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Bat Boy Sure Has A Lot To Say
wtf is wrong with some kids
I don’t know about you, but I prefer Fall Ball to in-season baseball now that my son is in high school. Fall ball is more relaxed and kids get to play more positions than they do during the official season, which we call CIF out here in California.
I don’t know what “CIF” stands for, and I don’t ask because I don’t care. I earned three varsity letters for a letterman’s jacket in high school, but they were for Band, Forensics (theater) and competitive Klompen dance, which only exists in my hometown and looks like this:
In other words, I was pranked by the universe when I was given two very athletic children. Possibly three … it’s too early to tell with this last one.
My oldest is a NCAA track & field athlete and our middle eats-sleeps-breathes baseball — a sport that we actively discouraged him playing when he was little due to the four times per week schedule and the fact that I found it painfully boring. Soccer? Sure. Basketball? Absolutely. Surfing? Please do (they did not). Lacrosse? Why not. Baseball? No, sir.
Some kids rebel by listening to Speed Metal or forming a fight club that meets in the woods behind the grocery store. This child rebelled by finding a Little League coach and asking if he could play. What were we going to do, say no?
In that scenario, becoming a baseball fan is unavoidable. You can hate what your kid does or you can show up. I suggest showing up.
The truth is, baseball is boring — until you really start paying attention. Then it becomes stressful.
When you’re at bat, all the pressure is on you. The only real comparison is a soccer player with a penalty kick or a basketball player with a free throw. The stands get quiet and you know your team is relying on you.
Pitchers have it even worse; a fact I did not fully appreciate until my son started pitching.
Yes, your team has to do their part and play defense and your catcher needs to stop the ball and throw it to the right person at the right time, should the opportunity arise. Both of these factors will win or lose a game.
But at the end of a lost game, it’s rare to hear, “That catcher sure had a bad day,” or “outfield was just not on their game” — even if the catcher did have a bad day and the outfield was a mess.
The pitcher is right in front of you. Their success or failure is measured at 80 MPH, in a little box, and with just two words: “strike” and “ball”. This child’s pitching career has not been good for my nerves, which were already frayed just by the nature of who I am.
He’s been pitching for four years and I still have to remind myself to breathe when he’s on the mound. If his dad’s at the game, I’ll take the opportunity to sneak away to the restroom or ask unnecessary questions of the moms volunteering in the snack shack. It’s just too stressful to watch sometimes. Luckily, my kid is learning to tune out the world and focus on his pitches.
Today, however, was different.
I don’t see myself as a particularly talented person, but one of my gifts as a mom is to see every kid as someone’s little baby. Even now that they have patchy mustaches and foul mouths, I see these JV players the way I see my own grown sons: as tall babies. Sometimes I’ll accidentally embarrass my kid by saying, “Look at all these tall babies!” when his friends are hanging out.
I’m the mom who will shout-out a great catch and applaud a good hit for a kid on the other team. Sometimes I say, “Look at that lil cutie, what a good catch” even though the lil cutie in question has a driver’s license and can bench 215. Cute lil guy out there working so hard. Lil sweetie.
When kids pop off unnecessarily on the field, it’s easy to see the frustration inside them and it hurts my heart. Pressure from a parent or the way in which they’re mimicking a coach’s aggression become clear in their bad moments.
One time, when my son was pitching in Pony, a batter got so mad he threw his bat in the general direction of my son.
The kid got removed from the game and every time he would’ve been up in the lineup, they called an “out”. In other words, he screwed over his whole team and we won.
Even though it could’ve been a dangerous situation and I probably should’ve been angry at the kid, I’d been watching what was happening with the ousted batter before he had his tantrum. His dad was one of the coaches and his big brother — who was around 16 or 17 years old — was coaching from third base. When the ousted kid would come up to bat, the brother said things like, “Don’t puss out!” or “Jesus, Mikey, relax!” and his dad would be even more aggressive with, “What is WRONG with you? I said shorten up!” and the like.
So when the bat was thrown, I shrugged. Of course he threw a bat. I couldn’t even be mad. The adults in the room had created that situation.
But today was different.
Today I watched my son get up to pitch, loose and relaxed. Three easy strikes and the first batter was out. Second batter was the same. Due to an error in the field, our team gave up one run in my son’s first inning on the mound. The game seemed to be going well.
When he was back up, it looked like he might have more of same, striking the first batter out easily.
That’s when the other team’s dugout started getting rowdy — and not normal rowdy. As my son would raise his knee to start his pitch, the dugout would yell “WAIT” or “STOP” or shout to throw him off.
For those who don’t follow high school baseball, this is generally not allowed. I don’t know if that’s a rule or if it’s just an agreement, but I’ve never heard such a thing. Parents looked around at each other and at the ump who, for whatever reason, stayed quiet. The boys on the other side just got wilder.
