A Time to Build Up: Benching the Green-Eyed Monster
We have been bombarded in the last number of years with alarming statistics regarding the rise of anxiety and depression among our children – especially our teenagers. Many studies point to social media’s negative effects on emotional well-being. Now that we can literally look into the daily, if not hourly, lives of our friends and neighbors, we are constantly given an opportunity to compare ourselves with others.
Try as we might to monitor and limit our kids’ engagement on social media, it appears that it is here to stay. So, we remind our children that what they are observing on these platforms is simply the “highlight reel” of a person’s life. And in the case of student athletes, we are literally seeing the highlight reel. I’ve yet to come across a travel organization (or a parent!) posting a video of a kid committing an error at shortstop or popping out to the 2nd baseman on Twitter. Instead, we see the towering homeruns, the wicked curveballs, and the double plays.
It’s exciting to see young players have success on the field. As someone who has watched baseball for a long time, I know those moments don’t come along everyday even for the most skilled players. And I, for one, don’t begrudge these types of posts because they’re really, really fun to watch. The problem comes when a kid starts measuring his progress against someone else’s progress more often than focusing on being better today than he, himself, was yesterday. To be sure, that kind of maturity is a really tall order for kids and adults alike.
Last week my pastor spoke about the 10th Commandment: Do not covet. Merriam Webster describes to covet as “to feel inordinate desire for what belongs to another”. Whether you are a person or faith or not, whether you call it coveting or jealousy or envy, we all have fallen into the trap of believing that someone has something we want or deserve.
Interestingly, I’ve found that the people who have taught me the most about the ways to fight envy are not adults. They’re not those with psychology degrees. They’re not even pastors. Despite how we worry about our teens’ mental health, it is actually a bunch of teenage boys who’ve taught me the antidote to feeling jealous. Specifically, it’s a bunch of 15, 16, and 17-year-old baseball players.
I’ve been involved with baseball for well over 18 years. With three boys who all started playing tee ball at age five and who played through high school, I have met and watched the development of countless players in the Northern Virginia area. As the boys approach their sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school, many of them aspire to play in college. For those readers who are still tying their kiddo’s cleats, I know you can’t believe it, but before you blink, many of you will be seeing kids whose helmets wobbled on their little heads playing in front of college scouts all over the country.
Some of these kids are now getting offers from big name colleges. Some are fielding multiple phone calls from coaches. Some are still waiting. Just about every week we see a social media post declaring a kid’s commitment to play in college. I’ve wondered how these posts affect those who still wait and worry if their own dreams will come to pass.
What I’ve found is that no matter how they might feel on the inside, these kids are commenting with congratulations and happy emojis. They’re reposting their friends’ good news, promoting them, and celebrating their teammates’ accomplishments.
My faith tells me that there is a plan for each and every one of us. It further tells me that the plan is for good and not for harm. What these teenagers are teaching me is this truth: No one is taking the gift the Lord has intended for you. The idea that someone else has the thing that was meant for you is simply a lie.
So it is that the student becomes the teacher – a reality I find happens often in parenting. Our young athletes can find social media to be a brutal place. They can find that it chips away at their self-esteem and makes them resentful of their teammates’ successes.
Or they can choose another way. They can use social media to build-up rather than to tear down. They can celebrate. They can clap and cheer. They can send “You’re the man!” messages and repost good news and throw out “high-fives” like confetti.
When that happens, before you know it, that “green-eyed monster” who’s been lurking around trying to get in the game can’t find a seat anywhere because there’s no room for him. Nobody’s got time for that because everybody needs to get to the business of celebrating. And that’s when jealousy and envy disappear and the game gets a whole heck of a lot more fun for everyone.
More than a Game: The Hidden Gifts of Baseball in 2021
As a mom of three sports-addicted boys and the wife of one, I have spent the better part of each year of the last 17 of my life attending sporting events - mainly baseball practices and games. Around 2011, my youngest son grew old enough to play travel baseball, in addition to Little League, like his older brothers. This brought the number of teams I had to navigate to a total of at least three and sometimes as many as six during a single season.
It was then that I knew I was going to have to convince myself that this was more than just a game. Once I factored in both the amount of money and of time we were tracking to spend on baseball, I was intent on discovering what that "more" was. What followed was the creation of my blog, The View From Behind Home Plate, where over the past ten years, much of my writing has centered on detailing the hidden gifts I have found while watching sports from the sidelines. And while I have come to love baseball at its most simplistic level - see the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball - I've learned to appreciate even more why we love it so much, why we give it so much of our energy and mental space, and why we grieve it so much when it's gone.
Today we are slowly, but surely aging out of amateur baseball in my family. The teams I watch in person are down to one or two. The laundry is less overwhelming. The end of my days in the bleachers as the mother of a player are on the horizon. And though I would have thought I had learned it all, it is in the last 18 months - a time of both global upheaval and personal challenges - that I have more deeply understood why I am so devoted to baseball.
There were many that criticized those of us who lamented the loss of sports during the pandemic. How could anyone grieve the absence of a basketball or baseball game when there were people losing family members to a deadly disease? Were we completely out of touch with the realities of the tragedy that so many suffered? Were we a callous bunch of morons? (Editor's note: I think "callous bunch of morons" might be the kindest of terms when considering the name-calling we saw on the Internet this year.)
I understand the criticism. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time feeling profound loss at the absence of sports during the pandemic and had more gratitude at its return than I ever could have imagined. So I had to think through what the loss of those games actually meant. As the world began to open up this summer and I was able to spend countless days and nights in the bleachers again, I began to understand a little bit of why I grieved it so. In simplest terms it was because of what sports represents to me - a place of community, a place of comfort, and ultimately a place of surrender.
