T-ball and Mac

August 7, 2014.
W/​S, NC

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It is Oct 26, 2013.
It is a crisp, clear Sat­ur­day morn­ing. I am at the Clem­mons YMCA, lean­ing against the chain-link fence, look­ing at the t-ball field and watch­ing the kids take their posi­tions to play. The pitch, and the ball is hit hard. It’s a fast grounder, a real daisy-cut­ter, and nor­mal­ly it will shoot pass two or three kids, but instead there is an audi­ble gasp from the crowd. What’s hap­pened is that the ball has smacked straight into the glove of the pitch­er and everyone—parents, team­mates and the pitcher—is momen­tar­i­ly stunned. The pitch­er has got­ten down hard to trap the ball, shut­ting it down and after tak­ing a sec­ond to real­ize he’s caught the ball, smooth­ly turns to throw the ball to the 1st base­man, who is still look­ing to the out­field to see where the ball went but turns around in time to catch the ball. An out at first. It’s such a clean­ly field­ed ball that anoth­er dad grins and says to me, “Was that your kid?” and I smile back, sur­prised, “Yeah. It is.”

I’m proud which sur­pris­es me because I’ve nev­er had much inter­est in sports and nev­er under­stood the fanati­cism. It’s nev­er made sense to me because there are more impor­tant things, and yet I can feel the sur­prise on my face and my wide smile spread­ing fur­ther and I think, “My kid did this?”

It is April 21, 2012.
I am watch­ing Mac who is lit­er­al­ly lost on the soc­cer field. The scrum of kids chase the ball, mov­ing up and down the soc­cer field, except for Mac who is root­ed to the ground, faced screwed up in a gri­mace, eyes squeezed shut at the chaos sur­round­ing him. Jenn and I exhort him to just chase the ball like the oth­er kids at which point he wan­ders off the field, inter­mit­tent­ly try­ing to snag pass­ing but­ter­flies or kneel­ing down to pick up clumps of grass and dirt. When this hap­pens, I feel he’s in a glass-bowl, com­plete­ly cut off, inca­pable of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to oth­ers kids or to us. There is only so much yelling you can do before the oth­er par­ents start star­ing and none of the yelling ever helps. Ever.

Because I am co-coach­ing, I focus on the rest of the kids play­ing, try­ing to keep Mac in my periph­ery, mak­ing sure he does not wan­der com­plete­ly out of sight. After the game, I look for Mac and see him stand­ing under a tree hold­ing some­thing out to me. It is a four-leaf clover and he tells me he picked it just for me. That day, April 21,2012, I remem­ber clear­ly think­ing how the hell did he find a four-leaf clover on the field with the game going on all around him?

It is Sept 14, 2013.
It’s Sat­ur­day, mid-morn­ing.
I am with Jack and Scar­lett who have just fin­ished tak­ing their team pho­tos and we are now walk­ing back to the t-ball field. As we approach the field, I notice that Jenn is hold­ing her­self too still. I get clos­er and I hear anoth­er mom say,“Just look away,” to Jenn. “Just look away and stay calm,” she repeats.

Oh-oh.

Mac is hav­ing a titan­i­cal­ly bad day. Mac has been told he can’t play with his toy, because it is his turn to bat. At home plate, he is not look­ing at the pitch­er but instead is look­ing back at the dugout, straight at Jenn. He has a tremen­dous scowl on his face that would be com­ic but here it’s trag­ic because his whole team is cheer­ing him to hit the ball. He “swings” at the ball and miss­es. How to describe his swings: They con­vey mul­ti­ple atti­tudes most of which I can’t put in print. They don’t belong on a sev­en-year old, let alone a sev­en­teen-year old. If there is a way to swing a bat in the most I’m-not-going-to-even-attempt-to-hit-the-ball-despite-the-entire-team-rooting-me-on way, he does it, four times in a row before they bring up the tee.

He con­tin­ues to look at Jenn and then bash­es the tee, knock­ing it down. He does this at least five to sev­en times and just keeps star­ing at Jenn. There is noth­ing that we can do to change his mood or make him play like the oth­er kids. Jenn is so mor­ti­fied that Mac has ground the game to a halt she is ready to com­mit fil­i­cide. She is seething. As soon as she sees me she tells me, “You need to take over. I need to walk away.”

I go up to try to calm him, but Mac acci­den­tal­ly hits the ball and pro­ceeds to run, so slow it feels like he is going back­wards. You can lit­er­al­ly read this para­graph faster than Macon­nell can run to first base. And so with every­one, his team­mates, coach­es, and par­ents encour­ag­ing him on to first base, he quits mid­way and schlumps to the dugout. He has not heard any­thing any­one has said to him, nor appears to care, and noth­ing can be done. Mer­ci­ful­ly, he is the last bat­ter and so the team takes to the field.

