On an unseasonably hot June evening, two little league baseball teams from the Western Suburbs of Chicago readied to take the field. Eight 11 to 13 year old boys from the home team raced onto the diamond. The ninth, the right fielder, needed a little time to find his mitt, take one more swig of water and tuck in his ill-fitting jersey. Eventually he plodded to his position and pretended to be ready. The coach kindly instructed him to “Back up Timmy”. “Move to your left Timmy. No YOUR left”. “Head up.” “Stop looking at the train Timmy”. “Put your hat back on.” In-between these instructions, one could overhear the parents in the stands whispering, “Oh my god that batter is huge”. “He’s bigger than the last one”. “How old are these kids?” Some of these giants got hits, others made outs. Some birds flew by. Clouds drifted together and formed a shape of some kid of spaceship. Just as Timmy spotted a particularly interesting blade of grass, someone yelled, “That’s the 3rd out Timmy”. Somehow (don’t ask Timmy how), the inning was over.
Timmy hustled into the dugout (oddly enough he ran faster to the dugout than he did on the bases), poured some water on his head and looked at the lineup. “Yep batting 9th. Just how I like it”. And he meant it. He liked playing right field and batting last. You see, Timmy wasn't really into baseball. But boy did he love being part of a team. He liked to hang out and laugh with the bigger kids. He liked to learn new things. And he loved to daydream in the field. He put in just enough work and practice to ensure that he could help his team as much as any 9th place hitting right fielder would. He wasn’t looking to make an all-star team, just have some fun and hang out with the team.
Timmy took his place on the bench and started to pass the time by day dreaming, laughing, shooting water at a teammate, looking for a batting glove, losing the batting glove, looking for it again. As the boy passed the time on the bench, the whispers of the parents grew louder as the opposing pitcher took the mound. “That.Kid.Is.Six.Feet.Tall.” one very nervous parent said a little too loudly. Then this Danny Almonte-like giant threw a warm-up pitch. The catcher’s mitt made such a loud popping noise, one would be sure it could be heard over the noise of the trains (that Timmy often watched). The ball had to be traveling at least 70 mph. 70 mph may seem slow if you are used to watching professional players, but the pros throw from 60 feet away. In little league, the mound is 14 feet closer!
As the first batter Stew (who happened to be the smallest yet toughest kid on the team) stepped to the pate, the parents continued to murmur about how crazy the size differential was. “That kid has a mustache!” joked a mom. “And that one has a full beard”, added a second. “I’m pretty sure the 1st baseman drove himself here after working at the docks all day”, a dad exclaimed. They all nervously chuckled (but not in a mean spirited way. No one was angry with the other team… simply amazed.). They continued to chuckle until the 3rd pitch of the game drilled their team’s scrappy little spark plug on the left elbow. If the sound of the catcher’s mitt popping was a 10, then this sound of the ball striking bone clearly kicked it up to an 11 (Which is one louder. Just ask Nigel Tufnel). And then, the toughest kid on the team, in fact the toughest kid many of the players had ever met, began to cry. He continued to cry for the next 4 innings until his father was able to pick him up and take him home... hopefully after some ice cream.(Don’t worry he was ok. He even played the next game and had 3 hits).
That beaning set the tone for the rest of the game. It was clearly an accident. But it was an accident that could happen again. Everyone on the team went into survival mode. But miraculously a couple of kids got hits... and three of them made outs. Just as Timmy had finally perfected his hat flipping technique, the inning ended (don’t ask Timmy how) and the team took their position on the field once again.
It was the same routine as the first inning. Timmy took his position, followed the coach’s instructions, watched some butterflies and waited for someone to yell “That’s the 3rd out Timmy”. They did and he hustled back into the dugout.
But this time, when Timmy arrived in the dugout, there was no time for daydreaming, shooting water and looking for batting gloves. All of a sudden, his teammates and coaches were hurling a barrage of advice at him. They were giving him a crash course in… how not to get hit with a baseball. “Ok don’t try and stop the ball with your hand like you normally do. This kid will break it!” “Don’t get too close to the plate”. “Scoot back as close to the catcher as possible”. “Duck and turn your back toward the ball.” “Yeah let it hit you in the back… not the face”. “Or just fall to the ground and get out of the way”. Those were a lot of instructions for Timmy to take in all at once. Luckily for him, all he heard was “You are going to get hit with the ball, really, really, hard." As the 8th place batter took his place at the guillotine… I mean home plate, Timmy stepped into the on deck circle. Then he heard his favorite 5 words “That’s the 3rd out Timmy”. He grabbed his glove and went back to right field.
