Making a Quiet Wave in Little League

I AM the father of two daughters, and my older daughter, Alison, is the only girl in the town Little League. This morning the league had opening ceremonies. The teams gathered on the town field, one team at first, one at second, each team at a position. The national anthem cranked out on a scratchy record into a bullhorn. Then the president of the league announced the names of the teams and the coaches. Since I am not a coach, I sat with the parents, brothers, and sisters in the stands. The president said the league was growing, that 400 boys had tried out this year. Ali told me she wanted to shout, ``and one girl.'' I looked down on the field at my girl, her blond hair hanging gracefully onto her shoulders from under a baseball cap. The sky was high and blue, the grass of the infield deep green. She looked up at me, and behind a brilliant smile, she made a private wave. I made a little wave back.

Alison isn't a good player yet. She is not some specially gifted athlete who easily competes with boys. I guess she is more a victim of her father's ignorance. When I thought it was time to teach my girls how to play ball, I went down to the store, bought two mitts, a wooden bat, and a hardball. It never occurred to me that softball was the ball game girls were supposed to play.

Last year when Little League time came around, my wife signed up Ali for something they call clinic, a pre-Little League gathering where the fathers of the town teach kids who can't throw, catch, or hit how to do all of them. There weren't many girls, but there were a few.

When Little League came around this year, Ali went for tryouts. This time she was the only girl in a big high school gymnasium filled with boys, some of whom weren't that bad. Ali struggled to catch, throw, and hit while adults with clipboards went around rating performance.

The tryouts lasted for two hours, and most of the kids were constantly active. Ali gave it everything she had. She never rested, never wandered to the sidelines, never paid attention to her being the only girl there.

One of the boys who was playing with her turned to a friend and said, ``Jess, come catch with me. This girl's so bad.'' Ali didn't hear. As the tryout wore on, some boys drifted to the sideline, either sagging against the gym wall or complaining to parents they wanted to go home. Ali hung in the whole time, trying every minute. In two hours she got better in front of my eyes. She caught more balls, she threw better.

Finally the kids were called together, told they'd be phoned, and then dismissed. I took my girl home. I was a bit mixed up, proud that Ali hung in there, but afraid that maybe she was overmatched. At the same time, the look on her face during the practice in that gym with 100 boys told me my little kid had the heart of a thoroughbred.

Early in the week the president of the league called me. He seemed apologetic when he told me that Ali would probably have to play double A ball, the lower of the two minor leagues, the bottom of the heap. I said that would be fine, that Ali just wanted to play hardball. When I told her, she was disappointed. But I promised I'd practice with her, and we smoothed over the hurt.

When she went to the first outside practice, the coaches stumbled a few times when they had to say things like, ``I want you boys to listen, eh and girl, to listen up,'' but they were good men, as most men who volunteer their time to coach little kids must be, and they helped her along, showing her the skills of the game. She hit well, making good contact; fielded acceptably; but still, as one of the coaches admonished her, she threw like a girl.

In our backyard at home I hit her grounders, pitched to her, threw her pop-ups. When does it happen that a kid sees the ball in the air and knows where it's going to come down? When does it happen that you stand under the ball, pound your glove, and gather it in?

As I watch Ali wandering aimlessly under pop-ups as they fall to her left, to her right, in front of her, behind her, I wonder. I remember a specific foul pop and me getting a bead on it, going to the third-baseline fence, leaning a little, and grabbing it. ``Great catch, kid,'' some adult said, ``Great catch.'' I remember trotting back to my position at third and thinking, ``Gosh, that wasn't great. That was an easy one.'' When does that happen?

I loved shagging fly balls. I liked it best when the high school kids would stop at our sandlot and hit us flies, high flies. It was great shagging high flies. I wonder if Ali is ever going to lope back under a high fly, gather it in, fire to the cutoff man.

She is having fun, lots of fun. She loves to play ball. Today we had a catch in the backyard after her team practiced in the morning. She started catching the ball away from her body with the glove turned up the way you're supposed to catch. When I tossed the ball to her I began to remember the thousands of catches I had as a kid, the old rhythm coming back. Ali was catching the ball well and winging it to me, my little girl with braces on her teeth and her green eyes. The coach at practice had shown her how to follow through on her swing. Soon as he did, she hit a liner to left, my little girl.

Her first game is Tuesday, 5:15. She's on the Dodgers. I don't know if I like that. I'm a Phillies fan. But this season, it's the Dodgers all the way. By the way, we worked on pitching. The kid throws pretty hard over the top and has fair control.

Whatever happens, the morning sky was blue, the spring air still held the hard edge of winter as it blew through the stands, and my little girl looked up at her old man and smiled and made a quiet wave. The boys were intent on the ceremony; so were their dads.

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