For me baseball is community. I have been a stay at home mom for years. When the boys were little, I had days when I felt like I was drowning in Star Wars movies and Nerf Gun Battles. With a baseball team, came baseball moms. We didn't have to make dinner reservations or sync up schedules. If there was a game at 6:00 pm at this field or that field, a group of women friends would be there, often toting blankets, snacks, and toys for the younger siblings. Years of spending weeks at the ballpark brought me some of my very closest friends.
As most of my kids are out of the house now, I spend my days alone at my desk as a writer - which is to say I spend a whole lot of time in my own brain. An evening high school baseball game is a time to get out of my head and to speak words out loud to live human beings. It's a chance to focus on someone else - my kid, his teammates, his coaches, my friends. The pandemic didn't just steal a silly game from me. It stole my community.
Another thing I found that I love about baseball is the comfort I find in its predictability. The world seemed completely out of control this year. Although Covid didn't affect my family personally, both of my parents were diagnosed with serious illnesses. I spent a lot of time traveling away from my home to be with them. In the past six months, whether I was turning on the tv news or waiting for a medical report from a doctor, I seeemed to be perpetually holding my breath wondering what new challenge was coming.
When we finally got back to baseball, I realized that it blessedly remained the same. At its very core baseball is about tradition and continuity. We've spent much of the past year and a half wrestling with the unknown. I have questions big and small with no clear answers. But as I sat at a baseball game there were things I could count on.
I knew that Christian would lead off, Griffin would bat 2nd, Mason would be in the 3-hole, and Eli would hit clean-up. I knew that after Luke struck out a batter, he was going to walk the perimeter of the pitcher's mound exactly once before he got back to his position. There would be seven innings and six outs per inning. I didn't know if my mom's cancer was spreading or how sick her treatments would make her. I didn't know if we'd be allowed to attend my oldest son's college graduation in person. But this game and these players? I knew that I could rely on them. There was no race against the clock. No buzzer signaling that time was up. No ties. We played until there was a winner and a loser. I have never been more grateful for the unchanging nature of baseball.
The final benefit of watching baseball this year might seem far-fetched, but I found it completely true. In 2021, watching a baseball game became a symbol of surrender. Americans love to be the masters of our own destiny. We felt completely out of control this year and we didn't like it one bit. There were so many circumstances we wanted to change. We tried to manage this virus. I tried to manage my mom's medications, my dad's emotions, and my family's ability to thrive while I was away from home. And yet, I had no delusions that I could control the baseball game from the stands. Try as I might to believe in the power of a lucky shirt or sitting in the right spot in the bleachers, I am fully aware that I have nothing whatsoever to do with a win or loss. There is freedom and peace in knowing that my only job is to watch. What a blessed relief.
I've spent a lot of time at baseball games. Our family has put significant energy and money into this sport. Some would say too much. The last 18 months have taught me that I'll never regret a single moment. I am incredibly grateful for the way baseball has brought true community, comforting predictability, and a sense of peaceful surrender to so many of my days. I know now more than ever that when life feels overwhelming - as it certainly will again - there is some where I can go that will bring me at least a few hours of respite from this broken world. I'll set aside my worries for a bit, look at my husband and kids, and say, "Take me out to the ballgame."
I'm honored to have the opportunity to contribute to the American Travel Baseball Alliance site alongside so many impressive baseball minds from around the country. Some of you have found yourselves here through the columns I've written for the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League. To those who are new to my words, you should note that yours truly has never connected a bat with a baseball. I have never caught a fly ball. I have never thrown a strike.
I am neither a player nor a coach nor an analyst. I have, however, sat at numerous baseball parks watching my three sons play over the course of the past 17 plus years. I spent many of those years racing around town from one game to the next to try to be present for each kid. And, in fact, a good portion of those years I juggled not only various baseball parks, but a whole lot of basketball courts and golf courses and even a few soccer fields.
Now with two kids in college and only one left at home, my days are a bit less frantic. In fact, the youngest is not only the last player standing in my house, but as of this school year, baseball is the last sport standing. Whether t-ball or Little League or high school fields; whether in my own county or across my state or along the East Coast, I have logged countless hours watching baseball. This game will forever and always be linked to my journey as a parent.
Now that you have a clear understanding of my extensive baseball "credentials", it behooves me to give you an idea of the content you should absolutely not expect to find from my column here.
This will not be a place where you can come to find out how to raise an elite athlete who has gifts the likes of which the world has never seen.
I don't have any of those kinds of athletes. (Side note for the Skinner boys: Sorry to break it to you.)
This will not be a place where I tell you exactly how to get your son to play on a D-1 College baseball team.
I've never done that.
This will not be a place where I will let you know which is the very best travel organization to join.
Among all three of my boys over the course of their years playing, I have experience with seven different travel organizations in my area. One might have been a good fit for one of my boys, but would not have been for another. One might have been perfect for a boy during a certain season, but not as he moved into the next. I know that there are many parents who would love to tell you that one specific organization is far superior to the rest. Alas, that person will not be me.
This will not be a place where I will tell you how to be the most poised, supportive parent in the stands so that your son will someday accept a Cy Young Award and end his speech with, "You're the real MVP, Mom!".
I have been poised. I have been gracious and humble after both wins and losses. I have said all the right things with love and wisdom to my children after victories and defeats.
Also, please be assured that I have said rude things - if not out loud, at least under my breath - about the mom on the other team ringing that God-forsaken cow bell. I have been a very sore, very bitter loser and an over-enthusiastic (i.e. obnoxious) winner. I have been completely unproductive and even unkind in my words to my very own flesh and blood child after a game. And, in one illustrious moment I was put in my place by a high school basketball ref who told me to "Zip it, Ma'am" while the point guard to whom I gave birth glared at me from the court. (I would like to reiterate that the call was objectively terrible. Just the absolute worst. I digress.)
I have done some things right. I have done many things wrong. So what can you expect to find here each month?
Second to a parent and wife, I am a writer - one who looks for beauty and meaning and the odd joke or two in the most mundane and ordinary of circumstances. As Frederick Beuchner wrote, "There is no event so commonplace, but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him."