This time when he daydreamed, he pictured ambulances, blood, crying parents and screaming. Lots of screaming.He wondered if he'd have to wear a suit to his funeral or if his mom would let him wear his favorite Star Wars shirt (He knew his dad would let him). For the first time ever, Timmy didn’t want to hear his favorite 5 words. But after what seemed like 10 seconds, he heard them. And as slowly as humanly possible, he walked back to the dugout. With each step he thought “I am about to die”.
Timmy found his batting gloves, put on his helmet (thank god he had a helmet he... and everyone else thought), grabbed his bat and headed to the plate. As he walked that “green mile” we wondered, “When did the catcher switch from a helmet to an executioner’s hood?” Then he thought “Oh well. This is it. I’ve had a nice 11 year run. I just finished building my Minecraft master piece yesterday so what else do I have to live for anyway?”
When he arrived at his noose, he set up in his normal batting stance which was a little too close to the plate and to the pitcher. He had already forgotten all of the lessons his team had spewed at him the inning before. The umpire gave the thumbs down symbol and exclaimed “Let him die!” Or maybe it was “Play ball”. Timmy wasn't sure.
The pitcher wound up and threw yet another 70 mph missile. Timmy didn’t duck, drop to the ground or turn his back. He didn't put his hand up or run away. He swung... and missed. “Huh. Still alive”, he thought. Then he wondered “Why is the 3rd base coach offering me a cigarette and a blindfold?” The pitcher raised his rifle and fired the second bullet. Timmy swung again. This time he connected and the ball rolled harmlessly toward the opponent's dugout. It was foul but Timmy ran to first anyway… because when you hit the ball you run, duh! “Foul ball Timmy, come on back”, the coach called. Timmy took his seat in the chair with the wires and funny looking helmet thingy one more time. The humungous pitcher grabbed the lever and pulled it down one final time. But it wasn’t a lever. It was a ball. And it was sailing toward Timmy… actually it sailed right past Timmy and created that popping sound the parents had heard 2 innings early. But to everyone’s relief, the sound registered a 10… not an 11. The umpire mercifully yelled “Strike three!” and everyone stared. Timmy had survived. “That’s strike three. Come on back Timmy!” the coach happily screamed.
Timmy hustled back to the dugout. As he ran he heard parents yell, “Don’t worry about it Timmy”, “Good job Timmy!” “Way to hang in there Kid!” “You’ll get ‘em next time buddy!” Timmy happily took his spot on the bench and daydreamed again. But this time it wasn't about his impending demise. This time it was about what type of dragon he could build with his Lego when he got home. Timmy’s mind was at ease because he knew one thing that the parents had forgotten… batting last means you never end up facing the same pitcher twice in a little league game.
I'm sure by now you have figured out that Timmy is indeed my son.
After the game (no one remembers or cares who won), I rushed up to my son, hugged him, and patted him on his back.
I said , “Timmy I am so proud of you!”
My son replied, “Dad I was terrified every second I was up there.”
I smiled and said, “That is exactly why I am proud of you. I know you were scared but you didn’t give up. You didn’t quit. You stood strong and took your swings even though you were scared. That’s courage buddy. Courage isn’t about not being afraid. It’s about being scared and not letting that fear stop you.”
Timmy responded, "Uhh yeah. Whatever. Thanks I guess. Can I get a Slurpee?"
Oh yeah. He got a Slurpee.
If you’ve read my other pieces you know that my wife and I use Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter as the ultimate example of courage. In our house we refer to acts of bravery as “a Neville”. For as long as I live, I will never forget Timmy’s “Neville” moment from that hot June evening. And that was a strikeout… I can’t imagine what I would have done if that 2nd one went fair.
If you'd like to see the rest of the series, you can find them here: