Father and Son Strike Out At Team Sports

I am a failed sports fan. I don't understand the strategies for trading baseball cards. I don't know how to keep box scores. I do not know the names and functions of the positions in football or basketball. I don't even tune in to the local pro sports teams unless a playoff role is in the offing. And yet, each April, I attempt enthusiasm for the Opening Day ritual of major league baseball, as much for the return of spring as for the return of the home team. And now that my son is Little-League age, I feel an obligation to at least act like a fan. After all, isn't it a parent's duty to induct a child into the game - because of what sports teach about the interplay of individual and team effort?

Last fall this sense of obligation led me to enroll my son, Spencer, in the Sunday-morning baseball clinic. "It's low key," said the organizer, a Little League coach. "We teach the rudiments - batting, fielding, throwing - and have a good time. The parents just come and watch." It sounded just about right.

Spencer was quite content with whiffle balls in the backyard. These were the rudiments and the advanced skills, as far as he was concerned. But to me, the clinic seemed like a good father-son activity. And it might intrigue him with the prospects of playing in Little League.

Well, at least I had decided he should be intrigued by this prospect. I pictured us rising together at 6:30 a.m., doing a little bonding over a diner breakfast, and scooting over to the clinic, where he would become enamored of the game, just like I hadn't at his age. But it was really the hot chocolate at the diner that clinched it for him. This was an omen.

I haven't been coached since I was on the White Sox in 6th grade, and I'm not, admittedly, very good at being a coach. So this seemed like a way of getting Spencer the coaching I thought he needed without me blowing it by being the over-invested father.

Fathers are supposed to play catch with their children but not simply leave it at that. Playing catch is preparatory for the great American Little League ritual, I kept telling myself.

At our first Sunday-morning clinic, I was reacquainted with the two distinct voices of coaching from my own childhood: "Hey! What's the matter with you?" and "Atta boy!" "What's the matter with you?" is why I was quite content with the torpor of a shady spot in right field, like the fabled Ferdinand the bull, and why playing catch out front with my brother was all the organized baseball I really wanted.

I needed no more competition than attempting to zing Dad's palm with my fastball.

From the start, Spencer was lost at the clinic. He wasn't wearing a T-shirt with a pro team insignia, nor even a baseball hat, much less a baseball hat perched jauntily along his eyebrows. Every other kid was there to try out for Little League. And none of the other fathers were reading the Sunday paper. They were watching little Chip field hot grounders, make throws to first, run the bases, and take a tough stance at the plate. They were yelling, "Atta boy!" or "What's the matter with you?"

Spencer thought base-running was a fun enough game, until it clicked that its object was to avoid being tagged out. Fielding flies was fun - just like whiffle balls in the backyard - until he realized that three other fielders wanted the same ball that was descending so perfectly to him. And they wanted it more than he did. Spencer yielded. He would just as soon have been reading the comics with me over on the sidelines. I was ready to make an admission: I liked the idea of Little League more than actual Little League. And I didn't care if my son never put on a uniform or graduated from whiffle ball.

To my wife, a star field hockey and tennis player in high school and college, competitive sports and team camaraderie are the acme of social relations. So she has been faced with a disorienting discrepancy: her belief that team sports will expand Spencer's friendship options versus Spencer's feeling that a baseball game is an interruption of a friendly game of catch. We are starting to understand the difference between what boys are supposed to get out of competitive sports and what it means to Spencer, our non-competitive son, to play. He was more intrigued by the ball's arc as it bounced off the field-house netting than with the social interplay of individual and team effort.

We were told by another father, also a first child, like me and Spencer, that his son gravitated toward individual sports and eschewed team sports. This child needed sports for the activity, but not for the belonging. It wasn't a way to communicate, just something to do.

We lasted three weeks at Sunday baseball before I let it drop. If it wasn't helping Spencer realize any of his talents or desires, then it wasn't a useful exercise. I could only say, "Atta boy" as he distinguished between the playing he loved and the competition he neither understood nor enjoyed.

Lately we've started ritualizing Saturday-morning trips to the local billiards parlor where we shoot 9 ball for an hour or so, drop quarters in the jukebox, play a few video games, and then head home.

Father and son are on about the same level of proficiency, despite my height advantage; call it a level playing field.

The important thing is that I've started picking up on my son's signals, honoring his choice of game and not my own.

Todd R. Nelson

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