My search for evidence of God - His wisdom, His humor, His conviction, His very presence in the smallest details of my life - has required that I do so on the baseball field simply by virtue of the fact that I have spent so darn much time there. I have been taught profoundly deep lessons in the heartbreak of an error or in the triumph of a homerun, in the disappointment of a rainout or in the blinding beauty of a sunset beyond the outfield, in the irritating voice of a fan on the opposite side or in the encouraging high five of a fellow Baseball Mom.
These lessons I've learned? These breathtakingly beautiful and hilariously bizarre stories that unfold in the most ordinary of moments? It seems I just can't keep from telling them.
I hope that you will read something here that resonates with you or makes you laugh or makes you think. I'm sure that at times you will read something here with which you do not agree. Still, I would bet that if you're a parent of a baseball player that has somehow found yourself in this little corner of the internet, we will have quite a few things in common.
I would bet that you, like me, love this game. I'd bet that you, like me, love the people it has brought into your life. I'd bet that you, like me, have experienced almost every emotion on the planet as you've watched a bunch of kids throw a ball around a diamond.
But mostly, I would bet that you, like me, have sat in the bleachers looking through the chain link fence and spotted hands-down the most special, most beautiful boy that God ever made. I'd bet you have prayed for him and hoped for him. I'd bet you have been frustrated with him and heartbroken for him. I'd bet that you have watched him make the error that ended the game or hit the walk-off to win it. Maybe you've watched both happen. Maybe more than once.
I would bet you've waited outside the dugout as that most special, most beautiful boy came toward you - all sweaty and smelly with blue Gatorade staining his upper lip. And I'd bet, if it hasn't happened quite yet, that you will look up one day to see that the Gatorade has been replaced by the beginnings of a real grown man's mustache. And I'd bet that your breath will catch in your throat and your heart will feel like it's going to burst out of your chest because you love that little boy-turned-man so darn much it's stupid.
If I'm even close to right, I hope you'll come back here each month. I am grateful to have a place to share my heart and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Happy Holidays, Baseball Fans!
While surfing the internet for the last few days, I have come to realize that you can find a gift guide for just about any person in your life. Perhaps you're looking for a gift for a friend who is an outdoorsy librarian with an interest in 18th century shipbuilding? Or maybe you need something for a tech savvy uncle who loves the Grateful Dead and dreams of starting a cake pop business? I have no idea how to help you with those folks, but based on the emails I've received in the past few days the perfect gift is definitely out there and it's likely 40% off.
I can, however, help you if you have a baseball fan of any age on your list. I've searched all kinds of sites and found some fun and unique gifts for our annual NVTBL Gift Guide. 2020 has been tough and everyone deserves a little extra holiday cheer this year. Take a look!
1. Baseball Themed T-shirts
This fun Home Run Santa t-shirt will be a great gift for any of your favorite baseball players or fans. It comes in ten different colors and can be shipped in a cute gift bag for an extra $3.99.
It was such a bizarre year that I often thought of what my mom used to say all the time, "Well, if you don't laugh, you'll cry. And I'd rather laugh." For your kiddos that lost out on their season this year, this "lousy t-shirt" might bring them a smile. They deserve it.
2. Baseball Masks
Well, if there's a more 2020ish gift that you can give than a mask, I'm not sure what it is. Choose from tons of choices for baseball-themed masks here. Grab a few. I think they'll be around for awhile.
3. Baseball Duvet and Pillow Set
I burst out laughing when I saw this adorable little guy dreaming Big League dreams snuggled up in this MLB baseball player duvet and pillowcase set. Choose queen or twin size. There are ten different MLB teams available.
4. Dugout Mugs
A baseball bat turned into a mug? What more could your favorite "Armchair Athlete" need? Dugout Mugs are a super unique gift made from 100% birch wood customized with your favorite team's logo. They hold 12 oz. and are double sealed and liquid resistant. Be sure to also check out the 6 oz. wine mugs here.
Don't forget your tree ornaments. There are some great options here.
But what if you have three little baseball players in your house who might try to steal your Christmas spirit by fighting over the ornaments and knocking over the tree? (This is, of course, a hypothetical question. I have no idea what that would be like since my three were perfectly well-behaved at all times.) If this scenario might be your reality though, you can personalize a baseball ornament for each of your little angels right here.
6. Baseball Park Map Insulated Pints
Help your player stay hydrated with these great insulated cups printed with baseball park maps from Uncommon Goods. You can choose from five different iconic baseball parks.
7. Baseball Theme Socks
Socks make a great stocking stuffer for your players. There are tons of fun options to choose from here.
8. Baseball Airpods Cover Case
I'm not sure I remember what my teenager looked like before he had white plastic airpods hanging out of his ears 24.7. It's getting a little annoying, but what's more annoying is when he steals my airpods. Grab one of these unique case covers for your kid. There are lots of choose from on Amazon here.
9. Wall Mural
This Baseball Scoreboard wall mural would be great for a basement or teen's room. Check it out at Pottery Barn Teen here.
10. Baseball Essentials at Dick's Sporting Goods
If you read my November NVTBL post you know that my son might need a new pair of baseball pants. When I type "baseball" into the Dick's Sporting Goods search bar 2,715 items appear. Where else do we need to go? The good news for friends of NVTBL is that we have some special coupons for DSG just for you. Click here to find deals that go through 12/20/20.
We hope this list gives you some great ideas for your family. To all of our NVTBL families, we wish you the happiest of holiday seasons and a 2021 full of practices, games, and carpool schedules!
(Disclaimer: Author - as of this writing - has not purchased many of these items and therefore cannot personally vouch for their quality. Products and companies here have not sponsored this post. However, The View from Behind Home Plate is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn small fees by linking to amazon.com.)
As Thanksgiving approaches this year, many of our friends and families are weathering some of the most difficult seasons they have ever faced. This year has been full of so much loss and so much uncertainty. Gratitude, understandably, has seemed pretty hard to come by in 2020.