It gets no bet­ter. He is placed between 1st and 2nd base and of course all the balls seem to be hit right at him. He is cov­er­ing his face with his glove, stand­ing back­wards most of the time. If he is fac­ing the bat­ter, he will just stare ahead as balls roll right by his foot; a few times adults have to retrieve the balls that pass him. Clin­i­cal­ly he looks retard­ed and spas­tic on the field, refus­ing to do any­thing on the field, appear­ing to have seri­ous, psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems. The behav­ior is dis­tress­ing­ly odd, unex­plained and inex­plic­a­ble to me. He looks men­tal­ly ill. It’s the worst thing to see. Jenn want­ed to pull him out of the game and take him home and right now so do I. But again the mom says, “keep calm.”

I go through sev­er­al philoso­phies of child-rear­ing in those few min­utes watch­ing Mac. Mac’s behav­ior is the rea­son cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was invent­ed and it is the rea­son it is banned. To his cred­it, when Mac real­izes Jenn has walked away furi­ous, he slow­ly gets his head on straight and fin­ish­es the rest of the game, some field­ing, some bat­ting with­out the­ater.

I think back to soc­cer episodes, the cata­to­nia on the fields, his per­plex­i­ty on the play­ground with oth­er kids and I have to remind myself we did decide soc­cer just wasn’t his thing and that we had picked t-ball because he seemed to enjoy it. At least with t-ball, the dif­fer­ence was notice­able. Although com­plete­ly befud­dled and con­fused by the rules and still wan­der­ing around the field, pick­ing up and/​or kick­ing dirt, he did not stand out to be any worse or ini­tial­ly more dis­con­nect­ed than any of the oth­er kids. Oh sure there were a cou­ple kids who had watched their old­er sib­lings play and knew how to throw a ball and where to stand, but he was, sad to say, not the worst kid out there. I noticed one or two oth­er kids who—inconceivably—were actu­al­ly worse than Mac on the field. I can not stress to you how bad I feel to say that this fact gave me hope.

It is Sept 28,2013.
Out of the blue, an hon­est-to-good­ness play occurs when Mac fields the ball. And then with every­one cheer­ing, he throws the ball which is caught by the base­man and the bat­ter is thrown out at first. I’m sure it’s hap­pened before but this is the first time I’ve real­ly seen it.

Think­ing back, it must have hap­pened slow­ly over the t-ball sea­sons. At first, lit­tle kids walk­ing onto the field, like chicks new­ly-born to the world, uncer­tain and unsteady, not under­stand­ing what they were sup­posed to Be/​Do. Some­times not even leav­ing the dugout, not leav­ing mom. I remem­ber watch­ing the kids step­ping out on the field for the first time, plac­ing them­selves in no rela­tion to the lines or bases of the dia­mond, and the coach­es pick­ing them up and set­ting them down in posi­tion like bowl­ing pins.

With more prac­tice, more time, the kids grav­i­tate to posi­tions that give an open view of the bat­ter and the oncom­ing ball. Dur­ing that time, if there was any con­scious action, it is group think, every­one swarm­ing every hit ball, a massed heap of cleats, gloves and hats. Most of the time, the balls scoot past them as they look for mom or dad in the bleach­ers.

They grow a lit­tle. They get out on the field faster, but still with no direc­tion, like dan­de­lion flo­rets blown across the field. They learn more. Begin to under­stand that the ball is going to be hit to them and they are to fetch it. They now occa­sion­al­ly stay at their assigned posi­tions. As the ball gets hit again and again, you start see­ing pat­terns of famil­iar­i­ty of what base­ball is sup­posed to look like: kids no longer col­lid­ing and smash­ing in a free-for-all to get the ball, instead you see kids back­ing each oth­er up, balls being thrown in the direc­tion of the base­men.

As the weeks and months (years?!?) go by, I see more glimpses and sug­ges­tions of cohe­sion, of orga­ni­za­tion as the team resem­bles a team. Kids man­i­fest them­selves in small and dis­tinct ways: this one always tak­ing an extra two steps to throw a ball, anoth­er always wig­gling their wrist before the windup, lit­tle tics already dis­tin­guish­ing them­selves, nigh clones in their hats and uni­forms, only the names and num­bers dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them at this age, height and build not near­ly so dis­parate as it will lat­er become.

And like the team, Mac is trans­form­ing in front of me. His ran­dom­ness of Thought&Action now less so and more direct­ed to the ball’s motion, the posi­tions of the oth­er play­ers and the run­ner. For a few sec­onds, you see all of them mov­ing in con­cert, syn­chronic­i­ty of thought then action. All these mar­velous­ly com­plex sys­tems, align­ing just so, requir­ing tol­er­ances of a few mil­lime­ters at best to allow actions in the right order with the right tim­ing. Until one day (Sept 28,2013) the ball is hit and Mac crouch­es and the ball runs true into his glove and he throws it to first while the base­man is not look­ing away. Because the ball is thrown in the more-than-gen­er­al vicin­i­ty of the 1st baseman’s glove, and because among oth­er things, the wind has died down and the Cori­o­lis effect is mild, the ball is caught and then not dropped and the bag is tagged, and because all this occurs before the bat­ter can run to first, the bat­ter is thrown out at first. QED

