Let me set the scene…
In our town, baseball season starts with a parade. And some patience. And tolerance for completely unpredictable and quite un-spring-like weather. Which, at the end of April on Cape Cod, is a little like a gambler’s roll. You could get 60 degrees and sunny, but you could also wind up with gale force winds and snow flurries. If you wind up with the latter, you’ll be questioning your sanity as you stand on the sidewalk in full winter gear, but happy you didn’t pack away your earmuffs and fluffy boots yet. You’ll shiver and stomp your feet, wondering exactly what you signed up for and why it’s taking so long for this parade to start.
But then you hear the opening notes of “America the Beautiful” by the elementary school band as they march toward you. It’s the first song they’ve learned, and the first time some of them are playing an instrument. It’s a big deal. And some of them are in their baseball uniforms while holding their trumpet or clarinet. And they’re so gosh-darn proud to be leading this parade that some of them are having trouble walking and playing at the same time. You can’t help but smile and feel proud for them, even if you don’t know any of them.
And right behind them come the littlest baseball nuggets, some of them wearing a uniform for the first time, giant shirts hanging past their knees. You wonder how they’ll run in those things. They’re so excited to be in a parade instead of just watching one, they’re waving like they’re part of the 2004 Red Sox World Series team.
The parade is over so quickly that you most likely missed your own kid march by- possibly because you were complaining about the weather with one of the parents standing near you. “Of course I saw you!” You’ll say to him/her afterward. “I was waving like mad! Didn’t you see me?”
And so begins the procession of parents to the Little League fields, the group almost as large as the parade itself. Everyone gathers for the presentation of volunteer and sponsor awards, the kids are seated by team and everyone else stands behind and around them. The little ones get antsy, because there are adults talking into microphones for waaaaay to long; they play with their hats, they roll on the grass between first and second bases, between second and third bases. Volunteer coaches who barely know the kids’ names yet try to keep them from rolling away; they look around, hopeful a parent is nearby to help corral them.
A young student will sing the National Anthem- a huge honor to sing in front of what seems like the whole town. The mic will probably cut out once, but for months after this day, when people see this student, they’ll compliment him/her on their performance. People will remember that, and it’s a good feeling.
After awards are announced kids partake of the True Little League Lunch with their team and coaches: hot dog, chips, and soda. Most of which will not be consumed due to high excitement and finally being allowed to run around.
If it’s a nice day, families will stay in the fields- kids will run to the playground, swinging and climbing; adults and kids will play catch with brand new gloves that need to be broken in. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, there’s the promise of warm days, of sitting and playing in the sun, of being outside and reconnecting with people. We breathe in, and collectively sigh, happy for this day and the ones that will follow.
Building a Little League actually starts way before the parade, with volunteer Board members and volunteer coaches, during long winter months, with a common vision and a desire to keep our community connected. They love baseball, and they love working with kids. The parents who volunteer know they’ve signed on for a big job; some have been doing this for years, others are new. God Bless them all, each and every one.
They will devote hours each week after work, to create a team from twelve kids. In some cases the kids don’t know anyone else on their team; in other cases they might know each other, but might not be friends. Some kids have been playing baseball for years, and have several well-worn gloves in their parents’ car. Others might not even own a pair of cleats or have any idea what a “full count” is.
And that’s the challenge for these volunteer coaches- to take a multi-level lovable band of misfits and create a microcosm of community out of them. In a pretty short amount of time. They might only get a couple of practices in together before their first game. As they learn each other’s names, they learn to keep their eye on the ball, whether at bat or in the field. They learn why and when it’s important to throw to first base. They learn why it’s important to “run through” first base, but not second or third. They learn, by trial and error (sometimes LOTS of errors) when it’s the best time to steal a base or stay put. They learn that at any moment, the person out in left field is just as important and integral to the team as the short stop or the pitcher. That you can’t function as a team unless you back each other up.
They learn how to sing annoying songs in the dugout.
They learn there is value in taking risks but also in knowing when to play it safe. They learn that they can play their hardest and best, and they might get rewarded with a Win, but they also might not. I see the best coaches not only teach the kids how to lose, but also how to win; that respecting the other team is as important as respecting your own.
And hopefully they learn that putting your heart into something you love doing has rewards beyond the field.
Let’s Play Ball!