The Little Boys of Summer

It seemed so logical. "Just get the glovebetween you and the ball. It can't hurt you if the glove's there first!"Was my son listening? The results left doubts. The ball lofted by, a little to his left. His glove moved toward it reluctantly and nicked the sphere. At the same time, a slight wince crossed his face, an impulse to close his eyes and duck.

But he didn't turn tail, unlike a year ago. His mitt, after all, had touched the ball - cause for shouts of "That's the idea! Let the glove do its work."

Ball after ball floated his way. Some were clear misses, some grazed the outstretched leather fingers, some popped in and out, and a few actually found the pocket.

Was it just as hard for me? I remember the black-and-white snapshot my mother kept of me for years: a chunky little kid in a flannel baseball uniform, cap, socks, and cleats, a big "Kiwanis" across the chest. My feet were spread, and my throwing hand was buried in an outfielder's glove - ready to make the big play. But something in that shy, self-conscious smile suggested the big play may have been more dream than accomplishment.

I'll never forget my first, and maybe only, hit in Little League - a clean line drive to left field, indicating some lack of bat speed for a lefty, perhaps, but solid contact. Or the time I got to pitch. My dad always said I had a good arm. He even borrowed a catcher's mitt from a friend at work so we could have leather-slapping bullpen sessions on the back lawn.

One dusty summer evening in a neighboring town, I struck out the side, or most of it anyway. The memory is as hazy as that hot California dusk must have been. Another pitching memory is clearer: peering down at the batter, going into my Warren Spahn windup, and worrying that I might hit the kid. Winning pitchers have no such concerns.

I had worries on the receiving end also, and they waned and waxed in proportion to the speed generated by the 12-year-old hurler glaring down at me. As any observer of youth baseball knows, such turns of thought lead to a bad case of "foot-in-the-bucket" and a feeble batting average.

Which brings me back to the present generation. Not the seven-year-old learning to push fear aside so he can catch a ball, but his now teenaged brother, who lasted two seasons in Little League before trading his glove for a tennis racket. He, too, had

a good arm and no trouble catching, but at the plate it was Dad's old bailout reenacted.

Thoughtful coaching might have remedied that. But his last season featured a coach who thought only of winning, and assigned the weaker batters to the bench, or to right field at best. After that June, my son never looked back at "the game."

His younger brother, however, is looking ahead, having proclaimed that he really likes baseball. This despite a 10-game schedule that saw him take as many as 10 strikes (allowed in his league) during one at-bat, turn his back on the game to follow the flight of a dragonfly in center field, and commit the awful mistake of letting go of his aluminum bat after a swing and conking the catcher. The catcher had protective gear on and was only briefly sidelined.

This level of play has its own set of rules, designed to spread opportunity, hold competitiveness within bounds, and, not least, move the game along. If the number of missed balls gets too high, a "tee" is substituted for the adult pitcher, giving hitters a non-moving target. And when one team gets five runs up on the other, the inning's over, regardless of outs.

This low-key approach seemed in perfect sync with the small Vermont town where we now live, and with my youngster's inclinations. During stints on the bench he'd hunt snacks (one of the mothers usually brought them) or play with one of the canine spectators. In the field, he might be the only member of the "Patrick Pierce Plumbing and Heating" team to forget his burgundy-colored cap, but he'd have his keen, all-business moments too: striking the classic hands-on-knees pose and, I'm told, even catching a fly ball on one occasion. (Unfortunately, I missed that game.)

But next year, and the one after that, will be different. I've seen the older kids playing "serious" ball. The dreaminess is gone; there's a touch of grim intensity.The glove work will improve, no doubt, and maybe this squarely built young fellow - not unlike his father in that earlier photo - will be the one to shun pitcher-phobia and have some fun whaling the ball.

But baseball may never again be quite as enjoyable as it was this past year, when the sheer exuberance of young ballplayers, more than competitively honed skills, got us through those two-hour, seven-inning marathons.

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