It's Baseball Season in Carrollton!
Previously published in the Times-Georgian
The American pastime is now under way, some 216 years since first mentioned in the United States in 1792. The infield chatter, the crack of the bat, the cheers from the grandstands and hours of perching in generally uncomfortable seating will occupy many well spent hours in the coming months.
Jeff Butts (l) and team mate practice having fun.
As a long time bleacher-sitting fan of Little League, high school, college and minor league professional baseball, perhaps my perspective might serve to make your 2009 baseball season more enjoyable.
It all began in a backyard field of an apartment complex with an aspiring three-year-old Texan wanting to learn to wear a glove on the correct hand and to see how he could assemble a “homemade” uniform that looked like a combination of his favorite teams, the Texas Rangers and the Baylor Bears. The look of the uniform and how his socks fit were the most important concerns for this young aspiring left-handed batter.
The game continued as the youngster was introduced to the imaginary screaming fans by his parent coach via the imaginary public address system in a dusty field with rocks for bases. “Now starting in center field for the Texas Rangers is number 2, Jeffrey.”
The announcement was followed by a little champion running to take his position with imaginary teammates on the field, as I swapped the microphone PA role for the screaming fans cheering the young star. After a pretend national anthem, the game began.
After satisfying the child’s fantasies, it was time to teach the child to catch, throw and hit. He merely wanted to look just right, to be recognized and pretend the part. All was peaceful and both parties had a good time, each with different motives.
Before you could see the cameras flash, three years went by and the future outfielder was enrolled in coach-pitch community baseball. Now the affiliation with fellow six-year-old friends joined the “how does the uniform look” question as the two most important aspects of the spring sport.
As a parent coach, it was most important to throw good pitches for all the boys to hit successfully and then point them in the correct direction to run when entering the base path. As my fellow coach and longtime friend, Jim, and I were being technical, the boys were running, jumping, laughing and having fun getting their baseball pants red-clay dirty. Friends, grandparents, moms and others cheered and took photographs. No one gave much attention to the scorebooks required by the league. All was peaceful and everyone had a good time.
The progression to Little League seemed natural, and I became a bleacher fan, glad to surrender the on-field duties to those with more time and expertise. Then came the scoreboard, coordinated uniforms and the new variable of success. Winning, number of hits and playing time were added to the concerns of the boys. The coaches and those in the bleachers mostly brought on these new stresses, but the boys soon internalized these variables.
I began to notice three distinct agendas during these years: a) that of the players, b) that of the coaches and c) that of the bleacher crowd. The complications grew and some dropped the pastime. However, all went well and most of the boys had a good time.
The high school days came and went quickly. With high school baseball, the boys added the variable of recognition to their existing concerns, the look, affiliation, success and winning. I noticed that the bleacher crowd seemed to stress winning, individual player success and their local hero’s personal baseball future.
The bleachers were not much more comfortable during those years, the hours were much longer and the trips to games further. Fortunately, due to a few good breaks with our young player making the “American Junior National Team,” we were not finished with baseball.
However, most of the high school teammates and bleacher colleagues dropped out of the sport after graduation as they moved on to the reality of everyday life. All went well during those years when everyone said goodbye to teammates and their bleacher friends. Most had had a good time, yet not all, despite winning a high school state championship. The American pastime was once again eliminating many players.
With major college baseball, the players added the variable of careers, agents and the draft. Even though less than one-tenth of one percent of eligible draftees ever make it to the majors, this variable adds a new dimension to the pastime. The bleachers were much more comfortable, the trips much further, the recognition much more widespread and the player egos began to grow. New bleacher friends included mostly non-parents, alumni and fans in motor homes. The noticeable variable in the bleacher crowd was simple desire for affiliation and entertainment.
The boys were stressed with school, team scouts, batting averages and a social life. Post-season NCAA play became important. The College World Series was always a distant nirvana, never quietly achieved by our young hero. Boys were continuing to withdraw from the sport in large numbers. However, all went well and most of the bleacher friends had a good time. Most of the remaining boys did, too.
The minor league experience added yet more complicated variables to our young player. Poor pay, international teammates, new cultures, relationship pressures, lousy bus rides and decisions about how long the career would last, added stress. The fans were dispersed and mostly non-existent. The game was about to finally end.
The young man who started the game 20 years earlier with a major concern about how his uniform looked ended his career concerned about how his uniform looked as he was photographed beside the same pretend coach and fantasy announcer he had when he was three. The uniform and an image was the most important variable once again. It was a good experience, it was over and all left happy.
To make the baseball season more enjoyable for all, enjoy the player and his interests at whatever level that happens to be. Don’t look past the day and add unnecessary complications to the game or the player. Each level of baseball has enough complications of its own. Recognize that the simple variables can bring the most joy.
Cherish the uniform, the bleacher friends and the opportunity for a moment of affiliation. Whether your hero is three or 23, the game will end someday and the torch will be passed on to another child to start the process over again. For all, except the Cal Ripkins of the world, the game will not end when or the way the athlete wants. Treasure the aspects of the game that drew most into the game as children. Enjoy the uniform, the bleachers, the affiliations, the friends. And go out to the ballpark.
Editor’s Note: Frank Butts’ son played centerfield for four years at Mississippi State University and graduated with a business degree. He spent one summer in the minor leagues, got married and now lives in Raleigh, NC. All are happy.
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