To be sure there were many tragic circumstances - losses of relationships, employment, financial security, and even life. As well, there were other relatively trivial losses, but those that were still painful and worthy of grieving. For the baseball community the cancellations of seasons from Little League to the MLB in the spring were particularly hard pills to swallow because the shutdown happened just as the players, coaches, and fans were getting started.
Sometimes there are years when we look around and see an embarrassment of riches. Some years - and I imagine for most 2020 will be one of them - it takes a little more effort to find blessings among the burdens. I have found in my half century on this planet, that sometimes in the most difficult periods of our lives, we are able to recognize extraordinary gifts that we might have dismissed as ordinary occurrences in more abundant seasons.
Baseball has always brought me cheerful moments. Those moments were definitely fewer this year, but there's no doubt that they were there. I had to open my eyes and my heart a little wider to see them, but I found some pretty special gifts in the midst of the madness of 2020. Here are some of my favorite moments from the baseball season that almost wasn't.
1. A Magical Photo Op at the Ballpark
The NVTBL fall season looked different this year, but the league did an amazing job of implementing measures to keep the players safe. For the teams that were lucky enough to play, it turned out to be a very successful season. One evening, only a few days before Halloween, my son had an NVTBL game scheduled for 8:00 pm. It was the kind of night that made me want to put on my pjs by 7:00 and curl up on the couch, but I headed to the game anyway.
The air was damp and cold. The game seemed to move incredibly slow that night. In the latter innings, my back started to ache. As it became darker and cooler, I was wishing for quicker outs. Then suddenly, a little Halloween magic happened.
Fog rolled in and the players were shrouded in an eerie mist. They looked like ghosts and I wondered if Shoeless Joe Jackson was going to emerge from the outfield.
I forgot all about my complaints for a few minutes and snapped some pretty cool photos. I was reminded that sometimes if you just take a minute to shut off the negative voices in your head and open your exhausted eyes, you might see something pretty extraordinary in an ordinary place.
2. The Northern Virginia College League
College baseball players had barely played for a month when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the season. As they returned home to take classes online and work out in their basements, most of them watched their summer league plans disappear as well.
Enter a few good folks from Northern Virginia who pulled together a league of eight teams made up of some of the best college players in and around our area. Strict protocols were put in place for safety of players, coaches, and fans. The season went on without a hitch and ended with the first ever champions crowned by the Northern Virginia College League.
Due to the persistence and dedication of the baseball community leaders in Nova, the boys of summer and their fans were given a chance to get back to the ballpark. I guess you could say there was joy in Mudville again for a few weeks this summer.
3. A Lesson in Letting Go
The pandemic has forced many of us to rethink some things. We've had to reevaluate the importance we placed on certain activities of our former lives. We've had to learn to let go. This year I'm grateful for the fact that I let go of any semblance of caring about getting stains out of my son's pants.
Dear Reader, I assure you that the above photo features a pair of freshly laundered pants straight out of the ol' Maytag. They have gone through a full wash with your basic garden-variety Tide detergent. However, there was no Shouting it out, no scrubbing with a Fels-Naptha bar, no bleaching, and no Oxi-Cleaning.
I have zero shame about the state of those baseball pants. Five years ago the thought that a mama might send her kid to begin a game in those things would have made me clutch my pearls in horror. This year? Not so much.
I'm not saying that next season won't bring yours truly a renewed sense of focus on stain removal. All I'm saying is that in the Fall of 2020, my mantra was, "Ain't nobody got time for that."
4. The Craziest Play I've Ever Seen
We held our breath all the way through April, May, June, and most of July hoping that the MLB would figure out a way to bring the professional game back to us. We didn't ask for much. We let go of any hope that we could attend in person. We didn't even care if our favorite teams weren't that good (I'm looking at you, Washington Nationals.) We just wanted them on TV. We got used to the piped in crowd noise and even felt less and less creeped out by the weird cutouts in the stands. We just wanted baseball. Any kind of baseball.
Then in game 4 of the World Series, in perfect 2020 style, the Rays gave us this:
and especially, this:
I'm not sure I've seen a more bananas baseball play in my whole life. And if seeing a grown man "airplane-ing" around the outfield while being chased by other grown men didn't bring you a least a tiny bit of joy, then you might be dead inside. Thank you, Rays. In the words of the airplane guy, "Man, baseball's fun."
5. An Early Morning Sunrise
My kid works out at an indoor baseball facility four mornings a week at 7:00 am. My kid does not have a driver's license. That means I have to set the coffee pot for really early and I have to get in my car when it's cold and I have to drive him over there - sometimes in my pjs. I've driven to this facility so many times over the years that I could do it with my eyes closed. But it's a good thing I don't. Because then I'd miss this every time.
Earlier this year as March turned into April and the news about the virus and the shutdown of sports continued to get worse and worse, I heard author Shauna Niequist say this:
"The circumstances of our life will not always line up for happiness and joy. We are responsible for being on the lookout all the time for joy, for gratitude. Life has gotten difficult enough for me in the last couple of seasons where I am aggressively hunting for reasons to be joyful and thankful every day. There are always challenges. We are responsible for being on the hunt for beauty and goodness and hope and joy all the time. That's our job."
2020 might have made the search for things to be thankful for more difficult than ever before, but it's still our job to keep searching. I've found that it's worth the effort. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to write in this space and for all the players, coaches, families, and friends of the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League who stop by to read. Happy Thanksgiving, Baseball Fans. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and great success as you go out to aggressively hunt for joy.
Well, who woulda thunk it, baseball fans? As of this morning, we have 2020 World Series Champion. In my own life, my son's fall baseball season is coming to a close, which is awesome because I wasn't sure it was going to come to an open. Since the pandemic forced the cancellation of the spring season and shortened the summer season, I am immensely grateful that we got it in at all.
