I squinted into the field to see how they were playing me. It was hard to tell. Maybe I confused them. Maybe they didn’t know whether to play me for power or control. Then again, maybe the fact that most of them were six and were playing their first year of Little League has something to do with it.
“Justin, get up!” Coach Kerry barked at his son, who was playing second by sitting on the base.
“Natalie, where’s the play?” Coach John called to his daughter, who was covering first base.
“Third base?” she asked innocently.
“No,” he said patiently. “If the ball comes to you, just step on your base. We only need one out, and I know you can run faster than Coach Joe.”
He was right, of course. But he didn’t have to say it.
“Jon,” I shouted to my son, who was the runner on first, “are you ready to go?”
Jon was busy picking his nose and talking to Natalie. In first grade, this is considered suave.
“Jon!” I shouted, a little louder. He looked at me, his finger still in his nose. “Ready?”
I decided not to mention the nose thing. I figured it’s better than chewing tobacco.
Instead, I checked with my daughter, who was the runner on third: “Elizabeth, are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” she asked.
“Ready to run home!” I told her.
“Oh, Daddy, can’t I stay until the game is over?” she wailed.
“I don’t mean run to our home,” I explained. “I mean, run here—to home base. As soon as I hit the ball, you run in here as fast as you can. You got that? Run to home base!”
Elizabeth smiled, nodded, and immediately started running for home base.
“Not yet!” I yelled. “Wait until I hit the ball!”
“Why didn’t you say so?” she asked as she made her way back to third.
With everybody ready and in position, I prepared to swing. I knew I had to hurry, since “ready and in position” lasts for about three seconds with six-year-olds.
“Come on, Dad!” Jon shouted from first base.
“Don’t blow it, Dad,” shouted Elizabeth, who was older and had been around me longer.
But what constitutes “blowing it” in this situation? Do I hit it where the little fielders have no chance at making a play so my kids can score—and win? Or do I take a chance on the other team making the play that will win the game—or lose it, as the case may be?
Thankfully, the debate didn’t last long. These were, after all, children, and for them, baseball was still just a game. It wasn’t about winning or looking good or huge endorsement contracts. It was about fun, pure and simple. And even though their skills were unpolished and their understanding of baseball’s intricacies was incomplete, they played the game the way it was meant to be played: smiling.
I hit the ball to Justin, who made a heck of a stop then threw the ball to his dad, who got Jon out at second. Game over. Handshakes all around. But even more important, smiles all around.
Except, perhaps, for Robert Redford, who had just lost one heck of a part.