The home team kept losing to those big 12-year-olds in the county seat, but they played on, with the loudest fans in Western Illinois.
It looks like this will be our family’s last year of Little League baseball. Our son, who turns 13 in September, will no longer be eligible for Little League unless he gets an exemption. He could go on to the area Pony League, but I suspect he won’t. I will miss it.
This year, the upper Midwest saw a cool, rainy spring, but the weather was gorgeous for most games, offering sweet twilights and the energy of youth to savor in these turbulent times.
I have never been that good at sports, partly because of the three older brothers who constantly reminded me that I was “awkward and ugly,” a line they picked up from Leave it to Beaver. Some social scientists call this “labeling,” and I guess it worked.
My own limited athletic talent and interest in sports aside, I’ve truly enjoyed watching my son play in Little League over the past seven years, starting in rural south-central Pennsylvania, now in rural Western Illinois. Our son got lots of encouragement from his mother and me. Unlike a few parents, we didn’t treat our son like he was destined for stardom. We did not push him in the field. Getting our bookworm and geek to go to the games, however, was usually another matter. We had to drag him there most of the time.
Playing summer baseball in rural small towns, like planting corn and soybeans in the fields of Western Illinois, is about facing challenges and opportunities. With those risks comes the promise of growing into something far richer than what you started with. Our son may not have been the best player, but he has more talent than I ever had. He makes the game look easy, perhaps taking after his grandfather, a high school basketball star and all-around athlete who continued to play sandlot baseball in rural western Kentucky until he was pushing 60. (My son has no passion for baseball, and that is all right, as long as he grows up with a passion for something, which I think he will.)
To some, baseball is an anachronism; our quaint national pastime may seem boring in comparison with so many other noisy and fast-moving sports. But to me, baseball, especially with kids, is a slower, much quieter version of NASCAR. The players run around in circles, sometimes to score, sometimes to catch, or miss, the ball. As the kids develop their skills, they learn to think and react more quickly and play well with their teammates. Whether my son wants to admit it or not, Little League has been good for him. It helped him build mental, emotional, and physical discipline and camaraderie with his teammates.
Sadly, my son and his teammates also learned too much about losing this year. Two or three times a week, the kids from our outlying town got roughed up by teams from the larger, richer county seats. In our seven-team league, the six county-seat teams draw from far deeper pools of talent. Plus, most of our players were 11 while most of the kids from the county-seat teams were 12.
Losing has been tough on all of the kids and their coaches, especially this year. I deeply admire all of them for coming back game after game. The team’s pitching improved. So did its fielding and batting. If only the players could have done all of these things consistently and simultaneously…. I lost track of how many times they got two outs in an inning with only one or two runs scored and then fell apart. The two-out wall became something of a running terror/joke in our stands. It was truly heartening when, in a few games, the kids did battle past that barrier.
Youth baseball teaches a lot good and bad, about small towns. For example, a few years ago some of our town’s adults split the kids into two teams, one with “select” players for a regional traveling league and one for Little League. Small towns don’t have the resources to squabble. In the long run, everyone loses. I suspect this arrangement may have been a bit easier on the Little League kids, however, because there was less pressure from coaches and parents.
In fact, the lovely evenings spent in the stands make life seem pretty darned good. All of us grew frustrated watching our kids make mistakes, and we could and did groan loudly. More importantly, all of us tried to be encouraging (most of the time). “Good try!” and “That’s OK!” were commonplace after any series of strikeouts or throwing and catching errors. When our kids lost a hard-fought game by two runs (everything had clicked most of the time), we gave them a standing ovation and showered them with compliments.
Our little town did have one thing that the county-seat teams envied: two lighted fields to their none, which meant that their coaches didn’t seem to mind driving the 15 miles once a week so their kids could play under the lights. Score one for the small-towners, even if our kids lost their home games, too. The visitors bought ice cream and other goodies at our local restaurants, so we got a bit of an economic benefit, too.
As an outsider who has only lived in our little town for a bit over five summers, it has been fun to watch the easy, comfortable relationships among folks who have grown up and worked together here. Good-natured teasing trickled from our stands almost constantly. Sometimes the parents kidded each other and, occasionally, the kids. Mainly, the coaches endured the needling. It was good theater and helped my wife and me get to know our neighbors better. We were even allowed to chip in from time to time.
None of this bit of the rural good life could ever happen without the community’s support. Our local hardware store put the players into their uniforms. The coaches didn’t have to give away their afternoons and evenings for practice and games, especially the one who didn’t even have kids on the team. And then, there were the fans. Our large contingent of parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends was noisy and raucous, while the crowds for the other teams tended to be much smaller and quieter, even at their home games.
I suppose our volunteer coaches did what they did for the love of the kids and the game. They certainly passed on a seasonal tradition that is important in a small town. They didn’t like to lose, and they got upset sometimes. But their patience was truly incredible as the team morphed from bad to better to worse to phenomenal to awful to much better.
Baseball is a game of strategy, skills, and risk taking. Despite losing by large margins most of the time, our kids kept playing. They tied one game, had a couple of close ones, and won the final game of the regular season. Then, they got trounced in the first tournament game on a brutally hot evening that sapped everyone. It was a hard season, but the kids learned. Perhaps the end-of-season pizza for good sportsmanship from one of the other team’s sponsors (the one the kids had beat) was an ironic topping to the season.
Even if my son does not play next year, I hope the kids from this year’s team stick together. They played teams above their level all season and proved their worth. They could be contenders if they want to take another chance at it. Does this sound like “Wait until next year…”?
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.