Even with all the new rules and Covid protocols, our fall season actually went off without a hitch. After the longest and most boring spring of all time, it got really busy around here. My 15 year old son, Drew, had a few out of town tournaments, practice three days a week, and strength training four mornings a week. I had loads of laundry to wash, stand-still traffic on I-95 to sit in, and even a few stale-smelling hotel rooms to spray with Febreze.
Before I knew it, life seemed almost back to normal.
Last week I spent more time in the car than I did anywhere else. In addition to making a 14 hour round trip to Knoxville and back to Northern Virginia with my college sophomore, our baseball schedule was particularly packed. We had a Sunday round trip to Richmond and back for a double header. That added four hours to my road trip tally. We got home from that to receive the schedule for the next weekend's tournament.
We were scheduled for a 8:30 pm game on a Thursday night at a stadium two and a half hours away from home. That meant we wouldn't be home until after 1:00 am and Drew had school the next day. Then we had practice scheduled for Friday night an hour away from home. To top it off, we had a 7:00 am arrival time for two games on Saturday all the way back at the same stadium from Thursday night. If you're doing the math with me, we're talking somewhere around 7,432 hours in the car - give or take. (And perhaps, some questionable parenting.)
As I sat in the bleachers with some of my baseball mom friends telling them the nightmare schedule we had drawn for the weekend, one asked, "Are you going to all that?"
Huh? I hadn't thought about that option for some reason. The reality was that I didn't have to go. My husband could do the trip with my son alone. I could bail out of at least one or maybe even all of the games. I could stay home and get some work done. Or I could just sit in my pjs with a glass of wine and a chick flick on tv.
But in that moment I looked out at my 15 year old high school sophomore crouching behind the plate and saw this:
This third boy of mine? He waited so long for his turn. From the time he was three years old until he was issued his very own tee ball uniform, he wore mismatched baseball clothes pulled from his brothers' drawers pretty much every single day. He memorized the batting stance of every player on the 2010 Boston Red Sox lineup when he was five. (His Kevin Youkilis was uncanny.) He looped his sticky fingers through the chainlink fence to watch his older brothers' at-bats. He stood behind the backstop imitating the umpire's movements.
One time, when he was about five years old at somebody's game, he climbed up a tree along the first base line, sat high up in the branches, and heckled the opponent's coach when he was complaining about a call. Our friends still laugh remembering how that poor coach looked around wondering who was making fun of him. (Again, not great parenting, I guess.)
He ran the bases after every game. He hitched a ride on the tractor to help drag the field. He stood in line for his medal when he was the bat boy.
Two of my ball players went and grew up on me and hung up their cleats. And I will continue to be each one's biggest fan, cheering for them in everything they set out to do.
But I've still got one guy left to watch play. I know I will blink and the reddish-brown clods of dirt will have disappeared from the floor of my car. I won't need to add the jumbo tub of Oxiclean to my grocery list anymore. I won't have to stop by the ATM as often to be sure I have cash for the gate fees and the concessions.
To be clear, I'm lucky my schedule is flexible enough to allow me to attend most of my son's games. I don't think a mom is good or bad based on how often she sees her kid play. I also know that I might bail out on a game next season or next week or even tonight. Frankly, I don't think my son cares all that much whether I'm there or not. He doesn't look for me in the bleachers or ask me what I thought of his throw down to 2nd base.
But I watched how a final season was snatched out of the hands of so many kids and their parents this year, so whenever possible I will make the trip. I'll roll my eyes and complain about the schedule. I'll glance frustrated at my watch and wonder why in the world the coach has to talk for 30 minutes after the game when we have a two hour trip home. I will fill the gas tank and make the hotel reservation at that basic Hampton Inn that sits right off the highway one more time. I'll drive through whatever crappy fast food place he wants me to after the game. I'll pull in the driveway at 1:15 am on a weeknight and crawl into bed knowing we have to get up in five hours.
Because this guy waited his turn. And his turn won't last forever. For me, he is the last man standing (or crouching, if you will). I'll follow him wherever I can, whenever I can.
You're up, #8. Third time's the charm. Let's play ball.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I really only came to know that about seven years ago because of the brave fight of a number of children in our area including Gavin Rupp, who was a a 13 year old Northern Virginia baseball player whose team played in the NVTBL. I've written about him here before. So enormous was his journey's impact on our baseball community and on me, personally, that I imagine I will continue to write stories about him for as long as my fingers can type.
In June of 2013, the NVTBL put out a call to action on its social media platforms for the support of Gavin. He was battling brain cancer and his family had just heard the news that there were no more adequate treatments available for him. Thus began my more in depth understanding that cancer wasn't a disease reserved for adults. As a mother of three young baseball players like Gavin, I was deeply affected by his story and by his passing only six weeks later.
Today would be Gavin Rupp's 21st birthday. Some of the boys who prayed for him in the summer of 2013 have gone on to play college baseball. Some are working on degrees and looking toward a future with hopeful anticipation. There is no doubt that each of their lives will be forever marked by knowing him or hearing about his brave fight, as mine has been.
This column is dedicated to baseball. But for those of us who have been around the sport for a long while, we know that baseball is about more than hitting a ball and catching a ball. Baseball is about people, community, and relationships.
I wrote the following piece in 2015, only two years after Gavin passed. The hole he left here remains and time, unfortunately, does not heal all wounds.
There is much to mourn in 2020. Today,on Gavin's birthday, the NVTBL hopes that you could make room in your heart to pray for all of the children affected by Childhood Cancer. And then take a few minutes to mourn a young man whose fight on and off the ball field taught us lessons too numerous to count. No matter the mess that we find ourselves in this year, today is a gift. Show up for it and leave it all on the field. Gavin Rupp sure did.
Well, it's Thursday. In social media circles this is the day where people post old photos of themselves, family and friends. Some go way back causing those of us who were teenagers in the 80s some serious shame and regret. Some show photos of college parties or weddings. Most - at least in my circle of friends - are posted by parents of their children.
