 10 to 12 weeks a year, I realize I'm hooked.
Little League taps something that I can barely identify. I've come to appreciate the luxury of endlessness and the whole notion of finishing what you start no matter how long it takes. Through Little League I have been able to come up with a new feeling for - in fact a whole new definition for - infinity. I used to think it was two people and a ham. Now I know it's a Little League game.
I've learned to arrive fashionably late - an hour cuts the edge - and hide my disappointment upon finding that the game is only in the top of the second. In these parts the setting sun brings the big chill but not the darkness necessary to call the game. I've learned that the light time between sunset and game-called-because-of-darkness is close to an hour and a half. Especially with ardent coaches who want to let everyone play.
Sometimes I chat, sometimes I read, but it's always with an eye toward the methodical drama unfolding slowly before me and the kid who looks like all the other kids and is sometimes mine taking that long walk up to bat. Watching him, I've learned more about hope, and hopefulness, and being cool from the inside out than I thought possible.
The sky turns orange and the trees blacken. Players huddle in the dugout. Occasionally one waves, and a grateful parent beams back. We in the stands like to be noticed, too. My sons, one at a time in different years, walk nonchalantly to take a turn at bat. I close my eyes sometimes, and sometimes I leave them open. I feign nonchalance, same as the boys, one at a time in different years, but my insides are always churning. Theirs probably are too, but we don't talk about it. And that's yet another thing I like about baseball. It allows for privacy.
The kid wiggles into position, digs in one foot and relaxes the other. He's ready to make that perfect stroke, the one that will sail the ball smoothly into the horizon, the one the fans and the outfielders will shield their eyes to watch disappear, the one so grand that even the opponents can enjoy.
The pitcher goes through his motions and lets loose. If I had one wish, I would wish for a hit. The perfect hit would be nice, but I don't like to overdo. Besides, I figure he has to do the perfect one on his own, without mom's wishes. It's cleaner that way. A swing, a miss: ``STEEE-RIKE one!'' OK, I relent, a base hit will be fine. The pitcher goes through his motions and lets loose again: ``Ball one!'' Aw right, I'll settle for a walk. ``Ball two! ... STREEE-RIKE two!'' Even an honorable out, a pop fly. Anything but a strikeout.
Every year just after the Academy Awards, when spring is once again an established fact, I ask that question, the one my kids ask me and each other: What would I do if I had three wishes? Only the difference is that now I have the answer.