I played baseball in high school, summer-league softball in college, watched the Braves on weekends and Baseball Tonight on weekdays but never coached a day in my life. My wife and I had been trying to have a baby for the past eighteen months. Each morning, she woke up to my alarm and took her temperature. For five days every month, we had sex every twelve hours, but by the summer, we were still childless. She took it better than me. I was exercising to build up testosterone and reading blogs and BabyCenter for tips.
Finally, the whole thing got to be too much, and she suggested I coach a little league team, as if just being around kids would up our chances.
They were the Chiefs which I thought was odd, but there was also a Jets and a Raiders.
The rest of the teams were named after baseball clubs. They were eight and nine year olds, and I tried hard to remember if I was as small as they were when I started playing, if I was as bad as they were at eight years old.
Most of the parents introduced themselves and stuck around for the first practice. I lined the kids up in two rows ten yards apart and had them toss the ball back and forth to each other. Every other kid had a hitch or get-up in their throwing motion, and I worked my way down the line showing them how to start with the ball behind their shoulder and how to step toward their target.
My wife was in the stands watching me and chatting it up with some of the younger parents. It was late April and still cold. The sun did its best to shine through the clouds, but it didn’t feel like a good day for baseball. The wind was coming from the north, and when it gusted, it knocked off a hat or two and sent the kids scrambling after their “C” emblazoned red caps.
Things were going good. The kids took to heart my instructions on form, and after five minutes, I lined them up on the infield to shag grounders. The dirt wasn’t so much dirt but tiny red rocks that were, over the course of a couple of years, supposed to be ground up into fine particles. If a kid slid on that stuff, he was going to need tweezers to pick the rocks out of his leg. It scuffed up all the baseballs and shaded them a light maroon.
I hit grounders to the kids at short stop, and they threw it to first then ran behind me at home plate to get in line at first base. Two cycles through and I was impressed. Over half of the kids could field a ball and chuck it to first in time to get an average runner out. On the third round, I decided to pick up the pace a bit.
The first kid in line, Tristan or Trayton or something like that, had the bill of his hat bent in a sharp V. I tossed the ball into the air and the wind picked up. The ball sort of swayed in the wind but was still able to catch it on the sweet spot of the bat. It took its first short hop even with the pitcher’s mound then went into a roll. The kid crouched down and got his body in front of the ball the way his dad had probably taught him. Even from home plate, I could already see the rock a foot in front of his glove that the ball was going to hit.
I wanted to yell at the kid to get his glove up, to attack the ball, to do anything but crouch there and wait for the thing to come to him, but I didn’t. I opened my mouth and a tiny ghost of a breath wafted out.
The ball hit the rock and jumped. It caught the kid right in the nose. It knocked him backwards. When I got to him, his eyes were darting around and his nose was gushing.
The blood started to run off the side of his face and a little bit of it pooled in his ear. I took off my shirt and pressed it against his nose. I sat the kid up and asked him if he was alright. He looked around at the rest of the team that had gathered in a circle and started crying.
The kid’s parents had been watching the whole thing and were at his side to stop the tears. I called the rest of the practice off. The kid’s parents just sat with him in the infield.
The mom sat behind him and slowly rocked him back and forth. She wouldn’t look at me.
The last of the kids left, but the parents were still on the field trying to calm him down. I walked out the dugout and sat on the bleachers next to my wife. She took my hand and put it on her thigh.
“You couldn’t have done anything about that,” she said. I nodded. It was probably the only thing that could be said, but it was what scared me the most. Not the blood or the tears or the angry parents. It was the fact that no matter what I did, what I could have done, that ball was going to crack that kid in the face. Someday on a different field with a different ball it was going to be my kid.
They say there’s nothing harder in sports than trying to hit a round ball with a round bat, but that is misleading. To hit a round ball with a round bat and catch a rock and crack a boy in the face seemed so easy, like I could do it a thousand times. But to prevent it seemed impossible.
About the Author: Jacob Euteneuer lives in Akron, OH, with his wife and son where he is a candidate in the Northeast Ohio MFA. He believes the Braves will win the World Series.
Story Song: "Walk Like A Man" by Bruce Springsteen