We remember the awe of peeking at pink newborns swaddled tight. We giggle at toddlers with cake smeared on their faces on 1st birthdays. We zoom in on baby faces, looking for familiar traces of the teenagers who tower over us now. We lament the lightening quick passage of time, commenting, "How did she grow up so fast?" and "What happened to this little pudgy toddler?" and "This baby is going to college?!"
In theory, I could choose a Throwback Thursday photo of my children from last year, last summer or even from last week.
But, what if as each day passed, my options for Throwback Thursday grew farther and farther in the distance? What if I had no choice but to scroll down weeks, then months, then years to find a photo of my child? What if I didn't have a new photo to compare to my old photo? What if all of the images of my child stopped at age thirteen? Or five? Or two?
This question stirred my heart at Curefest this past weekend - a national gathering to raise awareness for pediatric cancer which took place in Washington DC. This reality hit me hard as I walked among throngs of grieving families after spending most of my summer away from fundraisers and awareness events. Time had marched on for me, for my children, and for the world around us. The question nagged me, Does time, in fact, heal the wounds of my friends?
I'd like to think it does. I'm pretty sure it doesn't.
On the National Mall last week, tents and tables set up for cancer awareness organizations from across the country stretched out as far as I could see. Shining faces and gleaming smiles of hopeful children stared out at me on posters and on t-shirts, on brochures and on buttons. Many were photos of triumphant survivors. Still, countless more were "throwback" photos of children lost - last month, last year or many years ago.
And as I looked out at all of these children - all of them important and vital and missed - I tried to put myself in the position of the precious parents I have met on this journey. I wondered about them as they left to go back to their neighborhoods and schools to stand among parents like me. Parents with Iphones poised to capture important milestones, goofy selfies and momentous events - new experiences to stash away for a Throwback Thursday far in the future.
What if there would be no more League Championships? No more first days of practice or school? No driver's test? No SATs or college choices? No graduations? No weddings?
And then this: What if as the years marched on there would be countless more children following in my child's place? More diagnosis. More death. More funerals. More fundraisers. What if each child gone might get lost in a sea of others? What if I felt like the image of my child had become blurry and frayed around the edges? What if I felt like he was being forgotten?
Honestly, I don't have the answers to these "what ifs". As a mother of healthy children, unless something like this befalls my family (and it could), as compassionate and present as I might try to be, I simply will never understand the depth of this pain. No matter how many of these parents I meet and how many with whom I chat, I will never know.
So what can I do? What in the world is there to do?
Yesterday, as I was mulling over these thoughts in preparation for this post, I went to put away the laundry of my 14 year old son. He has grown old enough for baseball games that don't end until 10:00 pm and to study math problems that are over my head. He has grown old enough to make his own dinner and wash his own clothes and stay up later than me. My boy is certainly old enough now to not need his baseball jersey, hat and pants laid out for him by his mommy.
When I picked up his jersey out of the laundry basket, I noticed his new number. He wears the #15.
In the dark early hours of a July morning in 2013, I made a promise to another young boy who once wore the #15. A boy I had never met, but whose face and family had consumed my thoughts that entire summer. His name was Gavin Rupp and he had passed away due to brain cancer at the age of thirteen mere hours before. Today - Throwback Thursday - is Gavin's 16th birthday. As I held my son's #15 jersey, I knew what there was to do.
Romans 12:15 tells me to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep".
Today, Gavin's birthday will be a day for remembering and rejoicing for his life and weeping for its loss. Today I will remember Gavin.
I will rejoice in the beauty of a world that can be brutal. I will rejoice in the gift of the time that Gavin was here with his family and I will rejoice in the gift of whatever time will be given to my boys. And I will weep. I will weep for the gaping hole that Gavin's absence leaves in his home, in his school, and in the world where his future was not realized.
This Throwback Thursday, I will lay out a new jersey for a new #15 and I will not forget a boy who wore #15 before. The image of Gavin and the lessons his life taught me are in sharp, clear focus in my mind and heart today.
We will not forget you, Gavin Rupp. We will rejoice for you and we will weep for you. We will hold your family in our hearts today. Happy Birthday, Buddy.
For baseball fans, most of the spring and summer felt like the longest 7th inning stretch of all time. With no live games or even practices, our family has had to get our sports fix wherever we could.
We re-watched the World Series wins of the Nats and the Red Sox. We watched the Texas Longhorns winning the National Championship in 2005 and I jumped up and down and cried again as if it was happening live while my people looked at me like I was a giant weirdo. We watched some of my son's high school basketball state play-off games from last spring. (FYI: I jumped up and down and cried again.)
With nothing but time on our hands, in addition to re-living some of these amazing moments, we turned to searching for as many movies, documentaries, and podcasts centered around sports as we could and we curated quite a list.
Thankfully, we have professional baseball back and some travel leagues will be playing in the fall, but I thought this month I'd share some of the best sports-related content we found to get us through the pandemic. Here are seven resources that are worth a watch and/or listen for coaches, parents, and players alike until we can get back to the ballpark.
1. 30 for 30: Little Big Men
Among all the cancelations Covid caused, perhaps one of the most crushing was the loss of the Little League World Series this summer. It is, in my mind, the greatest of all sporting events. I wrote about traveling to watch our local Little League's appearence in Williamsport last year and it was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. This documentary about the 1982 champions from Kirkland, Washington is a really great watch which chronicles the way these little boys brought the country together during a difficult period and also touches on the ups and downs of their lives after becoming nationally famous at such young ages.