As someone who is currently co-writing a book about teenage boys, I often love these situations. It’s like being placed in the middle of a social experiment. Who over there is the leader? What’s the coach doing? What are the parents doing? Is it the whole team, or just a few who happen to be very loud? I identified a clear ringleader standing at the door of the dugout.
I could see my son taking lots of deep breaths in, but not letting any of them out.
I exhaled, long and steady, all the way out, while looking at him. “Exhale,” I said in a voice too quiet for him to hear but that I hoped he’d sense. Sometimes, when I do this, the calmness inside me seems to spread to him and he’ll let out a long, measured breath. Not this time. His pitches only got worse. One was even wild — which his pitches never are these days.
They’d gotten to him.
When kids pop off unnecessarily on the field, it’s easy to see the frustration inside them and it hurts my heart. Pressure from a parent or the way in which they’re mimicking a coach’s aggression becomes clear in their bad moments. I scanned my memory and tried to pinpoint the position he’d been playing this game and came up with nothing. He was riding the bench.
The ump stopped the game about ten pitches too late and told the boys to knock it off. Bases were loaded and their players had reached a frenzy with stomping, bats hit against benches, hissing, name-calling and loud laughter.
After the admonishment, when my son would go to pitch, the ringleader would mockingly say “Shhhh! Everyone be quiet!” and laugh. His friends would laugh and then they’d be silent. Somehow this was worse.
Finally, my son struck another player out and a pop fly was caught. The inning ended — but three runs had been scored by the other team.
As if scripted for tension and abject misery, my son was the first up to bat in the next inning. I moved to stand in the shade, about 15 feet behind home plate. I could see the dugout, and this ringleader, better.
I thought I would find a compassionate place inside myself to name the behavior of this boy as insecurity or the product of a bully coach, but I couldn’t. A moment before, I’d told my son “they heckle the people they’re scared of”, but I wasn’t sure I meant it.
So I studied this boy’s face, his sneer, his laser focus on my son, and for the first time in my life, I looked at a child — someone’s baby — and felt zero empathy. And believe me, I tried.
What was I missing?
For context, 99% of the boys I have interacted with since 2005 have been an absolute delight. Sure, there are some holy terrors, a good number of goons, some stoners, a few players, punks, scrubs, posers, and ass-kissers. But every one of those boys has shown me something lovely or vulnerable about himself as well: humor, intelligence, sweetness, creativity, fear, insecurity or simply the jittery self-awareness that comes with wondering if everyone knows you’re a fraud.
I watched this boy’s eyes meet my son’s near home plate, where my son was taking practice swings. He stared the same way he had been while my son was pitching, eyes locked, one side of his mouth curled in a sneer. “Mad-dogging”, as we call it.
My son lowered his bat, turned toward the punk and they locked eyes.
Usually in a moment like this, there’s a laugh and a guy will look away. An unspoken, “Aw man, I was just playin’!”
Not this time.
Instead, things got quiet. It was like watching animals square off; one ever-so-slightly lifting its lip to show a millimeter of teeth. In that moment, you know the other animal will cower or walk away — if not, you plan for blood.
But these aren’t dogs, they’re boys. Tall babies just learning to drive, not able to vote, and, in that moment, operating almost entirely from the amygdala. They need a coach or another mentor to step in. On this day, nobody did.
The ringleader stopped smiling, stepped back and crossed his arms. He was quiet.
If this were a movie, my son would’ve hit a home run, his team would’ve fought their way back from the deficit to win the game — and the kid would’ve learned a big lesson.
Instead, my kid RBI’d on a weak line drive that was dropped on an error and our boys lost 4-5. The ringleader and his howling followers were only marginally less obnoxious through the final inning, and when they won, they ran out to the pitcher as if they’d won the World Series, yipping and howling like a pack of coyotes.
After our boys cleaned up the field and pulled tarps over the mound, my son stepped from the dugout, giant bag across his ever-widening teenage back, quiet and annoyed.
“That’s baseball,” I said, bumping my shoulder against my tall baby’s arm, now over 6’4”. He grunted a reply and we walked toward the car.
As we got close, I spotted the kid walking with his own mother. I nudged my son and said, “There he is”, nodding in the kid’s direction.
“Who?” my son asked, looking at the kid, genuinely confused.
“That’s the heckler!” I said, laughing. “How don’t you know that!?”
“Oh,” my son said with half a smile, “Guess I never got a good look at him.”
Joanna Schroeder is a writer, editor and media critic. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, Talk To Your Boys: 27 Crucial Conversations To Have With Your Teenage Sons and co-host of the iHeartRadio podcast Open Relationships: Transforming Together. For more, visit her LinkTree.