To see ran­dom­ness become ordered, chaos trans­formed into a play at first, to see Mac play in and with a team—and to remem­ber what was the case before—is as close to see­ing a mir­a­cle as I will get. It is rev­e­la­to­ry only to me. These tiny mir­a­cles of t-ball occur hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of times on beatif­ic Sat­ur­day morn­ings. They go unre­marked on except in the minds of par­ents who’ve nev­er seen their kids per­form in ways unex­pect­ed and unan­swered until then. Even the first time I saw Mac run—really run the bases—was a sim­ple joy. Yeah, it’s mun­dane, even maudlin, but these lit­tle mir­a­cles aris­ing out of strewn and scat­tered kids on a base­ball field can be seen only once, before it gets nor­mal­ized and lost. No longer to be looked on in won­der or in awe, they become com­mon­place, neglect­ed mir­a­cles, because you for­get this wasn’t always so.

I am not kid­ding when I tell you it is a rev­e­la­tion to watch Mac play. For a long time I’ve have strug­gled to under­stand Macon­nell. Not just in base­ball, but in most all things. I could not under­stand the what or the why. He was a mess of dots that would not con­nect for me. I’d read my notes and make no sense of them; it’s why I’ve writ­ten very lit­tle about Mac. At some point I made the hard real­iza­tion that he could not be put into a neat­ly labeled box and I would need to stop try­ing to ana­lyze and cat­e­go­rize him, before I drove both of us nuts.

But of course, I couldn’t because of the four-leaf clovers. Mac’s lack of atten­tion to almost every­thing just didn’t jibe with his fan­tas­tic abil­i­ty to find qua­tre­foils, until I read about how some peo­ple have such a facil­i­ty:
From an August 5th, 2010 NPR seg­ment:

Ms. PRAETORIUS: I think most peo­ple don’t look, thats the inter­est­ing thing. Because if you see some­body who’s lucky or — in some way it seems like luck is just this ran­dom thing thats stream­ing through that some peo­ple inter­cept and, you know, oth­er peo­ple just don’t. But I guess I think its a lit­tle bit more like the peo­ple them­selves are actu­al­ly engag­ing or inter­cept­ing that luck.

SHAPIRO: For Prae­to­rius, the four-leaf clovers of the world are like lit­tle mir­rors, reflect­ing back to her a sense that shes on the right path, that she’s mak­ing her own luck and cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Just before we part­ed ways, she gave me a four-leaf clover as big as my nose.

So then I got to won­der how exact­ly he is find­ing these four-leaf clovers: of course he is look­ing for them, but I’m look­ing for them too. The dif­fer­ence is he is see­ing them. But, what is it that he sees that I’m not see­ing? The sim­ple answer is he sees the clovers, but the com­pli­cat­ed answer is also that he sees the clovers. He lit­er­al­ly sees the world in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent way; the world must present to him vast­ly dif­fer­ent than it does to me. And so, some things start to make sense. I’d be star­ing at the grassy fields too, if they were cov­ered in four-leaf clovers, instead of just look­ing like smudged browns and greens. But for him, I sup­pose it’s like see­ing a field full of east­er eggs just for you. If this was case, I’d be dys­func­tion­al­ly dis­tract­ed, unaware of other’s or their cares. Some­thing in me starts to calm and exhale. You see, there’s been a long grow­ing unease and I’ve only recent­ly put my fin­ger on it and that is the worry—that all par­ents have—for and wish that our kids find a place in the world. I know for some of us, it’s been a very tight, ill-fit­ting squeeze and for oth­ers, an accep­tance from the world has yet to arrive.

See­ing him find those clovers and learn­ing that he can not only func­tion but grow in t-ball makes me relax a lit­tle. I need not try to so hard; let Mac show me who he is. Just like an autos­tero­gram that is just a mess of dots until you learn to quit look­ing and let it snap into focus show­ing you dol­phins leap­ing. Mac is pre­sent­ing him­self to me and the World as best he can. Some­times I’ll be able to see what he is show­ing and then won­der what more is to come and what I’ve already missed. But maybe and prob­a­bly, he’s so com­plex that I’ll nev­er tru­ly under­stand him but now I real­ize that’s ok because Mac’s going to be OK; he is mak­ing his way in the world what­ev­er that may be. My real work is to accept it and him.

It is Oct 26,2013.
It is the last day of the t-ball sea­son.
Mac is up to bat again, his third time at the plate. He’s two for two with base hits and this is his last at-bat for the sea­son. I am watch­ing him with a ridicu­lous grin on my face as he makes anoth­er base hit. Three-peat! Only your kid can give you this felic­i­ty of spir­it. I hope not to for­get it. What’s even bet­ter is see­ing Mac beam­ing as he runs the bases home.

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