2. Keep the Kettle Hot: The Official Podcast of the Cotuit Kettleers
In full disclosure, I must admit that I'm quite biased about this podcast as one of the co-hosts is my very own flesh and blood son, Joe. He was supposed to be an broadcast intern with the Cape Cod Summer College League's defending champions, the Cotuit Kettleers, this summer until the season was canceled. (Thanks again, Covid). Working with the team's managers and owners, Joe and his broadcast partner set out to release this weekly podcast this summer. The show gives insight into life in college baseball's premier summer league through interviews with the team's manager, host families, former interns, and numerous former players, including a great chat with MLB player Tony Kemp. The most interesting interview, in my opinion, was with Dr. Adam Naylor who discussed the importance of mental performance in sports, particularly in baseball. This is a fascinating look at the mental game with information that will serve coaches, parents, and players of any age.
3. Nine Innings from Ground Zero
Of course, there is not a single American of a certain age who will ever forget where they were on September 11th, 2001. For baseball fans, there are also very few who will forget where they were when President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium during Game 3 of the World Series that year. While this documentary features that historic moment, it looks even more deeply into the ways that baseball helped with the long healing process of our citizens, both in New York and around the country. Nine Innings from Ground Zero is not an easy watch, but it is an important one for all baseball fans.
4. Baseball Family Podcast with Troy and Denay Silva
I just recently happened on The Baseball Family Podcast hosted by Troy and Denay Silva. These are quick 15 minute episodes where the Silvas share the experiences of being a baseball family. Topics range from how to avoid burnout for your kid, a discussion of "daddy ball", decisions regarding multi-sport athletes, and walking your kids through the lost sports season.
Fastball is a documentary narrated by Kevin Costner which throws a little science at baseball fans. It looks at the physics of the pitch as well as the psychological aspects of standing at the plate facing the fastball. With appearences by scientists and baseball legends like Derek Jeter and Nolan Ryan, this is an fascinating look at the phenomenon of the world's fastest recorded pitches.
6. Real Recruiting Podcast
Real Recruiting is an informative podcast in which former players of Northern Virginia high schools reflect on their personal journeys through the process of being recruited to play college ball. I'm a little biased as I know a few of the kids interviewed and having watched them play Little League, I found it a delight to hear them speak about the process. Each young man has a unique story which can be helpful for players who are interested in playing college ball and their parents.
7. NVTBL's EDU Podcast
Last, but not least, our very own NVTBL offers a fabulous podcast with a wealth of baseball information for coaches, parents, and players. The NVTBL's Education Podcast features interviews with area coaches and players discussing everything from the fundamentals of various field positions, coaches development, overcoming performance anxiety, navigating college recruiting, and injury prevention. You will be hard-pressed to find a topic this podcast hasn't covered. Don't miss it.
Happy Listening and Watching and Waiting, Baseball Fans! Here's to hoping this particular 7th inning stretch ends soon and we can all get back to the ballpark!
Sometimes, just for kicks (or for torture), I look back at my 2019 calendar and see what was happening a year ago. You know, to do a little reminiscing, a little reflection, a proverbial "walk down memory lane", if you will. Here's what memory lane looks like:
Last summer we went to Nashville with my son's travel team for a tournament. We spent four days there, including the 4th of July. The boys exchanged their baseball caps for cowboy hats each night as we roamed around the city with families we'd spent baseball summers with since our kids were seven years old. As you might imagine, that was no fun at all.
Then a few weeks later I was watching the Little League team from our very own town win the Southeast Regional Championship in Georgia to guarantee their place for our league’s first appearance in the Little League World Series. A huge crowd of our community members jammed into a sports bar to watch our boys on ESPN. I wasn't really all that into it. Whatever, man.
Then my son and I drove the three hours up and back in one day to Williamsport to see the boys play at Lamade Stadium. WE HATED IT.
Yep, last summer there was traveling and there were tournaments and there was Little League and there were friends sitting right next to us sports bars watching games on tv. We might have even shared a plate of nachos. What a weird world it was, right?
When so much that we enjoyed last summer got canceled this year, most days I tried to look at the whole situation with a glass half-full approach. It was a great time to reevaluate our busy schedules, to spend some slowed-down, quality time with our family, perhaps to contemplate how much we wanted to continue to commit our family’s time and money to athletic endeavors.
And I did that. Through March. And April. And May. And June. And parts of it were wonderful and meaningful. Still, as July crept closer with no definitive change in world events, I tried to tell myself that maybe it would be good to continue our sports-free days of deep introspection and familial bonding. Do you know what I concluded?
NOPE. NO SIR. NO MA'AM. THAT'LL BE QUITE ENOUGH OF THAT, THANK YOU.
Enter the savior of summer in Northern Virginia, the hero we'd been waiting for: the Northern Virginia College League.
Due to the relentless work of a few good men who worked with state and local government officials we've got a summer college league right here in Northern Virginia. A tireless group of interns and committed coaches have worked throughout the month, five days a week, to safely bring the boys of summer back to us. And I could not be more appreciative of their efforts.
As a fan, I'm thrilled, but for this area's players it has been a true gift. Most collegiate players not only had their seasons cut short in 2020, but also had their plans to play in summer leagues across the nation canceled. They found themselves at home working out in their garages and basements for most of the spring. Now, due to the hard work of the NVCL team, these Northern Virginia kids have been afforded the chance to play a shortened summer season right here at home.
Some are playing against or with some of their high school classmates again. Some who rivaled each other in travel ball as little kids, now find themselves as teammates. For our family there is not one team that doesn’t have a player we know or a name we recognize. Each time I’ve shown up at a game, I’ve run into yet another family that I might not have seen since Little League. It’s like a big ol’ family reunion – at a distance.
There are theme nights like Beach Day and Jersey Day. Interns have produced a livestream for those who can't make it to the game in person. There are kids who I watched swing at a tee who have turned into men with facial hair. We’ve cheered them as we did when they were little, watching them hit towering homeruns, make leaping catches in the outfield, and popping up to throw out runners stealing on the base path.
Our area is saturated with baseball talent and we are so lucky to have them show off their skills right here in our local fields. For players from Little League to High School who aspire to play at the next level, there is no better classroom than to sit in the bleachers and watch the way these guys approach the game.
There are just about two more weeks to get out there and watch these teams play. Be smart and respectful of the comfort level of the other fans. Wear your mask in the bleachers if there are too many people there to adequately social distance. Set up your chairs along the fence using the markers for spacing.
And, hey, here's a thought. Try real hard to stop talking about the virus just for an hour or so. It’s important and it’s real and it’s not over, but give your brain a break. Just for a little while, you might have a chance to forget about all the darkness in the world right now. Because as we learned from Field of Dreams, "This field, this game - it's part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again."
Thanks for the reminder, NVCL. We needed it.
Check out the remaining schedule for the NoVa College League HERE.
Well, baseball fans. It finally happened. Our boy had an actual-real-live-honest-to-goodness baseball game this past weekend. In the days leading up to it, I was almost too nervous to put it in writing on the calendar because of the possibility that it would vanish into thin (rainy and/or virus-filled) air again.
The last time I had watched a live baseball game was on March 11th. That night we returned home from my son's second high school scrimmage to find that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA was shutting down and school had been canceled for the next two days (which quickly turned into the next three months). Since then we watched them fall like dominoes - the NCAA season, the College World Series, Little League, the MLB season, Summer College Leagues, and of course, our son's high school season. With each cancellation I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my chest and crushed with a bat.
(If you're new here, now might be the time to give you a heads up that I tend toward the dramatic.)
Anyway, two weeks ago we were finally supposed to play, but we got rained out. So due to that heartbreak, I was hesitant to count on us playing this past weekend. Fortunately, we did play. The sun shone and the games were on. We loaded up the truck with the bat bag, the packed coolers, and the chairs and set off to meet up with our old trusty companion known as "Standstill Traffic on I-95".
As we drove, I thought about these past few months when there was not a thing on the calendar for my youngest son - no practice, no hitting lesson, no catcher's clinic, no game. My two oldest boys normally attend college out of state. Both were supposed to be busy with internships this summer, including one who was to be working as a broadcaster in the Cape Cod Summer College Baseball League (cue the sad trombone music). They both came home from their campuses in March and all of their plans were canceled as well. So it was, that on just about every last one of those wide open nights, our family of five sat around the dinner table together. As I often have in the past few months, I thought about what a truly unexpected gift it was.
I think when I look back at this time, although I'll lament all the things we lost (and all the meals I had to cook), I'll cherish having all three of those knuckleheads around the table. While that might sound a little Beaver Cleaver-ish, I can assure you that June and Ward would not be thrilled with the general atmosphere at the Skinner table. Dinner time with my husband and my 21, 19, and 15 year old sons does not a tranquil evening make. There is often a lot of spirited discourse (i.e. ear-splitting arguments) and good-natured taunting (i.e. brutal smack talk).
Sometimes, it got too loud and too contentious, but most of the time I loved it. Many nights those "conversations" would center around our memories of season after season of spring and summer nights spent at the baseball field. As the boys recounted their favorite moments, I was stunned at how clear and detailed each of their memories were of so many seasons past.
We talked about the summer we took the whole family to see the Sox at Fenway Park for the first time and watched Jacoby Ellsbury hit a walk off Grand Slam.
We remembered the time Kyle got to play a game on the field at Nats Park in the Kyle's Kamp Memorial Day tournament. . .
. . . and the day Drew hit his first homerun ever causing his teammates (and his mama) to lose their ever-lovin' minds over it.
We remembered the very first Little League Championship we celebrated with Joe . . .
. . . and the days when the championship trophies were taller than the champions.
The boys talked about the coaches who had meant the most to them, both on and off the field - those who could be serious enough to teach them meaningful life lessons and silly enough to celebrate a heckuva great season with them.
. . . and we remembered the time the most stubborn coach of all - their Dad - went against the advice of nurses and doctors to show up to coach third base in the Middle School Championship only a handful of hours after his knee surgery. Using a fungo bat for a crutch, he convinced his players to keep watch so that his frustrated wife was locked out of the dugout and then they went ahead and won the darn thing just to spite her.
Of course, we talked about championships and amazing plays and fun times with our friends, but we also remembered those moments that didn't lend themselves to a great photo op. The opportunities lost and the silent car rides home. The misplay at short that resulted in the winning run for the opposing team. The frustrated tossing of the 2nd place medal into the trash can and how Mom had to bite her tongue and wait to talk about being a gracious loser until cooler heads prevailed. And perhaps one of our favorites: the time the younger brother struck out looking with his older brother making the call behind the plate as the umpire. Almost a decade later they are still arguing about that call.
I'm more than ready to be busy again. I look forward to setting my Waze app to find me the fastest route to the field and I hope I'll be settling in to my chair for a lot of extra innings. I've got one more ball player left in this house and I don't want to miss a minute.
But I hope one of things that our family will have learned from this season is to take the time to slow down and give our brains a chance to remember. The quarantine gave us that chance. There was arguing. There were accusations and denials. There was shouting and joking and there was a whole lot of laughing.
There was the five of us trading stories too many to count of moments when we thought we'd just about bust out of our skin with joy. We've had far more of those moments than we deserve and we've learned in the last few months that they are not guaranteed. When I look back at the spring and summer of 2020, I'll think about all those nights around the dinner table and to steal a line from Field of Dreams, I'll recall that "the memories were so thick we had to brush them away from our faces."
Jennifer is a Texas-native living in Northern Virginia with her husband of 25 years, Steve. A free-lance writer, most of her musings recount her 17 plus years as a baseball and basketball mom to her three sons, Joe, Kyle, and Drew, on her blog, The View from Behind Home Plate. Outside of racing between basketball courts and baseball fields, she spends her time as a Women’s Bible study leader, childhood cancer advocate, and rabid Texas Longhorn fan. Her writing has also appeared in columns for Arcola Methodist Church, the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League, the Dadvocacy Consulting Group, Dysautonomia International, and the pediatric cancer advocacy organization, Kyle’s Kamp.